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OBTranslate - bridging communication between 2,000 African languages

July 24th, 2019
topics:Humans, Technology
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Nigeria
tags:Africa, Artificial intelligence, languages, OBTranslate

Even as the world globalises and boundaries collapse, a sizeable number of people especially in the developing world have not yet enjoyed the benefits that come with a globalised world.

To spread the benefits of globalisation, Gabriel Emmanuel, a Nigerian innovator has come up with an AI platform dubbed OBTranslate that seeks to translate more than 2,000 African languages to bridge communication gaps.

He spoke to FairPlanet about his drive to use innovation to boost world trade, create jobs for African youth and connect the rural population to global opportunities.

FairPlanet: How exactly does OBTranslate work?

Gabriel Emmanuel: OBTranslate is an online Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tool that uses machine learning and neural network systems for more than 2,000 African languages. It is the 'powerhouse' behind our artificial intelligence, curating trillions of tasks for people who can take up translation tasks, in order to learn and understand African languages, accent, translation and patterns.

It has a unique "corpus" curating feature, which is curating collections of text, spoken or written languages, by its unique algorithms. It is built for people of African descent, that can take up these texts as "tasks" by translating them into their native African languages and earn rewards per task.

OBTranslate also has a "content moderation" feature, built for African language research experts and scholars, to ensure the compilation of the translated datasets are properly trained and analysed in various ways to establish patterns of grammar and vocabulary usage.

What was the motivation behind it?

I was motivated to embark on this initiative, because Africa has rich cultures and diverse languages. We have over 2,000 languages in 54 countries in Africa, 63% of total Sub-Sahara’s population live in rural areas, and they all speak in more than 2,000 languages in these regions. Overall there are over 854 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa, while 37% live in urban areas, these 63% of people living in rural areas do not have access to global markets. 

Also, there are over 52 native languages in Africa, which have undergone language death, have no native speakers and no spoken descendants.

If the people in rural areas can gain access to global markets and technology in their local languages, they can generate sustainable revenues, increase standards of living, as well as improve their quality of life. Talent competitiveness in rural areas could lead to wealth creation, by bridging language gaps.

I believe that interacting and understanding different languages in Africa could reduce the likelihood of conflict. 

OBTranslate is seeking to translate over 2,000 African languages. How far have you gone with that?

OBTranslate was officially launched on 1st May, 2019. The news spread so quickly around the globe. Ever since the day of its launch, we have attracted thousands of users from over 70 countries. They are currently taking up translation tasks in 10-15 African languages. Training our neural machine translation (NMT) algorithms with 2,000 African languages, will require massive datasets and millions of people need to take up OBTranslate 59 trillion tasks.

OBTranslate has been hailed as a game changer in breaking communication barriers, connecting farmers to markets and creating jobs for Africans. How exactly do you intend to do that?

Our innovation is built in accordance with the "Goal 9" of the SDGs, a main objective driving the creativity to help the Africa continent. We are also in accordance with the "Africa Continental Free trade" (AfCTA) goals. On May 30th 2019, the Africa Continental Free trade area came into being. 

Breaking African language communication barriers with OBTranslate, that is "ground breaking" innovation and will boost "global trade" and job creations. Farmers will communicate with their customers conveniently (messaging application) at a global scale.

How would you quantify the success of OBTranslate innovation?

So far so good. The progress has been awesome.

What has been the toughest challenge in this journey?

In 2017, I built “OBTalker”, a cloud-based messaging app that allows Africans to interact in real time translation, I integrated African languages with “Google API”, but the translation output were not accurate, they were poorly delivered, I was not happy about this and as a result I didn’t want to come into the market with a bad product. Hence, I decided to embark on building our own CAT/ML (Computer Assisted Translation) and neural machine translation (NMT) platform and this gave birth to “OBTranslate”.

At the moment, “OBTalker” is on hold, we won’t deliver that messaging app into the market yet, until we have successfully trained about 5-10 African languages datasets, which are predominantly spoken or written in Africa. To speed up the “language corpora” into 2000+ African languages, we need thousands or millions of users to take up translation task on “OBTranslate”.

You have a rich background in ICT and Robotics. Why did you settle on a language translating AI platform?

As a young inventor in the field of ICT and Robotics, I believe building innovation (Robots) aimed at solving local problems should not be limited to just English language. 

The present-day languages, including those of hunter-gatherer cultures, have lots of words, which can be used to talk about anything under the sun, and can express themselves. As far back as we have written records of human language—5000 years or so—things look basically the same. Languages change gradually over time, sometimes due to changes in culture and fashion, sometimes in response to contact with other languages. But the basic architecture and expressive power of language stays the same.

Europeans and Americans have seen a great advancement in science, research and innovation, they have successfully modelled their innovations in favour of their languages (spoken and written).

If the people in the rural/urban areas in Africa can gain access to global market and technology in their local languages, indeed that can generate sustainable revenue, increased standard of living, quality of life, social-economic and environmental value. Talent competitiveness in the rural areas could lead to wealth creation, by bridging language gaps.

What is the place and space of Artificial Intelligence in solving Africa problems?

Today, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology are at the nascent stage where mobile technology was 30 years ago.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are penetrating technology discussions right now. We can take a look at the role artificial intelligence is playing in education, healthcare and agriculture.

For instance, artificial intelligence systems in hospitals can analyse patient data, detect disease-causing mutations in their profiles and determine the most effective treatment.

Are African governments doing enough to protect Africa’s rich culture and diversity and how would you want it done?

African governments are not doing enough to protect our rich culture and diversity. The truth is that, language is a major barrier in attracting foreign investment to African countries, thereby leaving vast opportunities unexploited and hindering economic growth. For instance Mozambique inherited Portuguese languages from colonisation, and Portuguese is the official language spoken by more than half the population, according to the National Institute of Statistics of Mozambique.

African students and scholars in the rural areas could possibly learn in their local dialect or languages that they understand best. That creates a more literate society – one where students actually understand what they are learning rather than simply learning content through the medium of English or Mandarin.

As a young innovator working on creating home-made solutions to local problems, do you feel your government and governments across Africa are doing enough to motivate innovators?

African innovators live in a new era of opportunity enterprise where there is enormous need for innovation. In nurturing Africa’s people development, African government are not doing enough to foster an environment prone for distilling ground breaking ideas that meets the challenges of African communities, or even nationwide, depending on the scope of the innovation in question. Support to areas directly impacting human capital development such as education, vocational training, healthcare as well as access to basic infrastructure can strongly contribute to the realisation of this potential.

However, a collaboration between the government and innovation hubs run by entrepreneurs can help to foster an environment that promotes an innovative mindset and encourages and nurtures of our brain potential.

Africa still experiences a huge digital divide. How do you intend to reach those without access to technology with this innovation?

If each African government or telecom giants can put up space satellites that will provide internet from low Earth orbit, that will be another ground breaking initiative. Africa need to launch a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to un-served and under-served communities around the world, to serving tens of millions of people in the rural areas who lack basic access to broadband internet.

We intend to partner with telecoms giants to drive our innovation to those without access to internet connection.

What ultimate plans do you have with this innovation?

In the long run, our innovations will bridge the skills gap by building the right talent for Africa’s future. Many African countries face significant challenges in educating their youth, especially those in the rural areas. Using our neural machine translation (NMT) platform to teach them computer programming languages, mathematics, physics and other related subjects, will give access to education and eliminate poor learning outcomes, which will have a major impact on the skills of the workforce and hence economic development.

Also we plan to release new features, that will enable the public to translate documents or text in real time from English or European languages to African languages and vice versa. 

Africa is the next emerging economy, breaking Africa language communication barriers with OBTranslate will boost "global trade" irrespective of our diverse language.

Article written by:
Bildschirmfoto-2014-10-08-um-19.29.13
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
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OBTranslate is an online Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tool, machine learning, artificial intelligence platforms and neural network systems for more than 2000 African languages.
We have over 2000 languages in 54 countries in Africa, 63 percent of total Sub-Sahara’s population live in rural areas, and they all speak in more than 2000 languages in these regions.
If the people in the rural areas can gain access to global market and technology in their local languages, indeed that can generate sustainable revenue, increased standard of living and quality of life.
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