Mali uses artificial intelligence for vernacular books.

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SAFO, Mali — Most students have not seen their mother tongue in its written form until recently. Now, he was eagerly typing out the words that appeared on the Thinkpad laptop in front of him, stumbling sometimes as he read the story written entirely in Bambara, Mali’s most popular language.

turn? The story on their screens was generated, translated and illustrated using artificial intelligence.

As Mali’s relationship with French — the language of its former colonial ruler, France — becomes more fraught, efforts to use AI to create children’s books in Bambara and other local languages ​​are gaining momentum. Due to political tensions between the two countries, Mali’s military government last year replaced French as the country’s “official” language, instead promoting Bambara and 12 other native languages, although French is now It will also be used in government settings and government schools.

The change means there is more political will behind efforts like Robots Mali, a startup that has created more than 140 books in Bambara since last year, said Sini Tognine, who works in Mali’s education ministry. Artificial intelligence has been used to do this. Helping RobotsMali make books. Now, he said, both the government and the public are “engaged in wanting to learn and value local languages.”

RobotsMali uses AI to create stories that reflect the lives and culture of regular Malians. Instead of translating a French classic like “Le Petit Prince” into Bombara, the RobotsMali team gives a prompt in ChatGPT like: “Tell me what babies do.”

The team, whose work was first reported by Rest of the World, weeded out examples that wouldn’t be relevant to most children in Mali, then used Google Translate — which added Bambara in 2022. Did and employed AI to improve its translation. Translation experts like Tognine then correct any mistakes. Another staff member uses a variety of AI image generators to illustrate stories, ensure characters are relatable to Malay children, and then turns to ChatGPT to create reading comprehension tests. .

Sitting in a classroom in Safo, a dozen students who had dropped out of public school or had never attended school followed behind as their instructor read them a story about the things they learned. Told what children shouldn’t do, including throwing away food, picking on siblings and talking back to adults. At various points, the instructor asked individual students to read aloud, which they did eagerly, sometimes gently correcting each other.

Soko Coulibaly, a quiet 10-year-old who had never been to school and now sat in the front row, walking along using her finger, said she was “a little scared” when she first saw Bombara at school. It was felt. Writing it down, thinking to yourself: “How am I going to do this?”

But after a few lessons, she found it easier to understand the words she was so used to speaking at home and started bringing books back to her mother, who is among the 70 percent of Malays who have ever read. Or did not learn to write. .

A challenge for African languages

The majority of Africa’s nearly 1,000 languages ​​are not. Represent websites, which large creative AI platforms like ChatGPT crawl to help train themselves.

For example, if you ask ChatGPT the most basic questions in two of Ethiopia’s most popular languages, Amharic and Tigrinya, it produces a garbled jumble of Amharic, Tigrinya, and sometimes other languages ​​as well, Smailish Teka. said Hodgow. But Hodgo, who founded a startup focused on using machine learning to translate between English and Ethiopian languages, said specific projects like Robot Mali also show the potential of artificial intelligence.

“If this is done right,” he said, “the potential for democratizing access to education is enormous.”

Nate Allen, an associate professor at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said that while the U.S. and China are “undoubtedly on the frontier” of artificial intelligence technology, efforts like Mali’s show that “we are living in a world . The Era of AI Access.”

As the Robot Finance team worked in their office in a wing of co-founder Michael Leventhal’s house in Bamako the past few days, one Ministry of Education employee was correcting Bombara’s translation through Google Translate, while another on the playground. Was wondering about, a free online photo. Creator, for images of “an African woman pounding millet”. Leventhal was studying a photo of a father and daughter created by an AI, wondering if the image had also made the African man stereotypically muscular, as he said often was the case.

Tognine, who began collaborating with Robot Mali after being trained in AI by the group, said the program has made the ministry’s work more efficient. “There are a lot of things to get right, but it takes seconds to translate what used to take weeks or months,” he said, adding that this week alone, he has already produced two books.

A previous attempt by the Malian government to introduce Bambara into public schools was largely hampered by a lack of funding, teacher training and parents’ insistence on children learning a language other than French in school, Tognine said. Failed due to interest.

But he said that in recent years, the importance of learning to read and write the national languages, traditionally spoken primarily, has increased, partly because of a rejection of French rule and a focus on national sovereignty. have to do

“It enriches our cultural and linguistic history,” said Bakari Sohogo, another member of the Ministry of Education who is working with Robot Mali, about the importance of writing in Bambara and other local languages. “And [it] Allows us to protect and develop our culture.”

Building a strong writing tradition

Leventhal, who worked as a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley before moving to Mali a decade ago to teach computer science, said the ultimate goal is to use artificial intelligence to help Mali develop a strong Bambara writing tradition. Help with what is currently available. That could happen, he said, as artificial intelligence systems gain access to more language data.

But for now, the focus is on efforts like Safo, where none of the children in the program knew how to read before the Robot Fair’s nine-week program began in January. By April, when the program ended after funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ran out, 10 out of 11 children were able to read at least at a basic level, Leventhal said.

As instructor Nouhoum Coulibaly handed out copies of a new book on a recent day, the children’s attention was focused despite temperatures that topped 110 degrees.

Fourteen-year-old Borama Diallo was always nervous at the only public school in France. Now he said he likes to learn himself.

Coulibaly, a quiet 10-year-old who started bringing books back to her mother, said her favorite book was about animals, or “bagan” in Bombara. He said he hoped the program would resume. Leventhal said the group has returned a few times since the program ended to bring new books to the children, and he plans to start it again after the new funding.

Coulibaly said she had never seen a computer before starting the program and was fascinated when staff explained how the stories were created.

“You can make a lot of things with a computer,” he said with a smile. “They know things about the world.”

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