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How many people start their day by saying “Alexa, what’s the weather outside today?” and end it by saying, “Hey Siri! Set an alarm for 6:30 in the morning.”? It is predicted that by 2020, almost half of all internet searches will be done by voice. While Voice User Interface (VUI) is simply more convenient for the majority of its users, it could be absolutely game-changing for the millions of illiterate people across Sub-Saharan Africa and around the world.
There is a lot of focus (and rightly so) on bringing affordable internet to emerging markets, including Sub-Saharan Africa. These initiatives run the gamut from the familiar access to free WiFi in exchange for watching a few ads to the fanciful ‘Project Loon’, Google’s “network of balloons traveling on the edge of space” which will provide last mile connectivity.
The truth is making the internet available and affordable does not get us all the way to universal access. It leaves behind the 20% of the world’s population that is illiterate. While the 4B people connected to the internet can use it to supplement their education, find work, and access healthcare services, those who cannot read the interface are still living in a world their neighbors have moved past. The more that we can do online, the more the divide between those who can and cannot expands.
VUI takes reading and writing out of the equation, and so, sounds like the answer to the problem of access. The challenge is that most Africans who are illiterate speak their native language instead of English, French, or Portuguese. They cannot speak to Siri, Cortana, Alexa, or Google Now. In Nigeria, the adult literacy rate is 65% overall (59% for women) and only 53% of the population speaks English. Those who do not speak English, speak one of Nigeria’s more than 500 languages with the primary ones being Igbo, Yoruba, Fula, or Hausa.
Omolabake Adenle sees opportunity in the fragmented landscape of African languages. She is the CEO and Founder of AJA.LA Studios, a company that builds natural language & speech processing applications for under-resourced languages.
Adenle holds a Ph.D. in Engineering from Cambridge University. After completing her studies, she worked as a Vice President for quantitative and derivative strategies at Morgan Stanley. In her free time, she started building African language-learning apps which exposed her to the gap in natural language processing (NLP) resources for African and other low-resourced languages. The apps were popular. By starting AJA.LA Studios to develop them further, she found a career that “marries [her] cultural interests and technical expertise.”
AJA.LA Studios is starting with Yoruba and Kiswahili, a choice driven by the commercial opportunity available to serve the nearly 30 million native Yoruba speakers and 100 million Kiswahili speakers. “As a tech company, the problem of the plurality of African languages, and low-resourced languages more generally, represents a landscape of opportunities for us to innovate end-to-end product development – from process to model development to product design and user experience,” she said. If AJA.LA Studios achieves their goals, they will fill a key missing piece in the access puzzle.
AJA.LA Studios NLP products are currently in private beta, but thanks to the efforts of AJA.LA Studios and other scientist working with low-resourced languages, the power of accessing the internet through VUI will soon be available to previously excluded people across the African continent and around the world. When that occurs, women in rural farming communities in Nigeria can also start their day by asking a digital assistant, “What is the weather today?”
March 11, 2019 at 10:44AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs