‘African languages must be integrated into the development of AI technology’ – expert during UP-hosted meeting of Design Justice AI Institute

Posted on July 10, 2024

Artificial intelligence (AI) has swept the board in terms of technology usage to acquire, accumulate and use knowledge in practical and theoretical ways – which is why it’s vital that African languages be integrated into the development of AI technology in a bid to preserve cultural and linguistic heritage.

This is according to Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, a sociology professor and the founder and Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, who delivered a presentation at a recent meeting at the Pretoria Design Justice AI Institute hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP).

The Design Justice AI Institute is a global humanities institute sponsored by a consortium of humanities centres and institutes and the Mellon Foundation. The institute explores “community-centred, humanistic and interdisciplinary engagement of generative AI” and is an alliance of four university-based centres, one of which is UP’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. The main institute meeting is being held at UP until 13 July.

“The creation of knowledge can be traced back as far as the beginnings of humanity,” Prof Prah said. “Computers are now in use, but in order to make progress, we must create [AI technology] that makes use of our languages, or else some of our cultures will disappear from history. A language that continues to be unwritten and unused in a written form is likely to die in a 100 years.”

Our languages are what make us, he added.

“It is not our colour that determines who we are – it is our cultures. And when you think about culture, the main feature is language. That is the distinguishing feature between us and other animals – human beings create culture.”

Prof Prah encouraged Africans to embrace the world of AI and approach it with their eyes open, and to do so in their languages to preserve their cultures. This is entirely possible because African languages share dialects, meaning they can be translated in a way that can be understood by multiple communities.

Prof Vukosi Marivate, Chair of Data Science at UP and lead for the Data Science for Social Impact Group, was on the Design Justice AI Institute’s organising committee.

“The institute brings together a diverse group of scholars, practitioners and advocates from around the globe, and focuses on exploring transformative approaches in design that promote social justice and inclusivity,” he said.

Prof Marivate added that UP’s role in hosting the institute demonstrates its collective commitment to fostering an inclusive community that actively engages with the challenges and opportunities in design justice and AI.

Prof Themba Mosia, UP Interim Vice-Chancellor and Principal, said that while data-driven AI technology holds great promise for advancing global goals like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and accelerating economic growth for millions, realising these benefits requires substantial effort.

“The mathematical underpinnings of AI not only risk exacerbating existing inequalities and discrimination, but also present significant challenges related to manipulation and the spread of misinformation,” Prof Mosia said. “Safeguarding human rights, including privacy and equality, as well as civil liberties such as educational and cultural rights, demands rigorous attention throughout the design, development, deployment and use of AI technology. This responsibility primarily falls on professionals in the humanities, supported by colleagues in computer science, data science, statistics and legal disciplines.”

Live recordings for the sessions are available at https://www.youtube.com/@dsfsi_research/streams

People can find out about the Design Justice AI institute at https://criticalai.org/designjustice/

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