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Mali uses artificial intelligence for books in local language

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SAFO, Mali — Most of the students had never seen their native language in its written form until recently. Now, they were eagerly sounding out the words appearing on the ThinkPad laptops before them, sometimes stumbling as they read a story written entirely in Mali’s most popular language, Bambara.

The twist? The story on their screens had been generated, translated and illustrated using artificial intelligence.

As Mali’s relationship with French — the language of its former colonial ruler, France — has grown more fraught, an effort to use AI to create children’s books in Bambara and other local languages is gaining momentum. With political tensions high between the two countries, Mali’s military government last year replaced French as the country’s “official” language, instead elevating Bambara and 12 other native languages, though French will still be used in government settings and public schools.

That change has meant there is more political will behind efforts like that of RobotsMali, a start-up that has used artificial intelligence to create more than 140 books in Bambara since last year, said Séni Tognine, who works in Mali’s Education Ministry and has been helping RobotsMali create its books. Now, he said, both the government and the people “are engaged in wanting to learn and valorize local languages.”

RobotsMali uses AI to produce stories that reflect the lives and culture of regular Malians. Instead of simply translating a French classic like “Le Petit Prince” into Bambara, RobotsMali’s team puts a prompt into ChatGPT such as: “Tell me mischievous things kids do.”

The team, whose work was first reported by Rest of World, eliminates examples that would not be relevant to most kids in Mali, then uses Google Translate — which added Bambara in 2022 and employs AI to improve its translations — to do a first round of translation. Experts like Tognine then correct any mistakes. Another staff member uses a variety of AI image creators to illustrate the stories, ensuring that the characters are relatable to Malian kids, and then turns to ChatGPT to create reading comprehension tests.

Sitting in the classroom in Safo, a dozen students who had dropped out of public school or never attended one were following along as their instructor led them in reading a story about the things children should not do, including wasting food, picking on their siblings and talking back to adults. At various points, the instructor called on 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, using her finger to follow along, said that she’d felt “a little scared” when she’d first seen Bambara in its written form, thinking to herself: “How am I going to do this?”

But after a few lessons, she’d found it easy to decipher the words she was so used to speaking at home and had started bringing books back to her mother, who is among the 70 percent of Malians who have never learned to read or write.

A challenge for African languages

The vast majority of Africa’s roughly 1,000 languages are not representedon websites, which big generative AI platforms like ChatGPT crawl to help train themselves.

If you ask ChatGPT the most basic questions in Ethiopia’s two most popular languages, Amharic and Tigrinya, for example, it produces a nonsensical jumble of Amharic, Tigrinya and sometimes even other languages, Asmelash Teka Hadgu said. But Hadgu, who created a start-up focused on using machine learning to translate between English and Ethiopian languages, said that specific projects like that of RobotsMali also speak to the potential of artificial intelligence.

“If it is done right,” he said, “the potential in terms of democratizing access to education is enormous.”

Nate Allen, an associate professor at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said that although the United States and China are “undoubtedly at the frontier” of artificial intelligence technology, efforts such as those in Mali show that “we are living in an era of AI accessibility.”

As the RobotsMali team worked in their office in a wing of co-founder Michael Leventhal’s house in Bamako on a recent day, one employee of the Education Ministry was correcting Bambara translations done by Google Translate, while another was querying Playground, a free online image creator, for photos of “An African woman pounding millet.” Leventhal was studying a picture of a father and a daughter that had been created by AI, wondering if the image had made the African man too stereotypically muscular, as he said often happens.

Tognine, who started collaborating with RobotsMali after doing an AI training conducted by the group, said the program has made the ministry’s work more efficient. “There are many things to correct, but it takes seconds to translate what would before take weeks or months,” he said, adding that just that week, he’d already created two books.

A previous effort by Mali’s government to introduce Bambara into public schools largely failed because of a lack of funding, teacher training and parental interest for children to learn a language in school other than French, Tognine said.

But he said that in recent years, there has been a growing embrace of the importance of learning to read and write the national languages, which have traditionally been primarily spoken, partly because of the government’s rejection of France and focus on national sovereignty.

“It enriches our cultural and linguistic history,” Bakari Sahogo, another member of the Education Ministry who has been working with RobotsMali, said about the importance of writing in Bambara and other local languages. “And [it] permits us to safeguard and develop our culture.”

Building a stronger written 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 stronger written tradition of Bambara than currently exists. That could happen, he said, as artificial intelligence systems get access to more language data.

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

As instructor Nouhoum Coulibaly handed out copies of a new book on a recent day, the children were focused, despite temperatures that passed 110 degrees.

Fourteen-year-old Bourama Diallo had always been nervous at the French-only public school. Now he said he found himself loving learning.

Coulibaly, the quiet 10-year-old who’d started bringing back books to her mother, said her favorite one was about animals, or “bagan” in Bambara. She said she hoped the program would resume. Leventhal said the group has returned a few times since the program ended to bring the children new books, and he plans for it to resume once new funding comes through.

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

“You can create many things with computers,” she said with a smile. “They know things about the world.”

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