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55 African languages to benefit as Meta’s AI machine translation debuts

By Adeyemi Adepetun
13 July 2022   |   4:00 am
Meta (Facebook) has built an open source ‘No Language Left Behind’ (NLLB-200), a single AI model that is the first to translate across 200 different languages, including 55 African languages, with state-of-the-art results.

PHOTO: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

Meta (Facebook) has built an open source ‘No Language Left Behind’ (NLLB-200), a single AI model that is the first to translate across 200 different languages, including 55 African languages, with state-of-the-art results.

Meta is using the modelling techniques and learnings from the project to improve and extend translations on Facebook, Instagram, and Wikipedia.

The American firm explained that in an effort to develop high-quality machine translation capabilities for most of the world’s low-resource languages, this single AI model was designed with a focus on African languages.

Meta said the AI models require lots of data to help them learn, and “there’s not a lot of human translated training data for these languages. For example, there are more than 20 million people who speak and write in Luganda but examples of this written language are extremely difficult to find on the Internet.”

The firm explained that it worked with professional translators for each of these languages to develop a reliable benchmark, which can automatically assess translation quality for many low-resource languages.

Meta said it also worked with professional translators to do human evaluation too, meaning people who speak the languages natively evaluate what the AI produced, adding that the reality is that a handful of languages dominate the web, so only a fraction of the world can access content and contribute to the web in their own language.

The firm said it wants to change this by creating more inclusive machine translations systems – ones that unlock access to the web for the more than four billion people around the world that are currently excluded because they do not speak one of the few languages content is available in.

Meta Chief Executive Officer, Mark Zuckerberg, in a post on his Facebook profile, said: “It’s impressive how much AI is improving all of our services. We just open-sourced an AI model we built that can translate across 200 different languages — many of which aren’t supported by current translation systems.

We call this project No Language Left Behind, and the AI modelling techniques we used are helping make high quality translations for languages spoken by billions of people around the world.

“To give a sense of the scale, the 200-language model has over 50 billion parameters, and we trained it using our new Research SuperCluster, which is one of the world’s fastest AI supercomputers. The advances here will enable more than 25 billion translations every day across our apps. Communicating across languages is one superpower that AI provides, but as we keep advancing our AI work it’s improving everything we do — from showing the most interesting content on Facebook and Instagram, to recommending more relevant ads, to keeping our services safe for everyone.”

According to the firm, language is its culture, identity, and lifeline to the world. However, it noted that as high-quality translation tools don’t exist for hundreds of languages, billions of people today can’t access digital content or participate fully in conversations and communities online in their preferred or native languages. Meta said this is especially true for hundreds of millions of people who speak the many languages of Africa.

Public Policy Director for Africa, Meta, Balkissa Ide Siddo, said: “Africa is a continent with very high linguistic diversity, and language barriers exist day to day. We are pleased to announce that 55 African languages will be included in this machine translation research, making it a major breakthrough for our continent.

“In the future, imagine visiting your favourite Facebook group, coming across a post in Igbo or Luganda, and being able to understand it in your own language with just a click of a button – that’s where we hope research like this leads us. Highly accurate translations in more languages could also help to spot harmful content and misinformation, protect election integrity, and curb instances of online sexual exploitation and human trafficking.”

While commenting on accessibility and inclusion in the pursuit of building an equitable metaverse, Ide Siddo added “At Meta, we are working today to ensure that as many people as possible will be able to access the new educational, social and economic opportunities that the next evolution of the internet will bring to future technology and an everyday living experience tomorrow.”