How this smart speaker aims to preserve African languages

Tuesday August 25 2020

 

By Priyanka Sippy

African technology for Africans - this is what Isaya Yunge, the CEO of Smart Kaya wants to create. And he is working to bring that vision to light, through the creation of Africa’s first hands-free smart speaker, which looks to be on the market by next year. But the product - Smart Kaya - is more than just a speaker, Isaya explains, it is about building technology that is designed with Africans in mind, with African languages, culture, traditions and norms all taken into account.

This is what Isaya feels has been missing in the market for a long time, and the impact of that is far-reaching: ‘I have used Western smart speaker products, like Alexa and Siri, and when I use them, I feel angry - they don’t understand my accent. It makes me feel shy to use these devices if I am around other people, and I am made to feel inferior by the way I speak English. But technology should be accessible for everyone - it shouldn’t make us feel like that. When we learn English we don’t speak it with a British or American accent, and it is time technology takes this into consideration.’

For Isaya, he feels this is something other Africans want to see - technology that connects with them, and literally speaks their language. And recently, others have started speaking out about the bias which they believe is programmed into such smart devices.

A new study from Stanford University and Georgetown University showed that speech recognition systems, powered by Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft, made about 19 errors for white speakers compared to 35 errors for black speakers, or roughly twice as many errors, for every hundred words. And this is a study which just compares speech between white Americans and African Americans, not even those outside of the United States, where English may not be the first language.

So what is the impact of this? Isaya argues that it could mean Africans could be getting left behind in the smart speaker revolution, while millions of others are able to benefit from these innovative new tools. In 2018 alone, The Washington Post reported that over 100 million smart speakers were sold around the world, and they are increasingly being used for relaying information, controlling devices and completing tasks in workplaces, schools, banks, hotels and hospitals. Isaya notes that it isn’t the technology itself that is biased, but that those who build the technology are simply not doing it with Africans in mind as the consumer. He says that it is time Africans duplicate themselves in the technology.

This is what Smart Kaya is trying to do. And the primary way it is going to do this is through language. When Smart Kaya launches, it will be programmed to understand the most spoken African languages on the continent, including Swahili, Oromo, Twi, Amhara and Yoruba. Language, Isaya argues, must be preserved, as there is a danger of African languages dying out, traded in favour of people speaking European dialects: ‘my grandmother comes from Mwanza. When I go and visit her you cannot use Swahili, we have to speak Sukuma, our tribal language. Whoever follows that rule becomes her favourite. She tells me, if I pass away and you don’t know my language, who will I pass it on to?’

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But this is not just an issue to do with smart speakers - Isaya sees Smart Kaya as part of a bigger revolution - a movement, to get young Africans to create their own solutions to their own problems, to keep African languages alive and to get Africans to tell their own stories (Smart Kaya will also introduce a podcast feature). It is not just a speaker - it is trying to make bigger changes in the way Africans see themselves.

Training fundis to fix the device

And the most important thing in mind when creating the product? Keeping the African consumer at the forefront. Every last detail of the design has been inspired by African culture, traditions and norms. The speaker, for example, has been designed by engineers that spent time listening to African music, becoming familiar with the sounds and instruments, and from this created a speaker that compliments that. Even at the maintenance level, Isaya shares his plans to partner with fundis that are specifically trained on being able to fix the device: ‘in Tanzania, our culture is that we don’t throw something away, we get it fixed. So to make it sustainable we will work with local fundis who are trained on Smart Kaya. I bought a JBL speaker with a Google assistant from Germany, and within a year it broke, and the company didn’t give me any information on how to repair it.’

Providing a solution to real issues

At the root of the product, Isaya says, is ensuring quality. He argues that for too long, the African market has been flooded with low quality products, often ‘knock-off’ versions of the real thing.

But as Africans, he says, we deserve quality high tech products too, and there is a fast-growing market on the continent for smart products like this one.

Isaya’s vision for Smart Kaya doesn’t just end at creating a product with African languages, his vision stretches far for what he thinks the smart speaker can achieve: ‘the speaker will have the same functions as an Alexa or a Siri, where you can use it to control things in the home, ask the weather and set an alarm, for example, but this technology has the ability to do so much more, and here in Africa we have many challenges. This technology can help provide a solution to very real issues, and as well as providing those usual features of playing music and sharing news.’

The solutions that Isaya is talking about centre on health, finance, and education. Eventually, the plan is to get Smart Kaya to share health education, support communities to get nutritional information, book appointments with doctors, and provide women with information they need during their pregnancy. In terms of mental health, the device is looking to partner up with an organisation that could programme Smart Kaya to give information on mental health with anyone who is struggling. Studies have already indicated that Artificial Intelligence has the ability to predict and sense if an individual has a mental health condition, such as depression.

The idea for Smart Kaya came about in 2018, and development started early last year. And while the vision is big, the journey is still continuing, as Isaya talks about some of the main challenges along the way, including the documentation of African languages needed to programme the speaker and securing capital. With around one year to go before the product is available, Isaya plans to spend this time working on investment and getting the speaker ready for the market. Smart Kaya, twende!

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