• Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Why Nigeria’s move into AI’s large language models should not be ignored

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By Kosidichimma Anyanwu

The year 2024 has seen landmark events in the growing knowledge and embracing of artificial intelligence (AI) around the world. Researchers, scientists, software developers, and several stakeholders have continued to announce advancements and innovations in AI technologies, including machine learning, natural language processing, and robotics, across laboratories on different continents. What we are experiencing is a surge in algorithm developments, increased computational power, and the expanding application of AI to advance various sectors, from digital media to healthcare, education, finance, business, real estate, governance, and so on.

This sudden shift and integration into daily lives and global systems is also raising smoke within the social and political environs, where there is an increasing need to revisit relevant ethical considerations and regulatory frameworks while continually monitoring societal impacts. However, throughout history, culturally unfamiliar evolutions in society, such as the resurfacing of AI, have attracted cynicism—and understandably so. Therefore, amid an ongoing technology shift, there is a salient urgency for government and stakeholders across all sectors to conscientiously engage with the current trends as a signal of collective control over their potential societal impacts.

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While the largest nation in Africa, Nigeria, is grappling with multifaceted socio-economic challenges, it is important to acknowledge and reinforce its timely interventions in the scurrying global advancements in AI. Despite its domestic dips and spikes, Nigeria continues to contend as one of the largest economies in the world. Hence, it is rightly positioned to make a significant global impact in this field, given its largely underestimated advantages.

According to the OECD report, one out of every four Africans around the world and one out of every five persons of African origin is a Nigerian. Its population represents about 2.6 percent of the human population, accounting for a relevant global labour force and a large domestic market with potential to influence international economies. Nigeria also has the highest population of African immigrants in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, extending the country’s impacts to global economic powers.

Moreover, one peculiarity of Nigeria’s leverage over its global counterparts lies in its undocumented yet thriving informal sectors. The country has one of the most significant and booming informal economic sectors in the world. Officially, IMF growth estimates Nigeria’s GDP in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms at $1.116 trillion by the end of 2023. However, Nigeria’s informal economy is estimated at approximately $1.230 billion in size, representing 58.2 percent of overall GDP PPP levels. Consequently, World Economics’ Research’s updated database estimates Nigeria’s GDP to be $2.113 trillion—89 percent larger than the official figures using 2023 data, given the impact of the informal economy.

In April 2024, the Nigerian government announced its commitment to leveraging the power of AI systems. This aims to foster inclusivity by integrating indigenous knowledge systems and language bases through the launch of its multilingual large language models (LLMs). The country’s initiatives, including the formation of the Nigeria AI Collective, the launch of a multilingual LLM, and substantial investments in computing infrastructure, have far-reaching implications, particularly in the areas of content diversity, an inclusive digital economy that considers informal sectors, and international trade expansion.

Given factors including its demographic strength, economic diversity and size, and potential for comparison with global economic powers, its move into developing LLMs is a pivotal achievement in the international AI field that cannot be ignored.

Content diversity

The development and deployment of Nigeria’s multilingual LLM stands as a pivotal moment for content diversity in AI. Traditional AI models often focus on high-resource languages, predominantly those spoken in the Global North, thus marginalising many languages and dialects spoken in Africa and other parts of the world. Nigeria’s LLM, trained in five low-resource languages and accented English, challenges this paradigm by ensuring these languages are represented and preserved in the digital age.

This inclusion has profound implications. First, it enriches the AI training datasets, leading to more robust and versatile AI systems capable of understanding and processing a wider array of human languages. This diversity in language representation can drive innovation in AI applications, ranging from more accurate language translation services to culturally relevant content generation. It democratises access to AI technologies, empowers local communities, and ensures that the benefits of AI are more equitably distributed.

Furthermore, this move can inspire other nations to prioritise their linguistic heritage, fostering a more inclusive global AI ecosystem. As Nigeria leads by example, other countries with diverse linguistic landscapes may follow suit, contributing to a richer, more varied digital content repository worldwide.

Modelling an inclusive digital economy

Nigeria’s AI initiatives have significant potential to reshape the global digital economy by promoting inclusivity. The establishment of the Nigeria AI Collective and the enhancement of the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (NCAIR’s) capacity with support from global technology leaders like Cisco underscore a commitment to achieve this robust goal.

The goal of inclusivity is highly attainable if the stakeholders maintain a strict ecosystem that is open to participation, including AI enthusiasts, students, startups, and civil society organisations (CSOs), apart from elite researchers or tech giants. Such inclusivity ensures that the benefits of AI are accessible to a broader segment of the population, including stakeholders who operate outside the purview of formal economic sectors.

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Nigeria will signal support for grassroots innovation at a global level by giving local researchers and companies access to cutting-edge computing infrastructure. The democratisation of AI technology may result in the creation of solutions for regional problems in a variety of fields, including banking, agriculture, healthcare, and education. Nigeria can therefore provide an example for other countries by concentrating on creating AI with moral guidelines specific to its socioeconomic environment.

Nigeria can manage the possible downsides of AI, like employment displacement and privacy problems, in a way that puts its citizens’ welfare first by developing its ethical frameworks. This strategy can be used as a model by other countries, contributing to the global development of a more just and equitable digital economy.

International trade expansion

The multilingual capabilities of Nigeria’s LLM also have significant implications for international trade. Language barriers often pose substantial challenges in global commerce, particularly for businesses and entrepreneurs in non-English-speaking regions. Nigeria’s LLM can promote smoother trade relations and negotiations by facilitating more effective communication across linguistic boundaries. This increases local Nigerian enterprises’ access to global markets.

To increase their reach and accelerate economic growth, entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can interact with overseas partners and customers more effectively. Additionally, as international companies try to get a foothold in Nigeria’s expanding market, the improved communication capabilities may draw in foreign collaborations and investments.

Nigeria is poised to improve its trading prospects and make a positive contribution to a more integrated and cohesive global economy by overcoming linguistic barriers through investments in AI systems.

Nigeria’s pioneering move into AI, particularly through the development of multilingual LLMs and the establishment of a comprehensive AI ecosystem, holds key global implications. Alongside changing its socioeconomic landscape, Nigeria also sets an example for other countries by promoting variety in content, building a digital economy that is inclusive of all people, and increasing international trade. Whether we pay attention or ignore it, the world is indeed observing Nigeria’s AI journey.

Despite the optimistic outlook on Nigeria’s adoption of AI and LLMs, there are significant concerns that continue to warrant careful consideration. From a potential threat to human labour when not meticulously implemented to contradictory ethical standards often dictated by the Global North, which may not align with the unique socio-cultural contexts of countries like Nigeria, and so on.

These arguments emphasise the necessity of approaching the adoption of AI with a balanced approach that considers both its potential benefits and the associated risks.

 

Dr Kosidichimma Anyanwu, a tech and media expert, writes from Ireland.