Microsoft AI tools to bridge India’s 100+ language gaps

Depending on how you count them, India has at least 120 languages ​​and another 1,300 “mother tongues,” an Indian term that refers to local dialects. The country’s government recognizes 22 languages, but primarily operates in only two: Hindi, spoken mostly in northern India, and English. This excludes tens of thousands of Indians who speak neither.

Enter Microsoft’s AI for Good initiative, the tech giant’s umbrella program that seeks to use artificial intelligence to solve problems of health, environmental protection and human development. The US company has used India to experiment with several new uses of new technology, such as an app that uses artificial intelligence to tell farmers the best time to sow or a model that uses satellite images to predict how a natural disaster could harm a vulnerable population. .

But Microsoft and its AI researchers are particularly interested in tackling India’s linguistic challenges, hoping that this could unlock breakthroughs elsewhere. “India’s complexity makes it a testing ground for multilingual setups everywhere,” says Ahmed Mazhari, Microsoft’s Asia president. “If you can solve and build for India, then you can solve and build for the world.”

Small languages ​​and large linguistic models

The Jugalbandi chatbot, which Microsoft launched in May 2023, is one of AI for Good’s flagship projects. The chatbot is aimed at rural farmers, especially those living in areas where India’s most popular languages ​​are not spoken, who want to learn about or access public services, such as applying for a scholarship.

Jugalbandi uses an extensive language model, developed with local research lab AI4Bharat, to analyze a query, discover relevant information, then generate an easy-to-understand response in the user’s local language. (Currently, Jugalbandi can translate 10 of India’s 22 official languages.)

(Fortune we previously featured Microsoft’s work with AI and Jugalbandi on our 2023 “Change the World” list.)

Another Microsoft initiative called VeLLM, or “Universal Empowerment with Large Language Models,” aims to improve how GPT, the OpenAI-developed model that underpins ChatGPT, works when using less popular languages. Most of today’s large language models work best in a handful of major global languages, primarily English and Chinese, because much of the data is in those two languages. It is more difficult to train AI on so-called low-resource languages, where data is scarce or non-existent.

VeLLM is the basis for other AI experiments, such as Shiksha, a generative AI bot that helps teachers quickly create new curricula in languages ​​other than English, freeing up more resources to spend on teaching.

‘Participatory’ planning

Microsoft engineers like Kalika Bali, principal researcher at Microsoft Research India, are wary of cutesy tech solutions that don’t reflect how rural Indians live their lives.

Technologists have long sought to use the South Asian country as a test bed to prove that digital technologies – cheap laptops, affordable Internet and smartphone apps – can improve the quality of life in rural India.

Yet not all initiatives have been successful, Bali notes dryly. She recalls a project where designers from a development organization tried to create a game to help women farmers in India access important information.

“The women gave that person such a disdainful look,” she said. “They said ‘Do you think we have time to play?’”

Instead, Bali says she and her team pursue a “participatory” design process. “We spend a lot of time with the communities we work for, trying to get them to say what they want from a technology or how they want to solve a problem,” she says.

Not just social good

Microsoft, of course, isn’t interested in AI just for its potential to benefit society. The US tech giant is developing its own artificial intelligence products, hosted on its Azure cloud computing system. He is also a key supporter of ChatGPT’s OpenAI developer. Enthusiasm for artificial intelligence has helped push Microsoft’s stock up 65% over the past year, pushing its market value to $3 trillion, making it the most valuable company in the United States.

Mahzhari sees many opportunities for Microsoft in Asia, where there is “an incredible pace of change and transformation across industries and geographies.” He points to several examples where Asian companies have turned to Microsoft’s generative AI services: Lazada, the Southeast Asian e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba, used Microsoft tools to create the world’s first chatbot. e-commerce in Southeast Asia.

However, even if Microsoft’s experiments in India don’t directly benefit the company’s bottom line, they still provide important lessons for the company’s future.

“Our partnerships in AI for Good and other pilot initiatives allow us to gather early signals for the advancement of AI safety and security,” says Mahzhari. Those lessons are then used to develop “policies for much-needed guardrails” on the new technology.

Bali knows that his work cannot be separated from Microsoft’s overall business interest in artificial intelligence.

“These are the first forays into how to get people who don’t have access to technology to jump on the technology bandwagon,” he says. “They will then become, hopefully, future users of the technology who, among other things, would also use Microsoft products.”

Fortune will host the first Fortune Innovation Forum in Hong Kong on March 27 and 28. Experts, investors and leaders of the world’s largest companies will meet to discuss “New strategies for growth”, that is, how companies can best seize opportunities in a rapidly evolving world.

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