Bridging India’s 100+ language gaps with Microsoft’s AI tools

Depending on how you enumerate, India possesses at least 120 languages, and another 1,300 “mother tongues,” an Indian term that pertains to local dialects. The country’s government acknowledges 22 languages but predominantly functions in just two: Hindi, largely spoken in India’s northern regions, and English. That excludes tens of thousands of Indians who speak neither.

Microsoft’s AI for Good initiative, part of the tech giant’s umbrella program that endeavor to utilize AI to solve issues in health, environmental protection, and human development, has used India to pioneer several innovative uses of the new technology, such as an app that utilizes AI to tell farmers the prime time to sow seeds or a model that uses satellite images to forecast how a natural disaster might harm a vulnerable population.

However, Microsoft and its AI researchers are especially intrigued by navigating India’s linguistic challenges, hoping it might unlock breakthroughs elsewhere. “India’s complexity makes it a test bed for multilingual settings everywhere,” says Ahmed Mazhari, Asia president for Microsoft. “If you can solve and build for India, then you can solve and build for the world.”

Minor languages and large language models

The Jugalbandi chatbot, which Microsoft launched in May 2023, is one of AI for Good’s major endeavors. The chatbot is targeted to rural farmers—particularly those who live in areas that don’t speak India’s more popular languages—who wish to learn about or access public services, such as applying for a scholarship.

Jugalbandi utilizes a large language model, developed with local research lab AI4Bharat, to analyze a query, unearth the pertinent information, then produce an easy-to-understand answer in the user’s local tongue. (At present, Jugalbandi can translate 10 of India’s 22 official languages.)

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

Another Microsoft attempt called VeLLM, or “Universal Empowerment with Large Language Models,” is aimed at enhancing how GPT, the OpenAI-developed model that underpins ChatGPT, works when dealing with less-popular languages. Majority of today’s large language models perform best in several prime global languages—predominantly English and Chinese—due to high data availability in those two languages. It’s trickier to train AI on so-called low-resource languages, where data is scarce or non-existent.

VeLLM forms the basis for other AI experiments, like Shiksha, a generative AI bot that aids educators in creating new curricula in non-English languages expediently, freeing up more time to be dedicated to teaching.

‘Participatory’ design

Microsoft engineers such as Kalika Bali, principal researcher for Microsoft Research India, are apprehensive of cutesy technology solutions that don’t reflect the way rural Indians lead their lives.

For a while now, technologists have tried to utilize the South Asian country as a testing ground to prove that digital technologies—affordable laptops, accessible internet, and smartphone apps—can enhance the quality of life in rural India.

Yet, not every initiative was fruitful, Bali notes dryly. She recollects one project in which designers from a development organization tried to devise a game to aid women farmers in India access crucial information.

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

Instead, Bali says she and her team engage in a “participatory” design procedure. “We spend a lot of time with the communities that we are working for, endeavoring to have them express what they desire out of a technology, or how they wish to address an issue,” she says.

Not just social good

Microsoft, of course, isn’t just intrigued by AI for its potential for social good. The U.S. tech giant is developing its own AI products, hosted on its Azure cloud computing system. It’s also a key supporter of ChatGPT developer OpenAI. The hype surrounding AI has helped boost Microsoft’s stock by 65% over the past year, propelling its market value to $3 trillion, making it the U.S.’s most valuable company.

Mazhari sees significant opportunities for Microsoft in Asia, where there is “an extraordinary pace of change and transformation across industries and geographies.” He cites several instances 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 first e-commerce chatbot in Southeast Asia. 

Nevertheless, even if Microsoft’s experiments in India don’t yield much for the company’s bottom line directly, they provide valuable insights for the company moving forward.

“Our partnerships under AI for Good and other pilot initiatives enable us to pick up early signals for advancing AI security and safety,” Mahzhari says. Those lessons are then used to develop “policies for much-needed guardrails” on the new technology. 

Bali acknowledges that her work is inherently linked with Microsoft’s overall business interest in AI. 

“These are early ventures in terms of how to make people who do not have access to technology get on the technology bandwagon,” she says. “Then they will become, hopefully, future technology users who would, amongst other things, also use Microsoft products.”

Fortune is hosting the inaugural Fortune Innovation Forum in Hong Kong on March 27-28. Experts, investors, and leaders of the world’s largest companies will convene to discuss “New Strategies for Growth,” or how companies can best seize opportunities in a fast-changing world.

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