Last month, Brown CS faculty member George Konidaris joined with five other artificial intelligence thought leaders in his home country of South Africa to found a commercial AI lab that may be the first of its kind: Lelapa AI. Lelapa's goal is to reverse the brain drain by enticing African AI researchers to return to the continent, and to use their talents to produce socially-grounded, Africa-centric AI for the benefit of the global south, which contains more than 85% of the world's population. Lelapa is built on three primary intentions: wisdom (in particular, Africa's niche skills in resource efficiency), family (solving challenges by centering technology on humanism based on relationality), and home (providing a base for African AI talent).
George's co-founders include CEO Pelonomi Moiloa, COO Jade Abbott (founder of Masakhane, a grassroots organization driving natural language processing research in African languages), Vukosi Marivate (ABSA Chair of Data Science at the University of Pretoria, co-founder of Masakhane, and former PhD student of Brown CS faculty member Michael Littman), and Benjamin Rosman and Pravesh Ranchod, who together run the largest and most productive AI lab in Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Lelapa's first product is Vulavula, a natural language processing service aimed at indigenous African languages. Its features include multilingual named entity recognition, intent detection, transcription, and translation, and its application-programming interfaces are built for context, with extensive linguist user robustness, multi-domain testing, and published accuracy and bias reports. Vulavula will support new applications that allow Africans to communicate with service providers (including banks, healthcare providers, and local government) using their cell phones, in their own indigenous languages.
"The challenges in applying AI in the African context are many,” says George, “but the opportunity is immense: just imagine all the ways in which AI technology can improve the lives of the more than one billion people living on the continent. But Western researchers parachuting in and applying their own technology without understanding local context have always failed. That's why our goal is AI by and for Africans – developed and applied locally."
"Of course,” he adds, “it's a first-order concern for us that these technologies are applied responsibly. Lelapa has therefore built a carefully-designed ethical framework into the core of the company from day one."
George already has some experience in technology startups, having co-founded Realtime Robotics, a Boston-based company commercializing his invention of a specialized robot motion planning processor capable of sub-millisecond planning. Realtime has raised over $60 million in venture capital funding and currently employs over 80 people.
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communications Manager Jesse C. Polhemus.