Towards Africa-Centered AI

African studies and computer science may seem like two fields that have few ties. But senior and King-Morgridge Scholar Sheriff Issaka is blending the two through AI4Afrika—a wide-reaching project to bring African voices, narratives, and perspectives to artificial intelligence research and implementation.

Even before attending UW–Madison, Issaka always had a strong interest in computer science. Though in his home country of Ghana, Issaka had limited access to physical computers to experiment with, he did everything he could to learn, from poring over library books on programming languages to practicing coding on paper. Past high school, however, he found an upper limit to universities in Ghana for computer science and began to look abroad to realize his passion.

Sheriff Issaka, courtesy of the College of Letters and Science

In a flurry of LSAT and international college applications, Issaka’s advisors encouraged him to apply to the King-Morgridge Scholars Program at UW–Madison, where he was accepted into the 2018 freshman cohort.

The King-Morgridge Scholars Program provides full scholarships for enterprising, creative, dedicated young adults committed to applying their talents toward poverty alleviation. Selected for their drive, academic success, and commitment to addressing problems of poverty in their own countries, King-Morgridge Scholars hail from countries in Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.

During his first year at UW–Madison, Issaka knew that he wanted to pursue studies in computer science but struggled to find a unique niche relevant to him. Later in his freshman and sophomore year, he discovered this niche through his research into algorithms and sought to connect it to the issues he and other minority students experience – most prominently, a lack of representation and connections in the field.

“If there isn’t any network of other people like you in the computer science space, that can be a problem,” Issaka said. “It all comes down to representation in some sense — I’m trying to come up with models to ensure that we can help bridge some of these gaps.”

Issaka found a way to realize the connection between representation and technology after working with Computer Science Professor Michael Farris on a project focusing on machine learning in dairy feed production, and with African Cultural Studies Professor Reginald Royston on researching the use and implementation of technology space in Africa. Combining the two experiences, Issaka found inspiration to connect responsible technology back to Africa in his continued work as project lead and chief engineer for AI4Afrika, an umbrella project involving academics, artists, industry professionals, and non-profits to bring African voices to artificial intelligence and computing.

Throughout Issaka’s career at UW–Madison, AI4Afrika has grown to include conversational chatbots for mental and menstrual health, internship opportunities for minority students, and the African Languages Lab, which focuses on curating, collecting, and digitizing machine translation models for some of the 3,000 languages in Africa.

He has worked closely with not just the UW African Studies and Computer Science Departments, but also with nonprofits and universities both in the United States and in Africa. These include the African Language Institute, American Family Insurance Data Science Institute, CARE International, and the University of Ghana, as well as Ashesi University and the University of Pretoria.

According to Issaka, the main goal of AI4Afrika is to use computer science to empower and bring positive societal change. Additionally, AI4Afrika seeks to build an ecosystem of people to be a part of the project and open doors for learning and growth opportunities. This includes internships and employment opportunities for students back in Ghana and direct partnerships with organizations on the ground in Africa.

“I always knew that technologies were a way for me to materialize a lot of the changes that I wanted to see in my community,” Issaka said. “We want to create a pipeline for underrepresented students to come into the artificial intelligence space and stay in tech specifically.”

Alongside computer science and African studies faculty, Issaka has also received ample support from other King-Morgridge Scholars, drawing from them as a support network for the project or as a part of AI4Afrika directly.

“These are highly intelligent people who are very passionate about their communities and passionate about what they do,” Issaka said. “They are always willing and ready to put in the work to make the world a better place.”

Issaka will be finishing his undergraduate degree in computer science this spring 2022. Though he plans to stay connected to the AI4Afrika team at UW–Madison, Issaka has stated that he will not continue as the project’s lead. Issaka will instead be continuing his studies at a graduate level through UW–Madison’s Computer Science Department, hoping to dedicate his time to the foundations and structure of artificial intelligence to best promote responsible, equitable, and accessible technologies.

“I believe I can best serve our shared goals by focusing on my graduate work, and I hope that others will now step in to sustain the momentum of AI4AFRIKA@UW,” Issaka wrote in a year-end debrief in May.

With ample support from professors, faculty, and other students at UW–Madison from the African Studies Program, Computer Science Department, and the King-Morgridge Scholars, Issaka feels confident in passing the baton to a new generation of enthusiastic programmers and data scientists ready to continue his vision.