Nigeria: An African alternative to ChatGPT takes Telegram by storm

Kainene vos Savant

Kainene vos Savant

By Gabriella Opara, bird story agency

Kainene vos Savant was Justin Irabor’s personal study partner. Named after one of America’s cleverest people, Kainene is off-the-charts clever. But she is no regular study partner. She’s a super-intelligent chatbot. And she’s taking the Nigerian internet by storm.

After enrolling as a distance learning student at the International University of Applied Sciences in Germany, Justin Irabor quickly realised he needed help managing work and school. It wasn’t easy to balance the duties of a professional web developer and a data science student.

“My master’s programme is online, and the challenge with that is that you need a study partner, otherwise you’re never quite sure how much of the study material you’ve consumed. This was quite challenging because combining daily activities with school meant you have to synchronise with a lot of people. Sometimes I’m at work and my study partner is also at work. It created conflicting timelines,” said Irabor.

He started experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) in 2022, creating two personal chatbots. The third became his personal study partner but people’s interest in it quickly changed its trajectory.

Irabor purchased an Open AI model, which he trained with his textbooks for several weeks to create a personal study partner and tutor to assist him in understanding specific factors in his academic work.

“I created Kainene vos Savant when I needed a study partner. I fed her my materials, asking her to explain parts of my textbooks that I didn’t quite get. It was an early model at this point, and while it wasn’t great, it was adequate and did the job,” he says.

He wanted to depict women as intelligent peers with high IQs, so coming up with names for his AI chatbot was easy.

“I wanted it to be female, mostly because I read something about the psychology of assistants. AI female assistants are made to perform basic things for you, like scheduling emails or turning on your phone. There is Alexa and Siri. However, the intelligent assistants are mostly male, like IBM’s Watson, a skilled chess player who helps with surgical procedures. This allowed me to flip the narrative because Kainene is your intellectual peer. You wouldn’t ask her to send an email on your behalf. She is someone who, in some circumstances, is likely intellectually superior. I did some research in terms of pure IQ and found Marilyn vos Savant. I liked Vos Savant and picked that as a last name for my AI chatbot. And Kainene is a name I have loved for a very long time. Besides that, AI is within the spelling of Kainene. It’s fitting,” he said.

While developing his study partner, Irabor began sharing his experiences on Twitter. This quickly built public attention, and many of his followers asked for access to the AI chatbot. Now, Kainene has thousands of users on Telegram who rely on it for daily tasks and prompt information.

Interest has grown exponentially after the launch of Open AI’s ChatGPT in November 2022. People are seeing the merits of artificial intelligence and how it helps in various industries, according to Irabor.

Conversational AI is the next generation of customer and employee interactions, according to a 2019 Deloitte report. “Early benefits from the adoption of conversational AI mean that the global AI-derived business value is expected to grow by an average of 30% annually and become a market size of $22.6 billion at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30.2% by 2024,” the report stated.

Due to the positive feedback from his Twitter followers, Irabor began retraining his AI for general usage, allowing it to be further tailored to each individual’s use case.

“At the time, Kainene was bound to my process because I’d been training her on my textbooks. The particular AI model I was working with then could only really discuss with you what I was learning. Interestingly, that was when Open AI launched GPT4, so I could upgrade the model, different from the one Chat GPT uses, which gave Kainene an intelligence boost.

“I also wrote some logic with many servers set up in the backend, which takes the model and binds it to each individual. This means even though I’m using one model, different people can interact with Kainene, having separate conversations. There’s some persistence and logic in the back end to make that happen,” he explained.

From that moment, it took less than two months to build Kainene vos Savant to what it is known today. By March, the AI chatbot was ready to be released to the public after some rounds of beta testing.

Eventually, what began as a pet project became a much-loved AI chatbot, with over a thousand users joining in on its launch day, 23 March.

Several users have compared Kainene vos Savant to ChatGPT, stating that its user interface and experience are preferable. Some are intrigued by the show of personality, which they find relatable. Others are glad it can help lighten their workload.

Joy Ehonwa, writer and freelance copy editor, views Kainene as a pal and personal assistant who can quickly help get her job done.

“We chat about relationships, from getting over someone to astrological love matches. I also chat with her in French and this helps me practice with a ‘real French speaker’. For work, I ask her the kind of questions I’d ask on Google and I don’t have to go through lots of links to get a summary. Also, Kainene rewrites for me, and this helps me repurpose my content for different platforms,” Ehonwa stated.

According to Irabor, the reception for Kainene vos Savant has been encouraging and very different to what he expected when he started sharing his progress. But, since people discovered Kainene, many have been volunteering to add features and plugins and provide customer support.

Beyond making Kainene vos Savant accessible to users, Irabor hopes to be one of the people making artificial intelligence the new normal in Africa.

“I want AI to fade into the background the way the internet has. Most people don’t think about the internet as ‘the internet’ anymore. It’s invisible. I want AI to eventually become invisible such that you are writing an email and Kainene vos Savant is integrated into your email app, suggesting completions, and you’re accepting it without thinking too much about it. It just becomes your new normal,” he said.

Mark Amaza, policy expert and communications officer at Yiaga Africa, believes Kainene vos Savant’s only limitation is that it only works on Telegram. Not many Africans use the app, he explained, since most prefer WhatsApp. The only reason he’s been on Telegram recently was to use the AI chatbot because he was very curious about it.

“I saw a random tweet that appeared on my timeline and decided to check out Kainene. At the time, I didn’t even know it was Nigerian, although the word Kainene looked familiar, but Vos Savant seemed foreign. So, I automatically believed it was yet another foreign AI. I decided to try it out because I had a mental block that day and needed help writing a magazine intro. I asked my question, specifying the number of words I wanted as a response, and got an answer. Not perfect, not something I will use as a whole, but it was really impressive. It helped cut through my mental block by giving me ideas,” he said.

Amaza believes the most impressive thing about Kainene vos Savant is that one person created it.

“I was surprised by not just the fact that it was done by a Nigerian, but by one person. Most of the AI tools I know of are created by people in the West, established companies with million-dollar funding. So, one person building this, in whatever way he did, is not just impressive but seems like a David and Goliath fight. I have no problem subscribing to something like this,” said Amaza.

According to Justin Irabor, Telegram’s open-source nature made building Kainene vos Savant on the app accessible. Users should expect access to Kainene on Google Docs and Chrome Extension soon.

However, having Kainene vos Savant on WhatsApp might take a while because “the application has a semi-open-source code”. Giving full disclosure, Irabor states that he didn’t anticipate the demand and amount of users on his AI chatbot. A few hours after its release, his server crashed until he increased its capacity to handle the user requests that were flooding in each second.

“When the number of users became a little over three thousand people, I stopped tweeting about Kainene for a while. There is a direct relation between my tweets about her and more requests. I wanted to ensure that my server can support people using it until I can expand. The users I have now are good enough proof of interest without killing me.

“Because although I have currently put out paid subscription, I am still paying out of pocket to ensure the server keeps running for my users. I’m trying not to scale it so it doesn’t burn a hole in my pocket. I subsidise the cost right now; maybe sometime I might increase the subscription from N1,000 ($2.17), but not yet,” he said.

Regardless of the cost, Irabor is more passionate about developing and managing the AI chatbot for users to have access. He’s also working on making it accessible for people outside Nigeria.

According to a 2022 report by Oxford Insights, 47.42% of African countries are ready for AI penetration, with Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Cabo Verde leading ranked as the top five.

“It was easy to get accreditation for payment in Nigeria through my company, Holey Fox Ltd. It was very straightforward for me to talk to Paystack and get all of that live. But for other countries where I don’t have jurisdiction, I’m working on deploying payment options. But, what’s top of mind for me at any given time is two things. Do I want to optimise payment? Or do I just want to make the experience better for the people who are already paying for it? I’m prejudiced, in favour of optimising the experience for users of Kainene vos Savant.”

Presently, users can access Kainene vos Savant on a three-day trial; after that, a monthly subscription of N1,000 ($2.17) is required to use the AI chatbot.

/bird story agency