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SEA-LION: Representing the Linguistic Diversity of Southeast Asia through LLM


AI Singapore hosted this session titled "SEA-LION: Representing the Linguistic Diversity of Southeast Asia through LLM," featuring speakers including Databricks' EG and EJ. They delved into the complexities and challenges of using Large Language Models (LLMs) to represent the vast linguistic and cultural diversity of Southeast Asia. The session spotlighted countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, each showcasing its unique linguistic identity arising from wide-ranging historical and cultural influences.


When tackling the representation of Southeast Asia's diverse languages through LLMs, Databricks experts, EG and EJ, presented several key challenges and innovative approaches. This section offers a foundation for understanding the complexities involved in language model training in a region known for its notable linguistic diversity and cultural richness.

Key Challenges in Representing Southeast Asian Languages

1. Linguistic Diversity:
Southeast Asia hosts a variety of languages and dialects. The technical and resource commitment needed to integrate these languages into a cohesive model is immense.

2. Cultural Complexity:
Language is more than a tool for communication; it embodies the unique culture and history of each region. Effective language model training demands a deep understanding of the cultural nuances and contextual meanings intrinsic to each language, going beyond mere vocabulary learning.

3. Data Acquisition Challenges:
High-quality datasets for many regional languages are scarce, complicating the data collection process necessary for robust model training.

Approaches to Address These Challenges

The methodologies to tackle these challenges begin with basic initial training using a Masked Language Model (MLM). This primitive training equips the model with a fundamental understanding of the languages in question. Subsequently, experts apply fine-tuning techniques to more accurately capture the unique cultural nuances of each language.

Despite the continuous complexity and iterative nature of model training and fine-tuning, this multifaceted approach functions as the most viable strategy for effectively capturing the linguistic and cultural diversity of Southeast Asia.

Today's session contributed valuable insights and detailed examples as part of the broader discussions facilitated by AI Singapore, illustrating how these challenges are being confronted and managed. As the session progresses, expect further coverage.

Southeast Asia, including diverse nations such as Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, presents significant challenges for language models due to its rich cultural diversity. Large Language Models like Lama 2, GPT3.5 Turbo, GPT4, and Lama 3 often struggle to process and appropriately respond to languages in these culturally diverse contexts.

Similar to the diversity seen within the United States, where each state has its own cultural terms and practices, Southeast Asia amplifies this diversity across its 11+ different countries. For instance, while many Western nations use Uber, Singapore has a similar service called Grab. Understanding such regional public utilities and naming conventions is crucial for LLMs to provide accurate and culturally relevant services. Accordingly, GrabEats serves as the regional counterpart to UberEats in Southeast Asia.

Challenges for LLMs in Southeast Asia include: - Correctly processing and responding to instructions in various Southeast Asian languages. - Effectively handling and understanding culturally subtle queries. - Delivering culturally sensitive responses that take into account regional customs and terminology.

For instance, LLMs like Lama 3 or GPT4 often stumble in providing culturally appropriate responses in scenarios like noise complaints near religious facilities, highlighting the need for deep cultural understanding.

Initiatives such as AI Singapore's development of region-specific models are crucial. These models are trained to understand the subtle cultural nuances and regional terminologies inherent to each Southeast Asian country.

As LLMs evolve, the ability to interact effectively and sensitively within diverse cultural frameworks becomes indispensable. The advancements in these technologies are likely to significantly enhance usability and effectiveness across the countries of Southeast Asia, serving as genuine linguistic and cultural bridges in this multifaceted region.

Insights on Challenges with Existing Models in Representing Southeast Asian Languages

The primary obstacle in modeling Southeast Asian languages arises during the initial data intake phase of most Large Language Models (LLMs). These models predominantly consume vast amounts of internet data, which are mainly in English, not reflecting the linguistic diversity and cultural nuances of Southeast Asia. Consequently, these languages are significantly underrepresented within the models, compromising their training and subsequent performance.

A comprehensive study by Harvard University highlighted the notable cultural distances in countries like Thailand and Vietnam, emphasizing the challenges that LLMs face in capturing and accurately representing these regions' unique cultural nuances.

Case studies, including models like Lama 2 and 3.5 Turbo, illustrate these challenges. These models struggle to understand and respond accurately to prompts in Thai or Indonesian. The imperfect performances of these LLMs underline the limitations in their capability to comprehend the depth and complexity of Southeast Asian languages and cultures.

Addressing these challenges requires sincere efforts to refine the methodologies used in LLM training. This includes enhancing data collection strategies to incorporate a broader linguistic and cultural content from Southeast Asia. As advancements continue in the field of artificial intelligence, it is crucial to develop more inclusive and equitable models that effectively represent the rich cultural and linguistic tapestry of Southeast Asia.

SEA-LION Development and Pre-training Insights

During the SEA-LION presentation, detailed insights into the development and pre-training strategies of the SEA-LION model were shared. This model is specially designed to substantially represent the linguistic and cultural specificities of Southeast Asia, distinguishing it from other Language Model Systems (LMS). The development of this model was facilitated through strategic partnerships and meticulous processing of public data.

The SEA-LION model is released in two variants: a 30-billion parameter version and a more advanced 70-billion parameter version, the latter offering enhanced capabilities. Both versions are freely accessible, and interested users can visit the designated website to download the necessary model.

Furthermore, the session provided a comprehensive overview of the LMS lifecycle steps and their applications in various scenarios. This presentation not only clarified the operational framework of SEA-LION but also elaborated on its potential applications and scope for future implementations, deepening the audience's understanding of its utility and functional advantages.

The SEA-LION project tackled the complex task of training Large Language Models (LLMs) to understand and represent the multilingual environment of Southeast Asia. This section focuses on the evaluation process, data management, and practical implications of the models used in the project.

The project's hardware setup included 256 units of 340GB high-capacity GPUs, enabling efficient processing of the extensive datasets required for language model training. The "MLflow" tool was actively used to track progress and performance metrics during this process, ensuring model optimization by monitoring training losses in real time.

A significant aspect of the project was the data preprocessing phase. Before starting model training, it was necessary to thoroughly clean and process the raw data. For this purpose, the SEA-LION project utilized the "National Supergrouping Cluster" (NSEC) located in Singapore. Known for its robust data processing capabilities, NSEC played a crucial role in ensuring the quality of data supplied in the later stages of the project.

The cleaned data were securely stored in S3 buckets. From there, they were systematically fed into various clusters while retaining logs of all activities through MLflow. This log was crucial for further debugging and refining the training process.

The strategic methodologies in infrastructure and data management significantly contributed to the successful outcomes of the SEA-LION project. The developed Large Language Models not only served as a proof of technological prowess but also hold potential for real-world applications across multiple sectors in Southeast Asia.

In conclusion, the comprehensive framework and deployment of advanced technologies in the SEA-LION project have set new standards for future efforts in the fields of multilingual data processing and model training. The project demonstrated how purpose-driven use of technology and meticulous data management can unlock vast potential for AI development tailored to linguistically diverse regions.

About the special site during DAIS

This year, we have prepared a special site to report on the session contents and the situation from the DAIS site! We plan to update the blog every day during DAIS, so please take a look.