When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Man and machine in the heart of Africa.
Man and machine in the heart of Africa.
Emeline Wuilbercq

ADDIS ABABA The black-and-white robot stopped and its eyes, two small red lights, suddenly lit up. Rotating about 90 degrees, it recognized the blue plastic ball a few centimeters away, came forward and kicked it.

"The robot is Chinese, but the processor is made in Ethiopia," Getnet Aseffa explains. "A student developed it, and within a few months we will organize the first national football competition between robots, in the same vein as the International RoboCup tournament!"

Welcome to the iCog Labs experiment room in the heart of Addis Ababa's university district. Getnet Aseffa, 28, is one of the brains behind the operation. After graduating in computer science in 2012, this avid reader of futurist author Ray Kurzweil co-created iCog with the help of American researcher Ben Goertzel. It is the first Ethiopian research and development laboratory specializing in artificial intelligence.

"Our programmers have the same skills as Chinese, Americans and Europeans," Aseffa says. "The only difference is the economic gap and the daily challenges that we face." Among them are lack of infrastructure, erratic Internet access and frequent power cuts. "At the beginning, developers were losing hundreds of lines of code," he says. "Now, they back up data almost every minute." For greater security, the laboratory's servers are located in Germany.

Like the U.S. company Hanson Robotics, which created the humanoid robot named Han that's able to recognize and imitate human facial expressions, iCog works for foreign customers. Ethiopian developers are in charge of improving image recognition software and other items to improve robot intelligence. On behalf of Californian companies, other lab employees are working on genetic mapping of human genes related to aging in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of longevity.

A development tool

Aseffa is convinced that cutting-edge technology can be a development tool for his country. But when he talks to his relatives about high-tech, he faces a very traditional Ethiopian community that questions the value of developing technologies of the future amid such pressing issues as the fight against poverty.

"Artificial intelligence may seem far from the African realities," Aseffa says. "But if you use it in daily life, it can improve the living conditions of human beings."

"We support the technological leap," he continues. For example, Africans have embraced the smartphone to receive Internet connections without the need for computers. "We can leapfrog stages through which the developed countries have gone. If not, when will we catch up, then?" For three years, Aseffa has been organizing seminars on these futuristic themes that each attact several hundred students, teachers and curious people.

For a year, and with its own funding, iCog Labs has mobilized 10 programmers to work on an Android application featuring the avatar of an Ethiopian teacher named Mrs. Yanetu. She teaches reading, writing and the basics of mathematics. Eventually, she will be able to recognize student emotions and answer their questions. Aseffa would like to distribute free tablets equipped with this application in rural areas of Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa, where there are a severe lack of infrastructure and a shortage of teachers.

They will need more funding to make this a reality. After three years, their turnover amounts to almost 140,000 euros per year. As of now, iCog receives no state support. Ethiopia has invested 87 million euros in the technology park Ethio ICT Village and doesn't hide its ambition to become a center of excellence for scientific and technological research. Two public universities are entirely devoted to these two disciplines. The government has even imposed quotas: 70% of Ethiopian students are required to take a course in hard sciences. Some of them may be part of the first promotion of the Master's degree in artificial intelligence that will soon open at the University of Addis Ababa.

"Now my goal is to bring robotics to elementary school," Aseffa says with excitement, giving a plastic ball to the robot. "To develop our country, it's necessary that children learn the basics of programming from an early age."

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ