The Ethiopian AI Geeks Building Cutting-Edge Robots

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

ADDIS ABABA â€" 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."

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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