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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 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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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