Ethiopia robotsTHE black-and-white robot stopped and its eyes suddenly lit up. Rotating 90 degrees, it recognised the blue plastic ball a few centimetres 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 organise 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. Aseffa, 28, is one of the brains behind the operation.

After graduating in computer science in 2012, he co-created iCog with the help of US researcher Ben Goertzel.

It is the first Ethiopian research and development laboratory specialising 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 we face.”

Among them are lack of infrastructure, erratic internet access and frequent power cuts.

Like the US company Hanson Robotics, which created the humanoid robot Han that is able to recognise 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 ageing in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of longevity.

Aseffa is convinced cutting-edge technology can be a development tool for his country.

But when he talks to his relatives about hi-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, but if you use it in daily life, it can improve the living conditions of human beings.”

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?” he asks.

For three years, Aseffa has been organising seminars on these futuristic themes, each of which attracts hundreds of students, teachers and curious people.

For a year, iCog has mobilised 10 programmers to work on an Android application featuring the avatar of an Ethiopian teacher named Mrs Yanetu.

She teaches reading, writing and mathematics. Eventually, she will be able to recognise students’ emotions and answer their questions.

Aseffa would like to distribute free tablets equipped with this application in rural areas of Ethiopia and in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

The company will need more funding to make this a reality. After three years, the turnover amounts to almost €140,000 per year. iCog receives no state support.

Ethiopia has invested €87m in the technology park Ethio ICT Village and does not hide its ambition to become a centre of excellence for scientific and technological research.

The government has even imposed quotas: 70% of 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, 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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