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Ethiopia: Artificial Intelligence Catches Fire

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Ethiopia is an unlikely but thriving center of artificial intelligence R&D. A local company works for global customers and the government is all for it.

Ethiopia has come a long way from its nightmare past of famine and war. It still has splendid 12th century rock churches carved into the ground, the plateaued Simian Mountains, the ancient city of Gondar and of course, the human ancestral fossil Lucy, its oldest hominid ambassador. But now computer science is thriving in its capital, Addis Ababa. And Ethiopian artificial intelligence R&D is on fire.

The driver for this unexpected artificial intelligence (AI) industry sector is the autocratic government’s massive multi-billion dollar, ultra-high tech, industrial plans and its fervent development of higher education to support them. Today, there are over 30 official universities and 130 or so polytechnics, most of them emphasizing technology. Many of them are in the capital and, in 2012, the Ministry of Science and Technology established its own university and a $250 million dollar tech park nearby.

Despite all the tech glitz, however, Ethiopia’s economic reality remains grim. Less than 2% of citizens have access to the Internet. Only 34% of Ethiopian children get as far as the equivalent of 9th grade. Early adult literacy is approximately 35%, child labor at 27%, girl marriage an appalling 41%, and the country still ranks near the bottom of the UNDP’s World Index for quality of life.

But in Addis Ababa, education rates have soared above national averages. With 70% of the population under the age of 29, an urban sub-culture of keen young, software engineers is emerging. Among its best private sector opportunities are to program for the outside world. And program they do, at a fraction of the cost elsewhere. Today, the Ministry of Trade and Industry identifies more than 700 companies in computer technology and 95 software businesses serving customers worldwide.

At the hub of this tech growth is an AI group, iCog Labs, co-founded in 2012 by a young Ethiopian roboticist, Getnet Aseffa Gezaw, and an American AI pioneer, Ben Goertzel. With a team of twenty five Ethiopian software engineers, iCog pursues full-on ‘Strong Intelligence,’ the conviction that computers can potentially emulate the entire human brain, not just aspects of it. The ambitious lab has a bold mission: to create software that not only simulates the brain, but pushes the envelope of what the brain can do.

The lab also focuses on a host of practical applications for clients around the world, including humanoid robots for Hanson Robotics, makers of the renowned Robot Einstein; AI-driven automated pill dispensers and elder-care robots for a Chinese company, Telehealth; and mapping the genetics of longevity for two Californian corporations: Age Reversal Incorporated and Stevia First. iCog also delves into ‘deep learning’ algorithms for vision processing and object recognition (used in drones, satellites and security systems), machine learning algorithms to predict patterns in everything from agriculture to electricity consumption, and algorithms that react to English and a host of African languages.