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Four Days at the Frontiers of Ethiopian Futurism

Last month I spent 4 days in Ethiopia — Addis Ababa and surrounds — soaking up the culture and getting to know the nascent Ethiopian futurist community.   Inspired by this expedition, I’ve written an article for KurzweilAI on some of the potentials for AI and software development in Ethiopia.   But I also thought it would be worthwhile to post a more personal record of what I saw and learned on this whirlwind tour; hence the current article….

As it happened, Ethiopia was sort of a convenient stop-off for me.  This year I’m splitting my time between Hong Kong and DC, which means lots of flights back and forth.  Geographically, Ethiopia is midway between these two cities.  Culturally, on the other hand, it’s probably about as far from DC or Hong Kong as you can get on this planet.  But yet, I did feel some commonalities between Addis Ababa and Hong Kong — just like China, Ethiopia is experiencing extremely rapid growth, and there’s a small but energetic community enthusiastic about advanced technologies and their future implications … complementing a much larger segment of the population that carries out agriculture in fairly traditional ways.

I visited partly out of curiosity — I’d never been to Africa south of the Sahara before (only to Morocco and Egypt) — but mainly because of an intriguing invitation from a young Ethiopian named Getnet Aseffa to help him plan out the country’s first AI R&D lab, and figure out how AI and Ethiopia might help each other.

The backstory here is that in 2011 Getnet became enthused about the Singularity and Ray Kurzweil’s work, and contacted Amara  Angelica from Kurzweilai.net.  The two have communicated regularly since; among other things, Amara has helped Getnet with links to material on Singularity-related topics, which Getnet has used to help prepare advanced technology seminars in Addis (as the locals call it).   Occurring every month or two or three, Getnet’s seminars have covered topics like AGI, the Singularity, nanotechnology and self-driving cars, and have attracted around 700 people each time.

As Getnet was deeply interested in AI and AGI, and Amara was aware of my penchant for far-flung places, she made an e-introduction, which eventually led me to stop off in Ethiopia in the middle of one of my regular trips from DC to Hong Kong. It was a fascinating but exhausting 4 days for me.

Evenings were spent mainly out listening to various forms of traditional or modern Ethiopian music.  The traditional kind intrigued me more, combining polyrhyhmic, classically “African” sounding drumbeats, and singing with a definite Arab lilt.   When I commented that the modern Ethiopian sound had too much Western pop music in it for my taste — for instance the drumming was less complexly polyrhythmic — one of Getnet’s friends retorted that all drumming is African in origin anyway!

My nights during the visit were spent, alas,  sitting up till the wee hours at my laptop in my hotel room getting my regular work done, dealing with a hotel Internet connection slower than I’ve used for many years.  The problem wasn’t slow wifi, as the hotel’s Ethernet-linked computers were equally slow.  I was informed that reasonably fast Internet is available in Addis Ababa, but not common, as it’s quite costly.  The result is that most wired Ethiopians can’t consume online videos or high-bandwidth interactive Internet experiences like Second Life, though they avidly partake of everything else on the Net.

And the four days of the trip were spent, mainly, following Getnet around meeting an endless series of intelligent, inquisitive, Singularity-curious Ethiopian professionals … and seeing a few sights in Addis Ababa and vicinity along the way.

DAY 1: Sunday

… was spent largely on tourism and casual conversation.  We saw the Ethiopian National Museum, and a host of other museums whose names I now forget.  I won’t try to do justice to the contents, but just give a few samples. Beautiful artwork:

 

Impressive human fossils unearthed in Ethiopia, including Lucy, the famous oldest human fossil known, and some other funky ones:

Terrifying pictures in the historical museum, from Ethiopia’s periods of oppression and famine:

   

Looking at the historical pictures from Ethiopia’s darker  times in the second half of the last century, I was struck by how far the country has come.   The situation is roughly comparable to China’s growth since the Cultural Revolution.  Ethiopia is nowhere as advanced as China now, but this is understandable as its dark period is more recent.  Before this visit, my main mental associations with Ethiopia were the famine and the war with Eritrea.   But of course, these things are history now; the country is stable and, while still quite poor by international standards, grappling with its problems in a reasonably orderly and rational way.

Another parallel with China is the pride Ethiopians take in their long history — the Axum kingdom 7000 years ago; the tradition of Ethiopian Christianity going back to the time of Christ; the role of Ethiopia in developing the foundations of mathematics thousands of years ago; the continuous usage of the linguistically isolated Amharic language since time immemorial.   Like the Chinese, the Ethiopians have a definite feeling of “We have done amazing things before, and we can do them again.”

The contemporary economic link between Ethiopia and China was brought to mind, during my travels, via electronics like the Tecno smartphones, which are assembled in Ethiopia from parts made in China, and sit in electronics stalls alongside Chinese simulacra of Samsung Galazy smartphones.

 

 

We had lunch with two Indian engineers, who are in Ethiopia managing a team of Indians, Ethiopians, Koreans and others building a US$40 billion dam.  It turns out Ethiopia has been liberally sprinkled with Indians for the last century or so, originally imported largely as educators.  Indian teachers are still an Ethiopian tradition; one sees advertisements for private schools for children, advertising the presence of Indian teachers on the faculty.   Sitting over delicious home-cooked Indian lunch in an Addis townhouse discussing AGI, psi, quantum theory and the philosophy of consciousness, I was powerfully struck by the extent of globalization.

Of course, being an American born in Brazil, based largely in Hong Kong working with an international AI team, the globalization of the tech world shouldn’t surprise me anymore.  But still, living and working in the US as I did for most of my life, it’s easy to fall into a US-centric view and forget how much is going on in the rest of the world.

Addis is mostly Ethiopian; it isn’t international in the sense of New York or Hong Kong; I was the only non-African face on the flight from Dubai to Addis.  But in the Addis tech world, Indians, Koreans and Chinese are readily observable, each contributing different sorts of expertise.   The Chinese have invested heavily in various Ethiopian technology projects, contributing money, hardware and expertise.  South Korea is looked to as an example of how to use government-directed capitalist economic and technological development to lift a country from poverty to a very advanced level, within a mere space of decades.

While we saw Ethiopian music, singing and dancing every night of the visit, Sunday night’s was my favorite.  It was probably more touristy than the music we saw the other nights, but it was also more distinctly African.     As a live music nut, I definitely got the feeling Ethiopia has a rich music scene, which would reward months of exploration.

DAY 2: Monday

In the morning we visited various university labs, including a robotics lab

and an optics lab

 

The equipment wasn’t fancy, but it worked.  The optics lab in particular seemed to be in heavy use, with all sorts of cleverly jury-rigged equipment.   Students were definitely getting a lesson in how to do all manner of optics experiments using low-cost equipment, guided by deep understanding of physics principles.

After the labs, we ventured into the countryside in the afternoon — my only experience outside Addis , and a rather stark contrast with the university labs.  As we got further toward the outskirts of the city, more and more signs of traditional Africa appeared, such as domestic animals by the side of the road:

 

Once one gets beyond the city limits, the bustling, messy modernism of central Addis disappears, and things immediately start to look like old-style Africa, with women and donkeys carrying insanely large bundles

 

 

We visited a cathedral in the mountains, whose interior featured beautiful paintings of religious scenes.  In the grass outside the cathedral was a woman bowed crying and praying.  Many rural Ethiopians currently refuse medical care even for treatable disorders, preferring to rely on spiritual methods of healing.

And then back to the city for a series of interesting meetings, including one with a Turkish AI PhD student, who is making her living traveling the Third World repairing broken UAVs (unmanned automated flying machines) and doing other hardware and software consulting.   According to her, while the US will provide repair services for the UAVs it sells to other countries, it won’t teach the locals how to fix the UAVs themselves.  She not only fixes UAVs but shows the locals what she’s doing, as she proceeds, allowing them to perform fixes themselves the next time around.  She also discussed the challenges she’s faced trying to do data and text mining for customers in Addis: for example, much data exists only in hand-written Amharic, but there is no available solution for Amharic OCR.

Later, at the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, I learned there had been a host of Masters’ theses written on Amharic OCR over the years — but this was all student software code, never thoroughly tested or commercially packaged.   This reflected a theme that arose frequently in my exploration of the Addis tech world — lots of smart people doing lots of interesting things, but not so much coordination, and often not much communication between people working on related projects, or with complementary interests or expertise.

 

 

(I’ll spare you video footage of me lamely attempting to dance to Afro-pop that evening, after Getnet took the stage and enthusiastically asked the band to dedicate a song to the visiting AI professor…)

 

DAY 3: Tuesday

 

Tuesday was the day of my long seminar at Addis Ababa University, followed by a showing of the Ray Kurzweil bio-pic Transcendent Man, which features me for a few minutes.

While Getnet could have summoned an audience of 1000+ for the talk, he opted instead to keep it limited, hoping to encourage more interaction and discussion.  The audience of 50-70 included university faculty, graduate students and administrators, but also a sprinkling of high-level government officials.

My talk fell into five sections:

  • Singularity
  • AGI
  • Machine Learning
  • Applying Machine Learning to Help Cure Disease and Aging
  • How AI and Machine Learning can Help Ethiopia

The last section was, unsurprisingly, of the most interest to the bulk of the audience, and reflected a number of ideas Getnet and I had been informally tossing around over the preceding couple days.   Some more detail on these thoughts are given in my Kurzweil AI article on Ethiopia.

Discussions with the audience were interesting from a variety of perspectives.   Nearly everyone was enthused about the potential of AI technology, and ready to believe that it could form part of the solution to various Ethiopian problems.  The transformative power of technology was considered obvious by everyone, the most commonly raised example being the rapid advent of mobile phones, even through the remote Ethiopian countryside.  Even rural farmers with barely enough food, it was noted, would somehow scrounge together the money to pay their mobile phone bills.

On the other hand, there was significantly less enthusiasm for truly radical technology innovations like human-level AGI or the abolition of aging.  This seems to be, in large part, because Ethiopia is an extremely religious country, and these radical advances are broadly intuitively perceived as contradicting the natural, God-given order of things.  However, a certain subset of the Ethiopian science/tech community, with a more flexible view of religion, embraces these ideas enthusiastically in the same manner as Western futurists.  And even those who are skeptical of full-on Singularitarian advances, are more than willing to accept advances that are 90% of the way there — such as AIs that help cure diseases, and deploy their general intelligence to improve manufacturing, agriculture, economic management and so forth.

 

 

After the talk we chatted with an astrophysicist working with the Ethiopian Space Society, which is planning a series of launches over the next years — first one in low-Earth orbit, then one further into space.  There are no concrete plans to send an Ethiopian human into space, but the idea was definitely (dare I say it?)  in the air.   The Ethiopian space community is acutely aware of recent advances in low-cost commercial spaceflight, and also of plans for colonization of Mars over the next few decades.

 

 

I also met with a few people involved with software development in Ethiopia.  Software and computer science education in Ethiopia seem reasonably strong, with a variety of programmers skilled in various languages.  However the job market is still weak, and salaries are dramtically low by international standards, with a programmer earning perhaps US $100-$200/month.  The opportunity seems ripe for the emergence of an Ethiopian software outsourcing industry, as I discuss in my KurzweilAI article.

DAY 4: Wednesday

My last day in Ethiopia, spent with more and more meals, coffee-sessions and discussions with various AI and Singularity enthusiasts.   Getnet’s social network in Addis is remarkable.

The possibility of starting a hackerspace in Addis got tossed around.  A friend of Getnet’s engaged in building home-brewed sensor systems, robots and other contraptions, lamented how difficult it is to get parts for his constructs.  Ordering a US $5 part from a US or Chinese supplier may cost US$100 in shipping.  A hackerspace, with an assemblage of tools plus a library of spare parts, would be extremely valuable in terms of allowing Ethiopians to prototype various devices at reasonable cost.

We also met with the Korean director of the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology (AAIT, a unit of Addis Ababa University) and several other university administrators, discussing the state and future of AI and software education in Addis.  The director had been in Ethiopia two months, having left an administrative position at Samsung, and was still getting the lay of the land, though excited by all the opportunities.  Next year, he noted, a technology startup incubator would be launched on the AAIT campus.  We discussed the possibility of starting an AI research lab at AAIT, an idea that was met with general enthusiasm, though there are also some challenges.  While there are AI and machine learning classes in the university course catalog of the computer engineering department, there is currently no one on staff with expertise to teach them.  But the university is open to the idea of having foreign professors teach AI via video-conferencing, and eager to recruit foreign visiting professors to join their staff and help out.

And we stopped by the office of Natnael Memory — a “mind solution” provider, offering a variety of courses including memory-improvement, creativity and consciousness expansion, alongside more traditional options like crash courses in English.   The mixture of practical, metacognitive and meditative aspects seemed quite modern, and wouldn’t have been at all out of place in California, New York or Hong Kong.

After 4 days of meeting, presenting, eating, drinking coffee (and just a little bit of Ethiopian honey liquor) and watching music and dancing — and struggling with a mind-bendingly slow Net connection while working each night — I was ready for some rest.  My voice was hoarse from talking about AGI and the Singularity so much.  But, I was also eager to return sometime and dig a little deeper.

At the airport right before my departure, Getnet and his friends asked me about my reaction to Ethiopia.  “How do you visualize it?”  My main reaction was that I hadn’t been there long enough to have a fully coherent reaction.  I’d only left Addis once; and in Addis I’d seen a very particular, albeit fascinating, slice of Ethiopian society.

Visually, the countryside around Addis was beautiful, and left me with the urge to explore it further.  On the other hand, Addis itself, while bustling and functional, and apparently free from the traffic problems plaguing many cities, won’t be making anyone’s list of the world’s loveliest capitals.  The Ethiopian people, as well as being articulate and outgoing, tend to cut striking figures, with their unique mixture of African and Arab facial structure.  The Ethiopians pride themselves on having the most beautiful women in Africa (though, of course, many other countries may take similar pride!)….  The technology community was deeper and more diverse than I expected, with a host of Ethiopians and foreigners doing interesting hardware and software projects.

Most of all, what struck me in my too-brief visit to Ethiopia was the high level of energy and enthusiasm of the people I talked to.  There was an incredible feeling of untapped energy — or energy just beginning to be tapped.  One got the feeling of being in the middle of a “start-up country” (albeit one with a long and impressive history!) — one rapidly and somewhat furtively growing, and trying to figure out in real time exactly what direction to grow in.