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AIs, Ethiopian Food and iCog Labs

Deputy Minister of Science and Technology (between Lin Kayser and Ben Goertzel): Photo courtesy of Lin Kayser

Deputy Minister of Science and Technology (between Lin Kayser and Ben Goertzel): Photo courtesy of Lin Kayser

On February 2, 2015 Getnet Asefa, the CEO of iCog Labs, standing under the Azure Sky over the international Airport of Addis Ababa welcomed his guests from Hong Kong, Germany, and England. His exact words were, “Welcome to the era of hi-tech meetings in East Africa”.

Until the last few years, it wasn’t even plausible to dream about meetings and seminars on Artificial intelligence or robotics or social movements like transhumanism, in the Horn of Africa— the place widely known for famine, disease and endless civil, nations, tribal and what not  wars.

Mostly meetings in Sub-Saharan Africa operate within a framework in which the focus is on the essentials of sustainable economy, and questions that are echoes of the middle age— food security, preventing communicable diseases, female genital mutilation, sanitation, access to roads and parallel concerns focusing merely on the essentials of civilization. Yet, in the decades that proceeded 2000, they are increasingly extending far beyond the same old “Africa’s Misery” and by far, they are incorporating scientific and hi-tech agendas to draw-in audiences and topics, which are not subject to the above boundaries.

Among the guests that Getnet welcomed to Ethiopia, Gino Yu (Associate Professor and Director of Digital Entertainment and Game Development in the School of Design at PolyU), IRIDAS founder Lin Kayser (Adobe’s former Director of Engineering from the year 2011-2014) are experts highly involved in the hi-tech and Computer industry. Along with the guests, AGI giant Ben Goertzel, Ruiting Lian (Artificial Intelligence researcher focusing on Natural Language processing aka NLP), and Amen Belayneh, a programmer specializing on AI Algorithms from the Hong Kong OpenCog team are experts who directly work in the fields of Artificial intelligence. The rest of the guests include Roy Cohen, an Israeli-French writer and Director (currently residing in London) and Anne Lund a Director and producer of Documentary films from Denmark (currently residing in London). The film crews from England flew to Ethiopia for the production of a documentary film tentatively titled Ben’s Robot.

What do all these guests have in common?

They were very excited to be in Ethiopia for one purpose, hi-tech development. How on earth can they be? Eh, Hi-Tech in Ethiopia?

Hi-Tech in east Africa might sound strange particularly to those who have never heard about Technology Leapfrogging. In the simplest of terms, it refers to “the adoption of advanced or state-of-the-art technology in an application area where immediate prior technology has not been adopted”. In a country where the only form of transportation is a cart for instance, one can adopt electric car irrespective of regular or diesel cars and all the infrastructures— Gas Stations, fuel-oil-motor garages, spare parts and so on— related to cars with motors that operate on fossil fuel.

iCog Labs is one such private company engaged in Technology Leapfrogging. The company had been working on several Artificial Intelligence Research and Development projects, as well as, the development of AI featured commercial software since 2013.

As part of iCog’s vision— of making a breakthrough in the capability of AI to improve the lives of people in Africa— the company has organized three international Hi-Tech seminars in Ethiopia starting from 2012, in Collaboration with AAiT. Part of this gathering’s purpose was aimed at the fourth international hi-tech seminar in Ethiopia.

Ben and his associates were not in the mood to waste time in the spirit of tourism. The very next morning they were among the early birds of iCog Labs’s staff. As if the ‘Carpe Diem’ motto possessed their souls, they plunged into iCog Labs’s daily office-routine sharing, collaborating, and striving on OpenCog’s Projects.

The Ministry of Science and Technology was the next destination and on the early morning of February 4, while Addis Ababa’s air was still chilly, the OpenCog team along with Lin Kayser sat facing Ethiopia’s Deputy Minister of Science and Technology.

In the meeting with Dr Getahun Mekuria, the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, the main concern was directed towards the question why should people come to Ethiopia to work and invest on hi-tech?

‘Beye’aynet’ one of Ethiopia’s beloved traditional dishes usually served in the fasting season: Photo Courtesy of Ruiting Lian

‘Beye’aynet’ one of Ethiopia’s beloved traditional dishes usually served in the fasting season: Photo Courtesy of Ruiting Lian

Before the minister was able to reply, Professor Gino came-up with an excellent answer: “the food here is heavenly”!

In all honesty, that answer was not entirely farce. In recent years it seems like, Ethiopian food is becoming the new Coca Cola in the West. All the guests, even the ones from Denmark and Israel, were familiar with Ethiopian cuisine long before they set their foot in the country— the food was something they held dearly.

Addressing the question, the minister stated that Ethiopia has drafted a new investment law that will give all the benefits foreign investors long for. He said, “Our deal is as sweet as our cuisines. What the country offers vis-à-vis other Sub-Saharan African nations regarding tax holidays, lease free lands, and loan agreements is super enticing”.

Ethiopia has drafted a Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) that has been in use since 2010. As part of this GTP, the country has carefully selected nine priority areas that are going to be the pillars of the transition from agrarian to industry based economy. And to be specific on the question, people should come to Ethiopia and invest on hi-tech start-ups because the Computer related industry along with ICT (Information Communication Technology) is one of the nine pillars.

It might sound like a cage match between Sleeping Beauty and the Cinderella Man, but Ethiopia can attract hi-tech outsourcing based on three concrete facts. 1) The country has a well-trained work force in the fields of Computer Science, 2) the educated segment speaks English, and 3) labour cost is much cheaper. These give Ethiopia a competitive advantage over China, Mexico, or even India.

Certainly, Ethiopia still needs to improve the overall policy attractiveness. Most importantly the industry sector’s, foreign direct investment’s, and governmental institution’s transparency-initiative.

Despite all the drawbacks, Ethiopia’s Economy, in the past decade, has been growing at a significant rate. The 2014 World Bank review shows that the country has enjoyed an average of 9.9% annual GDP growth for the past consecutive eight years (2005-2013)[1] and the recent issue of Africa’s Pulse confirms that the country is still one of the top seven world’s fastest growing economies.

To add a little bit of the economic fact in Sub-Saharan Africa, it should be noted that the region accounts for nearly two thirds of the world’s known mineral reserves and even with the global economic slowdown and weakening, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the region has remained resilient, steadying at around $30 billion US dollars in 2014[2]. The collective GDP of the continent is around 2.2 trillion US dollars while 38 Sub-Saharan African countries are ahead of China on the EIU’s Democracy Index[3].

Then what does this mean to the development of AIs in Sub-Saharan Africa and particularly in Ethiopia?

Robo Sapiens in the street of Addis: Photo Courtesy of Ruiting Lian

Robo Sapiens in the street of Addis: Photo Courtesy of Ruiting Lian

It is a well-known fact that the lack of industrialization in Sub-Saharan Africa’s boom has fuelled a debate on whether sustainable growth requires a shift in favour of manufacturing or whether moving up the quality ladder in sectors where countries can exploit and build on their current patterns of comparative advantage can sustain growth.

One can take India’s growth pattern. That country’s rapid economic growth suggests that a shift into high-productivity services entirely related to Computer Science and Information and Communication Technologies represents a shift in favour of Service Sector could be a dependable path to sustainable growth.

Hence, countries like Ethiopia, whose comparative advantage so far was in the Agricultural Sector, can shift their economic policy towards Computer Technology.

Modern services, such as software development, call centres, and outsourcedbusiness processes, represent high value-added activities (similar to manufactured products) that can be important drivers of growth for innovative and technology-savvy countries. (Africa’s Pulse, 2014)

In all the years one has spent watching technology, one can witness in Ethiopia that Mobile Technology and Software development are the two most explosive booms. Moreover, the country is receiving unparalleled attention from large global companies, including substantial opportunities in mining, textile, food and beverage, automotive, and energy supply.  Ethiopia is becoming increasingly more attractive to international investors and perceptions are becoming distinctly more positive over the medium to long term.

The sectoral contribution to total economic growth in Ethiopia in the past decade reveals that the country’s economy is no more led by the Agricultural Sector but through its Service Sector and like most countries in the rest of the globe, Computer and ICT in Ethiopia are categorised under Service Sector.

The mainstream economic theory suggests that as economies develop the structural transformation will cause a shift in the labour force from low-productivity jobs to higher productivity jobs, which usually means a shift from Agriculture to Industry/Manufacturing. On the contrary, Ethiopia and many other sub-Saharan African nation’s development directions tracked a different path— the Service Sector seems the new destination in the structural transformation.

Yet, reports on the economic development and structural shift of Sub-Saharan Africa shows much of the growth in the Service Sector of these nations has been limited to low-productivity activities.

Hence, the question for these Sub-Saharan countries should be how to shift the low-productivity activities within their respective Service Sectors into that of a high-end output.

Software development, Robotics, and Artificial Intelligence are undoubtedly the future and understanding these technologies is vital if policy planners want to speak the language of the new world: a world where its natives speak computer.

As of 2012, there are more than 850 active infrastructure projects across different sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa with a combined value in excess of 800 billion US dollars[4].

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Photo Courtesy of Tsion Sahle

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Photo Courtesy of Tsion Sahle

This means that there are plenty of opportunities to develop industrial Software, Robots, and AI featured data analysis systems. Since the Service Sector is leading the economy in many Sub-Saharan African countries, these areas will be the transitional zones where the low-productivity activities of the sector transcend to higher productivity.

AI software can really change the current economic trend in Ethiopia and as well in the rest Sub-Saharan Africa. Lack of accurate— in fact, most of the data is not even workable— data in Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the crucial shortcomings that greatly handicap the continent and Ethiopia in particular.

Famine Prediction, Theoretical Model for Quality of Schooling, Patterns for Disease Control, Financial Prediction, dimensions of food security, urban influx, and Income and Employment data are the lifelines of an effective policy. Unfortunately, the economic and political policy for almost all Sub-Saharan Africa is impotent due to lack of detailed data and optimal analysis. Undoubtedly, this crippling inconsistency is the first area where AI application comes handy.

Artificial Intelligence, when applied to massive data-sets, could have profound implications on a wide range of global development areas ranging from public policy and urban planning to disease control[5].

The meeting with the Ministry of Science and Technology has gone well. One of its worthwhile outcomes was that Deputy Minister Getahun arranged a visit to two of the county’s Science and Technology Universities.

Midst the meeting, Ben raised the topic that OpenCog foundation and iCog Labs are very much interested to work with the Education Ministry and the entities are already drafting a concept paper on how to collaborate with the government.

Gino also suggested that project based education system is the best way to achieve a technology transfer and only in this manner will the country produce internationally competent students of computer Science and related fields.

Lin Kayser’s proposal had even pushed the collaboration one-step further. He noted that most universities in the West had a policy, which allows them to give a space for private companies inside or beside the campus based on a collaboration framework that guarantees mutual benefit.

If the government really wants to set the right infrastructure for its grand plan that aimed to make Ethiopia one of the middle-income nations by 2025, the education system has to be linked with the private sector.

It is the right time for Ethiopian Universities to adopt similar policies in which education and production will intertwine. Private companies will have the first hand opportunity to work with the best minds in the country and universities will have a direct access for project based education observing accurately their methodology’s potency when it comes to practical skills and entrepreneurship. As a country striving to transform its agrarian based economy to manufacturing, Ethiopia cannot afford the grave mistake of tolerating an education system that ignores private industries.

The State Minister explained that starting from 2012 the Government of Ethiopia designed a special program that allows the Ministry of Science and Technology to establish its own university. As a result, there are two Science and Technology Universities located one in the suburb of the capital city, and another in a city called Adama, 100 km east of the capital. [The Ministry of Education has no mandate on these special universities and the sole purpose of these two universities is to set the track for the transformation]

The last discussion point in the meeting was on the possibilities of forming exceptional economic zones so tax-free items could be imported. Lin Kayser pointed it: as the country’s import tax is very expensive, tech-start-ups will suffer the cost of importing materials for their research and prototype development on hi-tech products and services like robots, alternative energy technologies, Bio-medical, AI featured Tablets, surveillance gadgets and so on.

It is understandable that Ethiopia needs the benefits from import tax but for such special purposes, the country can re-visit the existing tax law in a way that allows special economy zones to be identified as tax free or low tax zones. The economy zones could be limited to universities, research institutes, and technology incubation centres.

At the end of the meeting, the state minister guaranteed that, “commitment will not be an issue, space will not be an issue, and financial aid will not be an issue”.

Yes, this sounds great for any foreign or domestic entrepreneur that has specialized in technology but as the old saying goes talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is everything!

Sunset around Sidist Killo: Photo Courtesy of Lin Kayser

Sunset around Sidist Killo: Photo Courtesy of Lin Kayser

On February 5, the long awaited seminar was launched. Graduating Students of Computer and Electrical Engineering students along with students from other faculties attended. To every one’s surprise, it was a disappointment! Mr Yosef Abate, the head of AAiT’s Centre of Information Technology and Scientific Computing has totally failed to organize the seminar. The centre was not even able to provide a workable conference room!

The venue was changed at the last minute and the man and his department miserable failed to reallocate a conference room that can accommodate at least 80 people and that doesn’t smell bad. Mr Yosef gave feeble excuses for the embarrassing execution; he claims that it is the final exam season and a lot of students and staffs are super busy. Besides, the venue assigned for the seminar is reserved as exam room.

In truth, there had been a lot of vacant lecture-halls and conference rooms that day and it was the flimsiest excuse one can come up with on such occasions. This is not expected from Addis BAaba University’s Scientific Computing department. The change of venue was not even announced beforehand— Getnet, iCog’s CEO was forced to fetch the attendees from the original location.

Another irritation on the part of Yosef, “the head of AAiT’s Centre of Information Technology and Scientific Computing” was his timing. He rushed everything from the beginning to end, as if the devil had stepped on his tail, and every speaker was only allowed to speak for seven lousy minutes.

The excuse for this was a white lie! He said, “The conference hall is scheduled for another seminar”. After the AGI Seminar, all of the seminar speaker’s and iCog Labs’s staffs had stayed in the Cafeteria of AAiT, at least, for three hours discussing the topics of the Seminar with Students. Professor Gino Yu was experimenting on a brain stimulant machine with volunteer students. The embarrassing thing was that the cafeteria is located in front of the conference room and not a single person passed by it.

As if the pungent smell of the conference room, the poorly executed timing and the failure to inform attendees was not enough, the director was seen ordering iCog Labs staff not to add more chairs into the tiny conference room. One will be tempted to ask, “was he trying to block people from getting first-hand information”?

It is the little things, things like these, that greatly affect the decisions of foreign entrepreneurs and scholars. Sub-Saharan African countries need to change their attitude towards a chocking bureaucracy and disdainful approach towards progress.

On the morning of February 6, Ben and all the other guests where speeding towards Adama on the newly built express road. The Adama express road, which was inaugurated by Li Keqiang, China’s Prime minister, on May 6, 2014, introduced the toll system to Ethiopia’s highway. The passage for the 100km journey on the six-lane superhighway cost 2.5 US dollars.

The President of Adama Science and Technology University (ASTU) welcomed the guests. The South Korean president, Jang Gyu Lee, was busy with guests and the OpenCog crew just arrived midst a MOU signing ceremony between ASTU and a South Korean University. On the same day, ASTU was hosting the 8th Public Universities Sport Festival; as a matter of fact, the whole campus was busy and the spirit of fiesta was pulsating the air.

The discussion was brief and the two parties came to a mutual understanding that the university is willing to collaborate. After the meeting, the guests were shown the laboratories and workshops of ASTU. The university is also building a technology park. The guests where led to the on-going project being constructed at the cost of 20.5 million US dollars. The officials told the guests that it is expected to be completed before the fall of 2016.

Adama Science and Technology Addis University's lecture-halls

Adama University of Science and Technology’s lecture-halls

One of the key measures of economic performance is Labour Productivity. It is the means to gauge the likelihood that a country can create and sustain decent employment opportunities with fair and equitable salary[6]. Yet, the trend in Ethiopia and as well most of the Sub-Saharan countries is still witnessing a limited increases in productivity, especially in the Service sector. Generally, such economies will definitely see a little increase in the salary of workers, and there is no additional potential to create new jobs.

This means one thing, living conditions will never elevate with equal pace to that of GDP growth. Unfortunately, Ethiopia is the best example for suck kind of economic mess, people are still suffering while the country’s GDP is sky rocketing.

Universities need to link with private companies that are involved on a high-performance manufacturing— either in the industry or in the sector. Only then will private companies begin to pay equitable salary knowing that their employees need less time on-Job training. So far, the excuse for private companies is that their novices don’t now a squat about the actual work because their education has been focused on theory, a theory which is not also deep.

The return journey was even swifter. The AGI people where in a haste to rich the second university and Addis Ababa Science and Technology University (AASTU) greeted them with an even warmer and friendlier welcome.

The president of AASTU, Dr. Tarekegn Tadesse, and half of his academic deans from several faculties discussed the possibility of collaboration. The people in AASTU sound more progressive than their counterparts in Adama.

They promised that if the preliminary paper work is finalized, the university will grant some space within the campus ground for iCog Labs or any other private company whose line of work involves research and development projects.

Addis Ababa Science and Technology University's Student Lounge

Addis Ababa Science and Technology University’s Student Lounge

The guests where led to see the laboratories, ICT centres, workshops and a science museum. Although the museum was built for junior school students, it is the only science museum in the entire country.

The University built it after an Israeli philanthropist gave the grant. It was built for the sake of the neighboring junior and high school students as a place for them to get inspired and have fun with scientific facts and phenomenon.

The University has a community-outreach programme through which high school students will have access to its ICT centre and electronics labs. It also organizes computations and awards for high school students; the sphere of the computation rests on robotics, electronics, and software.

February 7 was the last day for the AGI People in Ethiopia. Yet, the entire morning was spent in iCog Labs office where Ben lectured the concept of AI and OpenCog’s framework to iCog’s internship students.

As the guests departed in the afternoon flying to Hong Kong, Ethiopian Airlines fulfilled their wish for one last time. They were served a traditional Ethiopian Dish.


[1] World Bank. 2014. Ethiopia Overview. http://www.worldbank.org/en/counrty/ethiopia/overview

[2] World Bank. 2014. Africa’s Pulse, Volume 10 October 2014. An Analysis of Issues Shaping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Economic Future. [PDF file]. Washington, DC. © World Bank. Accessed January 2, 2015 https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/20870 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

[3] EY. 2013. Africa Attractiveness Survey 2013. London. EYGM Limited.

[4] World Bank.2013. World Bank Ease of Doing Index 2013. Washington, DC:  World Bank

[5] Eagle, Nathan and Horvitz, Eric. Artificial Intelligence for Development (AI-D). Position Paper for CCC Workshop on Computer Science and Global Development. Santa Fe Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Microsoft Research. (1-2).

[6] United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, June 2012, ISBN 978-92-1-101308-5, [PDF file]. New York: United Nations.  Accessed February 10, 2015, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202012.pdf