AI and Ethiopia

By: Yoseph Berhanu

One can easily argue humanity’s primary mission on earth is to learn, discover what is hidden, and make life a little bit easier than it was before. Moreover, sharing of what
one has learned has been at the heart of this learning endeavor.

The advent of electronic computer and the Internet has helped in both the discovery and sharing efforts significantly. It has also changed the way people acquire, analyze and disseminate information. Starting from the use of search-engines to fully automated class rooms experiences and even artificial intelligence tutors; the teaching learning world has changed considerably.

This impact of computing has been felt beyond the world of academics and research. From agriculture to military applications, from healthcare to finance, one can hardly find an industry not leveraging the powers of computing.

Within the arena of computing itself, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has proven to be the next big leap with governments and institutions allocating substantial amount of resource and focus towards AI research and development. AI is no longer the distant future but the inevitable present we seem to heavily rely on. Facebook suggests who to friend, Amazon recommends what to buy, Apple’s Siri helps find where to dine and we have cars that park themselves. On a national scale, the military and the agriculture industry have successfully employed drones for variety of purposes.

As a third world country, Ethiopia has lagged behind in many of the technological advancements of recent decades— Computing & Automation included. The country’s higher institutes, which are tasked with advancing the knowledge and skill set, are far behind.

Obvious reasons such as lack of funding and appropriate system contribute heavily to this failure. Seemingly subtle but important challenges also hinder attempts to cope with the state of the art including attitude of the stakeholders; students, faculty and management included. Failure to understand the importance of AI in general and regarding it a luxury seems like an endemic problem that, if left unabated, could potentially cause the gap to widen exponentially.

According to a World Bank’s 2016 digital divide report, Ethiopia stands to lose the most due to automation. According to the report over 83% of the jobs in the nation could be automated. With automation, generally comes better profit as employing human beings is more expensive than automation in most cases. This means if a proper solution is not crafted in time, millions stand to lose their job creating a dire social crisis.

Lack of local innovation and development will cause various business sectors in the nation to greatly rely on foreign solutions in the increasingly computer savvy manufacturing and services industry; if they wish to be competitive at all in the global market. Our military will have to settle for purchased technology rather than creating solutions that address its unique and secret requirements. Students with interest towards these cutting edge concepts and technologies will be forced to migrate to countries where they can find institutes working in such domains.

Fortunately, despite the significant gap, unlike other areas of interest, in AI, we can still cope with proper utilization of late comers’ advantage in combination with astute management. In fact, arguably AI and computing in general is the one domain a third world country like Ethiopia can cope given the country’s dominating percentage of youth population.

What can be done?

Given the grave need for local innovation in AI, every stakeholder should play its part in creating a breeding ground for AI research and development. Curriculum should be flexible enough to adopt the ever-changing world of AI. Supportive structures and processes within government institutes such as the procurement process should be amended/modified/changed to cater to the need of dynamic and responsive process brought about by the force of AI.

 

From the editors of iCog-labs.com

This Article was originally written for the bi annual magazine (iCog Makers) by Eskender Tamerat and was published on hard copy in collaboration with the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Science and Technology on 5, August, 2017. It is republished here with the permission of the iCog Makers magazine editor and the verbal consent of the Ministry. 

Yoseph Berhanu is a Lecturer at the Department of Computer Science, Addis Ababa University. He received both his bachelors and masters in Computer Science from Addis Ababa University in 2010 & 2014, respectively. His area of interest is mainly Artificial Intelligence with specific interest on DAI, Machine Learning and Digital Image Processing. Yoseph can be reached at yospeh.berhanu@aau.edu.et.

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