By: Thomas Lewton and Alice McCool
“I DON’T think Homo sapiens-type people will exist in 10 or 20 years’ time,” Getnet Assefa, 31, speculates as he gazes into the reconstructed eye sockets of Lucy, one of the oldest and most famous hominid skeletons known, at the National Museum of Ethiopia. “Slowly the biological species will disappear and then we will become a fully synthetic species,” Assefa says.
“Perception, memory, emotion, intelligence, dreams — everything that we value now — will not be there,” he adds.
Assefa is a computer scientist, a futurist, and a utopian — but a pragmatic one at that. He is founder and chief executive of iCog, the first artificial intelligence (AI) lab in Ethiopia, and a stone’s throw from the home of Lucy. iCog Labs launched in 2013 with $50,000 and just four programmers. Today, halfway up an unassuming tower block, dozens of software developers type in silence. Their desks are cluttered with electronic components and dismembered robot body parts, from a soccer-playing bot called Abebe to a miniature robo-Einstein. An earlier prototype of Sophia, a widely recognized humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics (she appeared with late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon last year) is here too. Arguably the world’s most famous robot of her kind, Sophia’s software was partly developed here in Ethiopia’s capital.
The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa is sponsoring a nationwide innovation competition, “Solve IT!” for Ethiopian youth. “Solve IT!” promotes STEM, entrepreneurship and encourages a new generation of young Ethiopians to solve problems in their communities using technology, software and hardware. The competition is implemented by the U.S. Embassy in collaboration with partners iCog Labs and Humanity+.
Solve IT! will involve nine city hubs in seven regional states and two city administrations: Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Jimma, Bahir Dar, Mekelle, Gambela, Semera, Hawassa and Jigjiga are the selected cities.
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.
By: Eskender Tamerat
At first, it was all about creating illusions. Asking questions endlessly was the golden trick back when a computer parody by the name of Eliza kick-started the era of computers conversing with human beings in the 1960s. With a restricted set of scripted rules, the bot had no clues to grasp the user input, let alone being a good friend of a human.
The next few decades saw the rise of a meaning-based human text interaction. It reduced the trouble of indulging in a heartfelt communication for mere machines responding to a set of choices waiting for human instructions. This facet evolved to what we could see in the modern video games, in which a user gets visual feedbacks by controlling an avatar using a mouse or joystick.
Returning to the topic on hand, more than half a century later, illusion still fits the bill to describe the current state of chatbots. The domain of knowledge base showed rapid progress – with all the data out there via internet, sentence parsers using natural language processing, and changes in hardware causing machines to be faster and massive in storage – but we are still lagging behind in achieving the grand goal of simulating intelligent conversation between a machine and a human.
Instantiated by the Turing Test, the Loebner competition takes place annually with four finalists battling for the big prize. Unlike the strict requirements of fooling the judges set by Alan Turing all those years ago, the judges will look for the “most human” from the participants, who make it into the final round after dealing with a set of human knowledge questions in the qualifiers.
By: Taika Alemu
The long awaited grand event for the Makers Initiative was underway at the premises of Ministry of Science and Technology on March 3, 2017. While I was watching the little cute toys on the pitch, it occurred to me that they never get tired; lifeless expressions! Then I saw the competing students and ah and I saw the familiar signs, weary, worried, but determined. How did we get here?
The organizers of this event have spent a couple of weeks perfecting all the small details for the event. Yet, nothing is ever perfect my friends, especially when it is the event of the year; the single most important defining moment that can place iCog Makers and iCog Labs on the map.
by: Hruy Tsegaye
From where shall I begin? My six hour jail time in Juja Police station, my dramatic door to door salesman experience with Kenyan Universities, or how the Ethiopian Government officially advises its travelling citizens to buy dollar from the black market instead of providing it through its commercial banks? Though it’s customary to follow the chronological order, I think I will start from the middle.
Nairobi, adorned with the dying sun’s reddish light, looked a little less scary this time. On my first visit in 2016, I was so startled at the site of the city’s monstrous traffic jam; the entire freeway from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the city centre, with hundreds of cars stuffed, looked like a graveyard built for cars in the middle of a swamp.
By Scheherazade Goertzel
I’ve been living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the past three months, during which time I’ve been able to spend a lot of time at iCog-Labs’ office and observe what type of work they are doing. Yesterday I visited iCog-Labs’ first Anyone-Can-Code (ACC) lesson, where iCog staff began to teach simple coding to selected High School girls.
By Hruy Tsegaye
My one-month trip in Nigeria, on behalf of iCog Labs, was full of drama. Yet, here, I am allowed to write only the ‘not too exciting’ part of it and unfortunately, this does not include ‘the horse, the girl, and I’ incident on Elegushi beach.
iCog Labs was invited to attend the Disruptive Africa Expo and I arrived in Lagos Muruthalah Mohammed International Airport midst a very hot and sunny day. August 21 is usually a rainy day in Nigeria; it is the rainy season there. However, on that particular day, the sun was out with all her kinship.
Thinking that it would be rainy, I had packed two jackets and a sweater; my punishment for complaining about Addis Ababa’s recent climate change via a cruel jock for I had never got the chance to wear those. Nigeria is hot through and through and you will feel hot while standing in the middle of the rain wearing nothing but a t-shirt.
After passing through the usual boring boarding process, I am now standing in front of the sign that says “Welcome to Lagos”
By Sanders Olson
African researchers have recently launched the YaNetu teaching tablet crowdfunding project. This effort aims to bring an AI based educational tablet to African children. The researchers hope to create:
– An Android-based teaching tablet for primary school age children in the developing world, with both offline and online applications
– A built-in curriculum, customized with local languages, designed to grow and develop over the years along with the child
– Artificial Intelligence systems, represented by human-like avatars, designed in collaboration with leading American AI researcher Dr. Ben Goertzel. Our AI avatars offer the student not only information and coaching, but also emotional and motivational feedback.
In an interview for Next Big Future with Sander Olson, iCOG researcher Hruy Tsegave describes why he believes that teaching tablets could be an effective and efficient method for providing large numbers of African children with a versatile and compelling teaching tool.
By: Marie Karas-Delcourt
ADDIS ABABA — The black-and-white robot stopped and its eyes, two small red lights, suddenly lit up. Rotating about 90 degrees, it recognized the blue plastic ball a few centimeters 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 organize 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. Getnet Aseffa, 28, is one of the brains behind the operation. After graduating in computer science in 2012, this avid reader of futurist author Ray Kurzweil co-created iCog with the help of American researcher Ben Goertzel. It is the first Ethiopian research and development laboratory specializing in artificial intelligence.