28 February 2018

Ethiopia: Govt Embracing Artificial Intelligence

Experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) say that a dynamic environment need to be set up to leverage the sector as yet another contributor to the ongoing sustainable development.

According to some, the AI sector is burgeoning in Ethiopia, with various reports indicating that the country is becoming a thriving center for AI research and development and robotics. This culminated with the involvement of Ethiopians (more than 50 percent) in the software programming of Sophia - a human-like robot powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and capable of over 60 different facial mechanisms to create natural-looking expressions.

Ashenafi Bekele, Director of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Directorate at Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (ebti) says that AI companies like I-cog and others, along with foreign companies that works with them, and the fact that many Ethiopian programmers has played a role in the cognitive software programming of Sophia can show a burgeoning of AI software culture in Ethiopia.

He also mentions the attention given at government level leading to the creation of a separate and independent Institute (ebti) to oversee the development of emerging technologies under four department; Nanotechnology, Material Science, Artificial Intelligence and Reverse Engineering.

The Director indicates they are working to create a baseline and environment for AI research in Ethiopia whilst undertaking research works themselves in the country's priorities areas like agriculture, health and education sectors. He adds that the Institute undertakes practical research outputs that can help solve problems in the aforementioned areas.

"To this end, we are working on setting up the structures, policy framework documents, while also doing research works on some projects. For instance we have submitted a proposal to install bus tracking information system in three public transport institutions in Addis Ababa."Despite it being touted as a sector of the future and advanced countries are racing to be at the forefront of AI, there are those that question the practicality of a cutting-edge technology for a developing country in a fight against poverty.

Affirming to this sentiment, Ashenafi says that the thought surrounding AI, traditionally, has been that it is a sector custom-made for the most advanced countries. And as a result, developing countries usually back away from it. In fact, for him, the sector can be helpful for developing countries even more, as it can be applied to many (priority) areas and help hasten their development process.

Furthering his argument, the Director depicts how AI software and robotics can be applied in some industries, like chemicals or others, where the working conditions are hazardous to human manual workers. And accounting for the country's plan of transforming the economy from agriculture led to an industrial one, there will be a need for partial automation work.

"We already have the tools, the laptops, smart phones, as they are widely available in the hands of many people. We have the manpower as well. Plus, the trend of the world shows that the next generation science and research sector and the world economy is headed into the direction of AI." So, what is there to hinder us from using these applications," he asks.

For Getnet Assefa, Founder and CEO of I-Cog Labs, a private AI software Company, the potential of AI application is transformative for a developing country like Ethiopia. He says that AI represents the fourth industrial revolution with a potential to radically transform any society.

Mentioning the kind of huge revenue the sector brings in and the vast number of jobs it creates, Getnet opines how the sector has the potential to generate billion of dollars for the country, much more than the revenue collected from Coffee, Oil seeds and so forth. "If we can invest and help the youth with innovate ideas and AI skills, the country can reap huge benefit and revenue."

Getnet talks about the potential role AI application can play in solving some of the problems the country faces. For instance, he explains, AI and satellite remote-sensing data can be used to predict crop yields months ahead of harvest, and it is possible to design a smart traffic management system by automating and recording car movements and help out in rooting out good governance issues by consolidating e-governance and making information readily available for the public through automated call center.

However, according to him, these latent prospects have not been actualized. "Our company is the best example for this. Our customers are from Hong Kong, China, USA, Germany, Australia, and the project we have done so far have all been outsourced from all these countries. We have not been able to do local projects so far".

The Company has completed up to 10 international projects, which includes a data analysis and prediction work for Hershey, the worlds largest chocolate manufacturing company, and a Silicon Valley based movie advertising company, Contender, among others.

Getnet points out some bottlenecks in the sector that should be remedied in order for the country to build ground on the sector and nurture the benefit it can get from the sector.

He says that there is no system to get backer to fund AI projects in the country, no framework in place to procure software items, and there are also issues in the legal and patent sphere. As a result, there is a hindrance to realize ideas that can be helpful to the local needs. He cites the need to solve some of the issues that has to do with economic gap, like lack of investment and infrastructure, manifested in power cuts, to incubate and use the pool of talent that are coming through.

"In advanced countries, software engineers may come with an innovate and crazy idea, and the next day they seek and find investors that can back their ideas with finance, and system that help facilitate it. That is what we should go for. If the government able to incubate these ideas and create a system to turn the ideas into product, we can do many of the aforementioned things here."

Talking about what can be done, Ashenafi believes that the country has reached a state where it needs to revise the innovation policy in order to expand on the budget allocated to science and technology, and further augment the involvement of the private sector. He adds that the government has been doing good work on the cultivating the sector through its education policy, where many ICT graduates are coming though, the availability to be organized under MSEs, and also the construction of an ICT park.

"However, we need to do more in setting up a framework to bring the software companies that are setup here and there, so that we can help them grow into problem solving institutions. We see the procurement process and our inability to maintain manpower as major bottlenecks; and we should together with other stakeholders to solve these issues." To this end, the Institute is preparing a road-map on how to better utilize these emerging techs going forward, Ashnefai concluded.


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