A Look Back at the First AGI Seminar in Ethiopia

By Hruy Tsegaye

It has been two years since the seed of the first Artificial Intelligence has been planted in Ethiopia. It all started with Getnet and Ben Goertzel, who accidentally meet during a Skype Session with a common acquaintance called Amara D. Angelica, co-founder and Editor of KurzweilAI.net. The two of them conspired, of course in the positive way, that they should organize a seminar on Artificial General Intelligence. Once, they set their mind on the consequential task, Getnet approached the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology (AAiT). The rest is history.

What was the look of that historic seminar?

Here is the gist of it.

The main objectives of the seminar were:

  • to create a reflective awareness on the newly emerging notion of AI in the field of Computer and related sciences and as well the industry.
  • to increase the capacities and levels of understanding regarding the science of AI in the higher institutes of Ethiopia so that they can offer a well-rounded and applicable AI course in Post Graduate and under graduate degree.
  • to answer the implementation and technical issues related to the application of AI in the developing/underdeveloped nations; could it be harnessed in the current industries and companies involved in software productions of such nations
  • to provide support to the institute if they ever develop a sketch to launch an AI related academic course.

In this framework, the seminar has been organized for Academicians, National researchers, businesspersons, and administrative officers who want to integrate the education, industry and software market of the country with the emerging AI Science and its notions, in order to favour the leadership of computer Science in the country’s transition from Agriculture based economy to Industry based.

The Keynote Speakers in that Seminar were:

Ben Goertzel (PhD), Young Kyun Kim(PhD) and Getahun Mekuria (Phd)

Final AI Seminar Poster1As it is customary, considering the fact that, in Ethiopia, there has never been a private or governmental project focused on AI, the Seminar was started with the meaning of what AI is, what kind of AIs exist theoretically and practically. It then proceeded on explaining the difference between the weak AI and the strong AI along with elaborated discussion on what Narrow AI is and what Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is.

The Seminar addressed how Artificial Intelligence could be applied in the developing nations and how practical it can be. The Keynote speakers asserted that technology-driven change has created new opportunities to address poor management of resources and how this, in return, bring about the the improvement of the ‘human condition’ in other Asian and Latin American countries, which like Ethiopia are either devolving or underdeveloped nations.

One can say that the seminar had particularly explained how AI could be applied in the country’s Industrial, Health, Information, and Communication Technology (ICT), Finance, Defence and Intelligence sectors. The possibilities of extending AI’s application in the country’s Agricultural sector focusing on the point that massive data on Agriculture can be tamed and assessed using AI featured data mining was also one of the hot topics.

On the ground that the data available to the developing-world decision makers is both noisy and scarce, it will not require a nuclear physics professor to see that policies on such topics as health or agriculture might be formed on the basis of very weak information and thus impotence. The grim fact is that frequently, information is gathered through expensive surveys or personal interviews. The Seminar pointed an alternative in which AI allows the possibility of making better inferences from existing data sources, combining many weak signals into a few strong ones, or taking advantages of new data collection.

The Seminar also addressed the issue where there is a shortage of skilled personnel; it can be useful to automate their decision-making processes. Through analogies like how laboratory technicians are often in short supply in poor countries, making it difficult for people to get reliable diagnoses of disease or agricultural extension workers, who cannot recognize viral plant infections and hence fail to advise farmers on the best course of action, mitigating the problem of skilled personnel, was also discussed. The extension worker or the Laboratory technician can use AI in their day-to-day tasks easily and relatively at low cost, which will empower them to carry out automated laboratory tests or provide personalized expert-advice to farmers.

The Seminar pointed on the possibilities of a new look towards Disease surveillance, outbreak control and diagnosis in the health sector. It was also noted that the agricultural sector could be transformed to a well-equipped sector that is competent enough to feed the ever-growing population within and as well win the global market. In doing so, AI applications on the capacities of crop disease monitoring, identifying drought and agriculture trends in every locality, prediction of food insecurity from remote sensing data, and cropland disappearance will play a crucial role facilitating and paving a smother ground for the sector’s transformation.

The historic Seminar had also addressed the techniques of harnessing AI in the country’s transport, financial, military and intelligence sectors.

It is undoubtedly true that detail records at large-scale are especially relevant to emerging regions where, due to limited budgets, surveying or gathering social information is often challenging and comes at a high cost. Pointing the fact that socioeconomic maps contain important indicators regarding the status of households at urban and national scales, the Seminar addressed computing these maps is critical given that many policy decisions made by governments and institutions are based upon socioeconomic information.

As the Scientific Director of the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, Professor Young Kyun Kim stressed on the points that industry-based-education takes the lion’s share in the transformation of the country– the strategic goal aimed to see Ethiopia as one of the dominant developing countries in 2025. He explained why and how higher institutes should work hand-in-hand with the industry and the demand of labour.

Dr-Engineer Getahun meticulously explained how the current industry lacks automatized production system and its impact in abundance, quality, and cost of manufactured goods.

Where there any questions from participants and guests?

Of course there were and as one can guess, most of the questions from the participants seemed to focus on how to apply the science of AI in the immediate and existing trend of the country’s industry and service sector pointing the issue that Ethiopia is still one of the underdeveloped nations. Dr. Ben answered the questions pointing the fact that most of the time what it takes to have AI application is a working computer and a skilled programmer. He and the rest keynote speakers stressed that in recent development trends [witnessed in East Asia, some of Latin American, and West African countries] are shaped based on a development strategy called the Leap Frogging method.

Nations do not necessarily have to follow the step-by-step progressive development method [the good old way, perhaps]. As an example,  the telecommunication sector was discussed: in the past, the developed nation has first established a landline system then a wireless system then the mobiles come yet in the underdeveloped nations farmers have leaped from having nothing to mobile phones.

Dr Ben has also answered that ‘digital manufacturing’ can easily be applied in the current trends of the country’s industry along with infinite computing which only requires a smart software.

What was the conclusion of the Seminar?

The key note speakers and the participants come to a common agreement that, today’s world is undoubtedly controlled and guided by computers and to enable one’s nation with an adequate man power that manipulates the disciplines of computer science and robotics is a crucial requirement in the process of development.

The institute [AAiT] had come to a term that there is a feasible possibility to launch a postgraduate degree program on the fields of AI, robotics and related sciences.

What is the situation right now?

As a result of this historic Seminar, Ethiopia, at present, has a fully functional and internationally competent private company that works on the production of AI software for both domestic and international customers. Furthermore, the country is now part of the international community that works on the research and development of Artificial General Intelligence.

As that historic Seminar foretold, currently the Country is on the verge of launching a postgraduate program on Artificial Intelligence and Addis Ababa Institute of Technology (AAiT) proved itself as a trust worthy organization to its word, which was promised two years ago.

iCog-Labs is building an army of professionals specializing on AI; in addition to its ever growing full-time job offerings and apprenticeship programs, the company has already formed its own mini college [composed of 20 university students], offering trainings, courses and lab experiments starting from 2015.

The Country’s Ministry of Science and Technology is actively working with iCog Labs. BY now, Ethiopia has recognized the future prospect and the potential of Computer science in the ongoing Growth and Transformation Plan.

A lot has been changed since the first AI Seminar in Ethiopia, and from the looks of it a lot more will change in the recent future.

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