African Researcher Wants to Bring Teaching Tablet to Ethiopian Children

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.

Photo Courtesy of iCog Labs

Photo Courtesy of iCog Labs

Question: Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and where are you located?
My Name is Hruy Tsegaye. I live in Addis Ababa the capital city of Ethiopia. I got my BA degree in Journalism and Literature. As a fresh graduate, I was looking for adventure and I went to a very remote region in Ethiopia called Afar. I began my professional career in that wretched place as a Program Officer for a governmental agency called HIV AIDS Prevention and Control Office (HAPCO). I had worked there for two years and by the end of the second year, I decided I had had enough! The extent of extreme poverty was unmatched and the depressing tone of the environment which you can feel floating in the burning desert wind was too much for any 22 years old novice even if there is this wild urge for adventure. I come back to the capital and Joined Fortune Newspaper as a junior reporter. Working in the largest English weekly newspaper has its merits when it comes to understanding whats going on in your country. After two years, an irreconcilable conflict of interest with my writing and the newspaper forced me to leave that paper. After that, I met a guy in the tech business and he convinced me that the future for the tech business in Ethiopia is bright. I started working for a company called 4Afri Mobile Technologies as Head of Idea Development. The Start Up Company was doing well but after 16 months the CEO (who is also the owner) decided to change directions and liquidated 4Afri in a move to invest in the country’s Energy Sector. I was not interested in that; the tech world had already become my new love. A friend of mine told me about iCog and I joined the company as its 4th permanent staff and I can say that I am one of the founders.

Question: Tell us about iCog labs, where you work.
iCog Labs is a young company that takes the bold steps in the frontiers of AI in East Africa. Many people, even those who are AI researchers, seem to think that AI as a science and AI as a tool is only affordable and useful for the nations in the West, nations that have a much cleaner streets than the third world.

Yet, iCog is not just a research and development company focusing on the pursuits of AI just for the science of it. We think that AI can be harnessed in the existing economy of Ethiopia. Yeah, even if our streets are not clear, we can afford and most importantly use AI. So far iCog has been collaborating with more than six overseas companies in AI featured software development and some robotics projects.

However, as I mentioned we have been customizing these AI projects to the Ethiopian context and we had three super local projects under our hyper grass-root development initiative called the iCog Makers initiative. It focuses on three things, Technology Transfer, Business Incubation and capacity development. We have been collaborating with national universities and by now we had more than 5 partner universities in Ethiopia for this initiative. My colleagues and I are also working to expand the scope of this initiative beyond the borders of Ethiopia and as a preliminary step, we had managed to establish contact with some other African Universities. I personally have visited two universities in Kenya for the initiative and we are now developing the terms in which we can built a long lasting partnership.

Africans should stop playing the ‘CATCH UP’ game. In the past, our universities, our entrepreneurs, and our governments had been blind to the fact that merely following and imitating what the West discovers in the realms of science had been crippling our future. You see, we had been busy immersed in reverse engineering what has already been done and by the time we catch up with the engineering and just start to produce it, oh there is a new show in town and our science, our innovation and our product is obsolete. This has to stop and Africans should start from the top. Yeah the elephant in the room (shall I say in the continent) is Technology. We have utterly failed to break the shackles of poverty because we have not deployed the most important tool in our economy which is technology; not just good old ‘technology’ but up-to-date hi-tech.

In iCog, we believe that the future will be our future (Africa’s) if we only start it today. We have been customizing and researching AI and robotics for the past three years and now it’s time for us to answer the question of how we can tap the massive potential of these two fields in Ethiopia.

Question: You are launching a crowdfunding effort to create a tablet computer for African children. How did this concept emerge, and what is the primary goal of this project?
The Crowdfunding was conceived for the sole purpose of accomplishing our target; developing a teaching tablet that can fill the shortage of teachers and schools. Long before XPRIZE announces the Global Learning competition, We had been engaged in a very similar project. The YaNetu Intelligent teaching tablet by then was composed of two features; the software and the hardware but financing it wasn’t easy. So some of us begin to work with Interns. Let me explain this a bit further, iCog accepts nearly 40 Internship request annually from more than 7 universities within Ethiopia and we train them in the basics of AI algorithms and related disciplines. As I mentioned, we had started to work on the tablet before the XPRIZE comes with the Global Learning competition. We came up with the idea after we started working with Hanson Robotics. We had been collaborating with them on one of their projects evolving a very human like robots and we saw their avatar; that was the eye opener for us and we were inspired to create our own avatar with a complete dialogue system that can be deployed as a virtual teacher. Yet, back there we were just a startup, allocating a new budget for dedicated programmers for our YaNetu project becomes hard and we were forced with two options; either to hold it for some other time or start the project with our intern students under constant supervision of our seasoned programmers. After a while the XPRIZE comes and now we are developing only the software because they are going to use their own tablet. Hence, we launched the crowd funding to finish what we have started, develop the software and eventually the tablet as well.

Question: What are the specs of this tablet? How much will it cost, and what distinct capabilities will it have?
For now, we are focused on the software part but the cost of the tablet will be less than 40 dollars. I am sure that you are familiar with the new, actually it is not so new it has been on the market since 2014, Amazon tablet that is just 50 dollars. And its obvious that the price for Hardware will go down as the technology gets much cheaper and better. The Tablet we want to build will have a unique future regarding its screen. It will be a two faced screen, one side hi-resolution LED touch screen and the other side will be a black and white E-INK screen just for reading. Our aim is to create a virtual school so we need these two screens. The LED screen will handle the interactive part of the software where the children will play games, talk with Miss YaNetu (our AI avatar) and other multimedia activities. The E-INK screen will be their electronic book. It will offer them text books, reference materials, and other written contents. The tablet will save more energy when the E-INK is active so children can read for more than 24 hours without charging their tablets. Another component of the tablet will be its use of solar energy. When I was a kid, solar powered calculators where so popular in Ethiopia and indeed they were life savors in the rural part where there is no electricity. Our Tablet will also have a similar feature and when every time its under the sun light, it will recharge its battery. Regarding the specific specks, although we didn’t set a particular number, because the hardware technology advances very fast and it will be unwise to limit it, we are aiming to develop a tablet with at least 45 GB of internal memory, 2-4 GB Ram and Quad core Processors. It will have a microphone, a camera and other features that will make it an ideal choice to endure in a harsh environment.

Question: Some may argue that the resources put to this effort would better be spent providing direct aid to Africans. Is this a cost-effective way to aid poor African children?
What is a direct aid? You see people in the west don’t even know what their aid is doing to our nations. The traditional Aids are even becoming the source of poverty! I have worked for two years in a remote area and that office has an annual of nearly 3 million USD fund (a fund called Global fund originated from mainly Norway and other Scandinavian countries). Now let me tell you what the officials, not just the local officials but also the one that come from the West as well, do with this money. They blow it! The very common method of stealing this money for the Westerners is called salary and allowance. They will dedicate ridiculously hi salary and allowance as facilitators of the Aid Money. Now let me ask you a question, since when did a volunteer job or an aid worker become the most profitable job in terms of salary? Are the poor getting the aid money?

For the local officials, well even the sky is not the limit to their corrupt methods! Another thing, most of the aid money is wasted on seminars, workshops and awareness training.

Now we are talking about working on Education; how can you give direct aid? Are you suggesting taking all the out-of-school children to the developed world and teaching them there? Of course no one will suggest such options. Another suggestion, which obviously is the first choice of every critic, will be to build the infrastructures. Okay lets go with it and lets see how the reality checks in countries like Ethiopia.

First, nearly half of the direct aid on the infrastructure is wasted by both local and international officials through salary, paper works and what not. Then from the remaining half, a quarter of it is wasted by corrupt construction companies in the process of building the schools. After such time consuming work, what you have is still a mere lousy building for a school. What about the teachers? Buildings by them selves aren’t enough. Where will you find qualified but functional teachers?

The problem begins to get more complicated from this point. As you can imagine, the education crisis is most pulsating in the most backward and rural regions, then the question is what kind of teachers will be willing to work in such environment? I had lived in a place called Bidu in Afar Region (the north eastern part of Ethiopia), and in that place they had this lousy four room building made of iron sheets. (Its funny to know that for the construction of merely iron sheet buildings, the cost we were told is nearly half a million dollars) But there was no teacher to teach in that place. You see the teachers are also humans and they want to live in a better place. At times, UNICEF will hire local teachers for a the cost of very expensive salary but that also is a waste of money. Because there is no one to monitor the teachers since the UNICEF staffs also live in the big towns visiting only once or twice in a semester. By the way, I haven’t even mentioned the problems of exercise books, school managements and quality of education.

To see the real problem, one has to live through it, we at iCog labs have lived through it. We know what it is and we know what ‘direct aid’ means. Our alternative is much cheaper and much more cost-effective. The kids will carry their virtual school along with their virtual teacher. We will help them more effectively at a thousand times cheaper cost. Until the time comes where direct aid finds its way to the people it was intended for, our way is a much better alternative.

Question: iCog is involved in developing the OpenCog AI software program, originally begun by AI researcher Ben Goertzel. How will OpenCog be utilized by the teaching tablet?
We are going to use many of OpenCog’s system. Just to mention a few, we will use OpenCogs Mosses for machine learning in our tablets so the AI avatar will interact more lively with each child. We will also use OpenCog’s NLP for the teaching tablets chat bot and its human like dialogue feature.

Question: The crowdfunding project is seeking $90,000 to hire researchers to develop this project. Will that modest sum be sufficient?
what do you think your self, do you think 90 thousand is sufficient for such a project? Its so obvious that it is not! But we wanted it to be an amount that we could quickly raise, and we are confident that some of the Interns will continue working with us even when their time is over. So, the 90k will be invested wisely in hiring a couple of experienced programmers and researchers that will work with our interns and at least the sum will be sufficient enough to finish the software and the design of the hardware.

Question: Is the YaNetu tablet project collaborating with any aid agencies or philanthropic organizations?
So far, project YaNetu is not collaborating with any aid agencies or philanthropic organizations. We had been doing it on our own; with our own money and our own time.

Question: How much of the money for this project will actually be spent in Africa?
Every penny of the crowd funding money will be spent in Africa. We are located in Addis Ababa, our programmers are Ethiopians and the money will be utilized in Ethiopia.

Question: If this project is successful, to what extent could it be developed and expanded?
If it is successful, it will be successful eventually because we are determined to see through it and we are here not just for EPRIZE award, YaNetu will expand to include most African languages, localized curriculums and reading contents. The Avatar will also be upgraded to a more sophisticated level. The current content will be upgraded from the limited educational instructions on basic literacy and numeric to a hi quality primary school level curriculum and then to middle school level.

Question: Where do you see this technology being used a decade from now?
A decade from now… emm I am sure that a decade from now the schools we used to know (teaching with black board and white chalk) will be a thing of the past. Its not just our technology that has a future in it, Hard copy is dying and the world of tomorrow is in E-learning.

But regarding our YaNetu, I am sure she will be the favorite teacher of many African Kids by then. She knows their psyche, she knows their pain and like them she is African too. In the coming ten years YaNetu will also be the trusted teacher for many African parents with whom they can leave their children safely in those rural and often times war-torn areas. She will not ditch their kids, malinger in her class, or ask for a ridiculously high salary. She will be many Africans first choice for a quality education.

From the Editors of

This article was originally published on nextBig Future (March 24, 2016) 

2 Responses to African Researcher Wants to Bring Teaching Tablet to Ethiopian Children

  1. I am interested in what we are doing and have donated to your cause. I may visit Ethiopia from Egypt this year. We now are using tablets in limited ways, just as a resource for local people who love children and are natural teachers that we train in Guatemala. We too are dedicated to children not to getting jobs and wasting money. our program is very efficient with low overhead.
    Are you interested in corresponding?
    Fred Zambroski

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