Despite setbacks, Ethiopia’s tech economy has been making strides, luring entrepreneurs from throughout Africa and gaining international recognition.
This is due to a mix of increased government support for ICT development and the establishment of start-up incubators and hubs that are creating an ideal landscape for the tech industry to grow.
By Steven Blum
iceaddis co-working space. Image Courtesy of eLearning Africa
Now home to 1,000 members, incubator iceaddis is the first of its kind in Ethiopia, describing itself as: “Collaborative work spaces where aspiring young entrepreneurs, ICT driven individuals, techies, youth and creative individuals can come together to receive business and life skill training, prototyping, technology transfer and enhance their productivity and, ultimately, form viable and sustainable business plans for the future.”
Easily drawing comparisons to other tech hubs in the region, like Nairobi’s iHub – which now has over 16,000 members – or Uganda’s Hive Colab, iceaddis grew organically, starting with small events and workshops.
According to iceaddis member Markos Lemma, in Ethiopia “there is high potential for techies to develop applications and technical solutions.”
Young Ethiopian with robot whose AI software was created in his country.
Ethiopia has come a long way from its nightmare past of famine and war. It still has splendid 12th century rock churches carved into the ground, the plateaued Simian Mountains, the ancient city of Gondar and of course, the human ancestral fossil Lucy, its oldest hominid ambassador. But now computer science is thriving in its capital, Addis Ababa. And Ethiopian artificial intelligence R&D is on fire.
The driver for this unexpected artificial intelligence (AI) industry sector is the autocratic government’s massive multi-billion dollar, ultra-high tech, industrial plans and its fervent development of higher education to support them. Today, there are over 30 official universities and 130 or so polytechnics, most of them emphasizing technology. Many of them are in the capital and, in 2012, the Ministry of Science and Technology established its own university and a $250 million dollar tech park nearby.
Deputy Minister of Science and Technology (between Lin Kayser and Ben Goertzel): Photo courtesy of Lin Kayser
On February 2, 2015 Getnet Asefa, the CEO of iCog Labs, standing under the azure sky over the international Airport of Addis Ababa welcomed his guests from Hong Kong, Germany, and England. His exact words were, “Welcome to the era of hi-tech meetings in East Africa”.
Before three years, it wasn’t even plausible to dream about meetings and seminars on Artificial intelligence, Robotics or social movements like transhumanism, in the Horn of Africa— the place widely known for famine, disease and endless civil, nations, tribal and what not wars.
“We are deceived by the appearance of right.” J.J Rousseau
Part One: Today’s Reality
The idea of improving humanity is not a new one. Such movements, notions, and groups have marked our past. Some of them achieved their target, and some have concluded with remarkable results; and yet, some have brought more suffering to the human condition.
Transhumanism is a movement that aims to enhance and improve humanity. As it happens with any notion and philosophy of this kind, it faces widespread criticism from many groups. Some criticism is constructive, passed on with the intention to improve on the shortcomings of the movement; then there is also criticism based on dogmatic and irrational grounds and expressed out of the fear that the movement is so radical and groundbreaking to the very idea of life itself.
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.
Open Cog signed an agreement with Addis Ababa University (AAU). The Major goal of the agreement is to build and maintain a relationship in exposing and cultivating the hidden talent within the Ethiopian developers’ community in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As part of the agreement, the university (Addis Ababa Institute of Technology/AAiT) announced that, it would establish a fully functional AI Outsourcing Laboratory inside the Amist Killo Main Campus with estimated cost of 1 million US Dollar.
Once again, Ben was in Addis. This time, some of the OpenCog team members from Hong Kong (Ruiting and Scott) and Cosmo (from Seattle, Washington) accompanied him along with the documentary filmmaker, Roy Cohen (from Israel).
Our first visitors came to Ethiopia! It was a long-awaited event and the Pioneers of the Ethiopian Singularity had spent the whole week learning, sharing, theorising and sometimes arguing (of course the tone was that of a friendly one) on the concepts of AGI.
For over a decade, sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing a relatively rapid economic growth. According to the latest World Bank report ‘Africa’s Pulse 2013, volume 7’, out of the top ten nations with the fastest growing economy, the top six are African countries followed by China. The Continent, despite the global economic crisis, registered an average of 6% in economic growth during the past eight years. The World Bank estimates that the growth trend will continue uninterrupted until 2015.
Last month I spent 4 days in Ethiopia — Addis Ababa and surrounds — soaking up the culture and getting to know the nascent Ethiopian futurist community. Inspired by this expedition, I’ve written an article for KurzweilAI on some of the potentials for AI and software development in Ethiopia. But I also thought it would be worthwhile to post a more personal record of what I saw and learned on this whirlwind tour; hence the current article….