Artificial Intelligence In Addis

By Hruy Tseagye

“An AI what”?

I mumbled when I first heard of a company working on the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Indeed, it is something unexpected in the horn of Africa.

Addis AI Lab, is said to be the pioneer in Sub Saharan Africa and is located around Sidist Killo. This company is currently involved in five research projects and one mini scale commercial.

As John McCarty, who coined the term AI in 1955, defines it, “AI is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.” AI has now developed further and has become the technology and a branch of computer science that studies and develops intelligent machines and software. In a nutshell, AI is the development of intelligent machines that displays the same free-willed sort of general intelligence as humans. Very soon, a lot of machines will be able to think, learn and feel emotions similarly like the human brain.

In the early 1970s, AI was basically the stuff of science fiction. With the exception of a few professors, the field of AI was an explored jungle― alienated and scientifically underrated.

I managed to Skype with Ben Goertzel, one of the founders and key supervisor at Addis AI Lab and he believes within this decade the world will solve the riddle of AI. It is his OpenCog Project along with some associates that has outsourced the research work to the Addis AI Lab.

“It seemed to me that, AI could be done very well by just typing lines of computer code into plain ordinary computers. The trick was just to know which lines of code would enable a program to be intelligent,”says Ben with a confident smile playing on his face.

It seemed fairly likely to me that someone would figure it out during my lifetime, and I figured that someone might as well be me”, The Addis AI Lab is also working with the Addis Ababa Institute of Science and Technology. The company has drafted a curriculum for the Institute and is considering assigning lecturers from abroad that offers technical assistance and lectures via the internet. By the end of fall 2014, the Institute will launch a Masters Degree program on AI, which is probably the first of its kind in Africa.

“Our aim is not limited to creating fully developed AI software” Says Getnet Asefa, Manager and co founder of Addis AI Lab. “We also believe that Computer Science plays a pivotal role in Technology Leapfrogging in Ethiopia.”

Technology leapfrogging means jumping straight into the existing technological applications; it refers to the adoption of advanced or state-of-the-art technology in an application area where immediate prior technology has not been adopted. Beside its time and resource saving benefits, it is a great way to for emerging nations to keep up with the developed world within Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Getnet thinks that the rest of the world gallops way ahead of Africa. The simple secrete is that they know how to apply the wonders of Computer Science.

Lack of skilled labor is one of the biggest challenges in the sector especially in the field of AI, according to Getnet. He feels that working with the education sector for the growth of the field is in the best interest of everyone.

Despite the obscure and unimpressive policies and business structures regulating the software market in Ethiopia, the country is witnessing a rise in the field. Data from Ministry of Trade and Industry reveals that there are 700 licensed companies in the ICT sector in the capital city. Among these, more than 95 business firms are involved in Software development and Computer Networking. The figure shows a double fold growth in the past three years.

“The ability to fashion an economy supported by hi-tech in its each economic sectors like the Industry or Agriculture is the absolute decider of the nation’s future in the coming era of Technological Singularity” Getnet says.

Technological Singularity is the incalculable progress in continual and exponential acceleration in all kinds of technology and science leading to the unity of human and machine intellect through a practical nanotechnology.

Recorded data between the year 1986 and 2007 shows the computing capability of our computers witnessed a doubling rate in every 14 months. As this rate increases exponentially, in the coming two decades a breakthrough in the creation of fully developed AI is plausible. 

In Getnets opinion, research of AI in Ethiopia is not farfetched. He believes Ethiopians are capable of undertaking complex tasks. For him, their involvement in AI is an act of paving the way for the coming era of Technological Singularity.  

“Landing on the Moon was science fiction before July 1969, now it is reality. So is the coming age of Technological Singularity and we believe that Africa and Africans should be prepared for it” claims Getnet.

No one knows what the future holds, yet it is ours to live it. 

-From the Editors of

This article was originally published on Zoma, Addis Ababa’s Monthly Magazine (November 2013, Volume 04, Issue 11)  and is republished here with the verbal permission of the author. (N.B. Addis AI LAb was the former name of iCog-Labs and it was used as the company’s name in the early days of its establishment.)

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