March 3, 2017

By: Taika Alemu

The long awaited grand event for the Makers Initiative was underway at the premises of Ministry of Science and Technology on March 3, 2017. While I was watching the little cute toys on the pitch, it occurred to me that they never get tired; lifeless expressions! Then I saw the competing students and ah and I saw the familiar signs, weary, worried, but determined. How did we get here?

The organizers of this event have spent a couple of weeks perfecting all the small details for the event. Yet, nothing is ever perfect my friends, especially when it is the event of the year; the single most important defining moment that can place iCog Makers and iCog Labs on the map.

For Hruy and his team the morning started early; making sure everything was ready to welcome the invited guests representing universities from all over the country. Around 3AM, the guests started making their way to the meeting hall for the panel.

The panel discussion was opened by Abdurazak Omer, Technology Advisor to the Minster for Science and Technology. It was followed by a brief presentation about iCog Labs and its hidden history by its CEO, Getnet Assefa. Some guests were amazed that iCog Lab is a company that works on Artificial Intelligence— the ‘untouchable’ and ‘too good for Africa’ Western concept of emerging technology— and that it has been in the picture for about 5 years. I bet some, those who have already known about iCog, were disappointed that they have not been able to collaborate with iCog despite the various opportunities.

Contemplating on that and discussing it with the rest of the crowed, the tea break ensued. The next half of the panel was filled with presentations from iCog Labs, Mekelle University and Addis Ababa University (on behalf of iCog labs, I am proud of these universities for making it happen). The hot discussion among the universities with ample questions going around was what made the panel successful. The closing was filled with promises and reassuring suggestions regarding possible collaborations. I say we have created the spark we were aiming for!!

As the meeting hall was filled with curious educators, the scene on the soccer field, prepared for the iCog Makers Robosocccer Cup, was colonized by dedicated university students from the two competing universities. The view was hectic yet beautiful for us; for the mere observers on the shadowy corners.

Prof. Afework Kassu, State Minister, FDRE Ministry of Science and Technology addressing the panelists from invited universities and industry representatives.
Courtesy of iCog Labs

Teams were super busy trying to adjust the robots and its electronic components to be named the “winner of the first annual iCog Makers Robosoccer Cup”. In the midst of these strange ‘beep’ ‘boop’ ‘click’ machine sounds, you can hear clamours, shouts, and even yells; familiar human noises! I can read excitement; I can almost touch it and it was floating in the air around the soccer pitch. And what blows this floating excitement was their drive; oh the drive in the students’ eyes… the best combinations to win!

Around 7PM guests, fans and media started arriving. I asked, why so early?

To witness Robots playing Soccer, duh!

This was the first time in Ethiopia or even Africa. I know, it sounds crazy or even too good to be true; but it is not and it shouldn’t have to be.

We live in a third world country that, every day, is striving towards a better future! So why not make Robots and all the related technology part of this change? Here, take your
curious mind on a stroll while I get back to the historic 3rd of March.

The air was filled with tension. Are the students going to actually make the robots play? How do you think that is gonna turn out? Who is gonna win? And so much more questions were being tossed around; even those who, in most working days, used to be the shy ones were roaring and screaming out loud. The anticipation not only possessed the guests but we, iCog Labs staff. The time finally came for the grand match.

Competition was in the air; the determination to be the winner was in its physical form and walking around in the 3 by 4 meter field.  Getnet Assefa aka the CEO of iCog Labs officially announced the start of the game.

The first round was a family round; two opposing teams from Mekelle University were destined to bring forward their robots and let them rumble in the face of the nation. Team Alpha Vs Team Phoenix from Mekelle University began their match.

While the public’s eyes were glued to the soccer field, I was noticing the other two teams; the ones waiting their turn. Team Vision Quest from Mekelle and the nameless solo team from Addis Ababa University (4killo Campus) were in dilemma and I thought, for a mini micro moment, that I have heard their splitting hearts’ beat; doctors would argue otherwise.

Courtesy of iCog Labs

Assuming that they will win their coming knock out round and face one of the currently playing teams, some of the students from team Vision Quest and from the ‘4Killo campus team’ were watching the ongoing game; obviously trying to estimate their possible opponent’s weakness or strength. On the other hand, half of their team mates were busy trying to perfect their robots. In the middle of this confusion, those busy with the robots were yelling at the others who were watching the games so they can focus on the task at hand and improve their robots. Even at such last minute, the students were working on their project. Ah, the human spirit… It can never be over until the fat lady sings!

Before my thoughts became wild and I got lost in the wonders of thoughts about pur species, I turned my attention towards the soccer pitch. I was surprised that the game was a bit slow. The machines, after all were not there yet! Despite the human teams had hit a wall once or twice trying to make the robots coherent, the robot team failed to hit the ball towards the goal.

But still, the public was cheering; I missed the good old days where the cheering of the crowd elevates the moral of the players. Will I leave in a world where one day robots will evolve to have spirits so such a crowd’s cheer can elevate their morals?

The game had continued. Team Phoenix was winning; I had to ask my colleagues to discover why they were winning because so far both teams didn’t score a goal. I was told that, the communication system between team Alpha’s robot has failed and their players can no longer see and process the image via their cameras.

Why? I asked like a…

“Noise! There is an interference in their Wi-Fi communication and the robots are cancelling each other’s video signal”, shouted back Zelalem.

He is one of iCog Labs programmer and I know for sure that he had simplified his answer even though I failed to grasp it at the moment. It took me a while to understand what he was saying, please don’t ask why.

After 8 minutes, which to the audience seemed short but to the opposing students an eternity, team Phoneix secured the qualifying round for the final. Team Alpha was dumbstruck by the loss; what went so wrong at the last minute?

While the winners were rebooting and modifying some minor details for the final match, Getnet announced that it was time for the 4killo Campus and Vision Quest team to take the field. The 2nd round witnessed more action; there were two goal attempts that stirred the crowd’s enthusiasm sky high.

The red in black ball was moving in all the right (for some) and wrong (for others) directions. It was very exciting, however, both teams failed to score any goal. The round was again concluded with a forfeit! Exactly after six minutes, the same curse that doomed team Alpha consumed the dreams of team Vision Quest. The noise happened again blinding their playing robots. Luck was on the side of the 4killo campus side. I bet they proclaimed “Don’t confuse luck with skill”… maybe they are right maybe they are not. But in the end they were the winners!

The final round was here. Team Phoenix Vs the 4killo Campus team became the first finalist. One of them was to be the champion. They had spent time, money, and most of all their knowledge to make it this far! It was now or never.

While the student’s and their instructors were worrying about the glory; to become the first university in the continent to win the first robot soccer, the crowd was craving for a goal. The third time is a lucky charm ha! Well at least for the crowd the final match was the most electrifying. The anticipation of the mass had already swollen and engulfed the entirety of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology’s headquarter. Most had already placed their bets on their team. However, both teams had again failed to score a goal!

March 3 was a historic moment and the International Media was there to record it!
Courtesy of iCog Labs

I am sure you can imagine the experience and the awful nag while there is only 11 minutes to go and your team hasn’t scored. And to make things worse, no goal has been scored in the previous games. Yeah, the public was cursing the robots. It was funny but it was what we humans are. Even if the machines were not self-aware, the public was trying to shame them and this at least was a delightful site to the students; for the first time I saw a smile on one of the  student’s face when he heard an insult directed towards one of the robots.

“Ediya minu alcha new bakachu, mita inji min tilwesewesaleh”! These were the Amharic words that sparked a smile on a young boys face worried to death that his robot is failing him.

The allotted time had expired. Like the common rule in any soccer game, it was time for the penalty shootout.

Again imagine that moment, 5 chances; it could always go either way and all you can do is pray that it goes your way.

Alas, the crowd had witnessed the long awaited goal. The cheering was really quite loud. Because of the anticipation and the robots slow movement, the first penalty goal was welcomed with such a magnified cheer that an outsider might think that a certain footballer from the Barclays Premiere League just dropped by.

Both teams scored 2 out of 5. There was one “goal” that was named otherwise. When I saw the quarrel because of a controversial decision, I said to myself, “Taika, indeed you are leaving in a strange time”. The crowd was shouting, teams were yelling at the referee and for a moment the match was interrupted. I wondered what was going in that ‘all tubes and chips’ brain of the little robots; the masters had gone wild… Only a video playback from one of the camera men (from the media) put to rest the argy-bargy.

The 4killo Campus team, even though half of the ball had crossed the goal line, was denied a goal. Just like real football, this had caused a riot! I am not exaggerating and this has caused a temporary break and the game was ceased. Even the video evidence was not enough and the latest rule of the game (of FIFA’s) had to be referred.

The crowd was going wild. Honestly speaking, I was surprised to see such emotional fans; I thought that was only in the stadiums.

Some were saying “it is a goal! It has passed the line! Get the robots off the field, Addis Ababa is the winner”! An equal amount of the crowd was shouting back vehemently claiming, “Stop crying, it was never a goal! The ball went back out so shut it! Put a sock on it”! Priceless!

In the meanwhile, the indifferent crowd was trying to review the rules and regulations of a soccer match. Even the referee was in doubt, he didn’t know whether to believe his eyes or just listen to the crowd. He was also saying silently “What do I know? Am just the CEO, not a referee” All decided to relay on the one with a recorded vision, the camera. The camera man of Nahoo TV made his
way to the referee… After all, it was not a goal.

Yeah finally it was settled stating FIFA’s rule that unless half of the ball crosses the line, it will not qualify as a goal and based on the video evidence the ball hadn’t crossed the line all in all.

What a moment! It was exuberating.

The Goal Keeper was menacing!
Courtesy of iCog Labs

The match went on and both teams proceeded to the interrupted penalty shootout. As if it was some heavenly plot, both teams missed all the remaining kicks. I thought what if the robots are doing this deliberately so that they can have all the warmth and company of humans? In some corner of my mind, I entertained the thought that maybe the edge of AI and Intelligent Machines is upon us and we didn’t see it because the machines are deliberately hiding it. I shuddered.

And I shuddered again, this time not because of the scary thought and the secret of the soon to come  intelligent machines, rather because because it was getting cold. To my surprise the sun was saying goodnight. It was time to call a draw. However strong, fast, cute or smart were the machines, they needed a strong light to see and the dusk was too dark for them. For now, these robots are not technically equipped to see in an environment with decreased light. I tell you, we are working on making it happen; at this rate we will have robots that can see in pitch black and kick the ball on target maybe on the third or fourth round of the iCog Makers RoboSoccer Cup.

The match was finalized with a draw. The crowd dispersed whispering and shouting about the entertaining yet the educational event; what a day! In a few minutes, the premise was empty and quite where iCog Labs sat reminiscing about the wonders of March 3, 2017.

From the editors of

This Article was originally written for the bi annual magazine (iCog Makers) by Taika Alemu and was published on hard copy in collaboration with the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Science and Technology on 5, August, 2017. It is republished here with the permission of the iCog Makers magazine editor and the verbal consent of the Ministry. 

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