By Robel Yohannes
Experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) say that a dynamic environment need to be set up to leverage the sector as yet another contributor to the ongoing sustainable development.
According to some, the AI sector is burgeoning in Ethiopia, with various reports indicating that the country is becoming a thriving center for AI research and development and robotics. This culminated with the involvement of Ethiopians (more than 50 percent) in the software programming of Sophia - a human-like robot powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and capable of over 60 different facial mechanisms to create natural-looking expressions.
Ashenafi Bekele, Director of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Directorate at Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (ebti) says that AI companies like I-cog and others, along with foreign companies that works with them, and the fact that many Ethiopian programmers has played a role in the cognitive software programming of Sophia can show a burgeoning of AI software culture in Ethiopia.
He also mentions the attention given at government level leading to the creation of a separate and independent Institute (ebti) to oversee the development of emerging technologies under four department; Nanotechnology, Material Science, Artificial Intelligence and Reverse Engineering.
The Director indicates they are working to create a baseline and environment for AI research in Ethiopia whilst undertaking research works themselves in the country's priorities areas like agriculture, health and education sectors. He adds that the Institute undertakes practical research outputs that can help solve problems in the aforementioned areas.
"To this end, we are working on setting up the structures, policy framework documents, while also doing research works on some projects. For instance we have submitted a proposal to install bus tracking information system in three public transport institutions in Addis Ababa."Despite it being touted as a sector of the future and advanced countries are racing to be at the forefront of AI, there are those that question the practicality of a cutting-edge technology for a developing country in a fight against poverty.
Affirming to this sentiment, Ashenafi says that the thought surrounding AI, traditionally, has been that it is a sector custom-made for the most advanced countries. And as a result, developing countries usually back away from it. In fact, for him, the sector can be helpful for developing countries even more, as it can be applied to many (priority) areas and help hasten their development process.
Furthering his argument, the Director depicts how AI software and robotics can be applied in some industries, like chemicals or others, where the working conditions are hazardous to human manual workers. And accounting for the country's plan of transforming the economy from agriculture led to an industrial one, there will be a need for partial automation work.
"We already have the tools, the laptops, smart phones, as they are widely available in the hands of many people. We have the manpower as well. Plus, the trend of the world shows that the next generation science and research sector and the world economy is headed into the direction of AI." So, what is there to hinder us from using these applications," he asks.
For Getnet Assefa, Founder and CEO of I-Cog Labs, a private AI software Company, the potential of AI application is transformative for a developing country like Ethiopia. He says that AI represents the fourth industrial revolution with a potential to radically transform any society.