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.

Mostly meetings in Sub-Saharan Africa emanate within a framework on the essentials of sustainable economy, and questions that are echoes of the middle age— food security, preventing communicable diseases, female genital mutilation, sanitation, access to roads and parallel concerns focusing merely on the essentials of civilization. Yet, in the decades that proceeded 2000, they are increasingly extending far beyond the same old “Africa’s Misery” and by far, they are incorporating scientific and hi-tech agendas to draw-in audiences and topics, which are not subject to the above boundaries.

Among the guests that Getnet Welcomed to Ethiopia, Gino Yu (Associate Professor and Director of Digital Entertainment and Game Development in the School of Design at PolyU), IRIDAS founder Lin Kayser (Adobe’s former Director of Engineering from the year 2011-2014) are experts highly involved in the hi-tech and Computer industry. Along with the guests, AGI giant Ben Goertzel, Ruiting Lian (Artificial Intelligence researcher focusing on Natural Language processing aka NLP), and Amen Belayneh, a programmer specializing on AI Algorithms from the Hong Kong OpenCog team are experts who directly work in the fields of Artificial intelligence. The rest of the guests include Roy Cohen, an Israeli-French writer and Director (currently residing in London) and Anne Lund a Director and producer of Documentary films from Denmark (currently residing in London). The film crews from England flew to Ethiopia for the production of documentary film titled Ben’s Robot.

What do all these guests have in common?

They were very excited to be in Ethiopia for one purpose, hi-tech development. How on earth can they be? Eh, Hi-Tech in Ethiopia?

Hi-Tech in east Africa might sound strange particularly to those who have never heard about Technology Leapfrogging. In the simplest of terms, 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”. In a country where the only form of transportation is a cart for instance, one can adopt electric car irrespective of regular or diesel cars and all the infrastructures— Gas Stations, fuel-oil-motor garages, spare parts and so on— related to cars with motors that operate on fossil fuel.

iCog Labs is one such private company engaged in Technology Leapfrogging. The company had been working on several Artificial Intelligence Research and Development projects, as well as, the development of AI featured commercial software since 2013.

As part of iCog’s vision— of making a breakthrough in the capability of AI to improve the lives of people in Africa— the company has organized three international Hi-Tech seminars in Ethiopia starting from 2012, in Collaboration with AAiT. Part of this gathering’s purpose was aimed at the fourth international hi-tech seminar in Ethiopia.

Ben and his associates were not in the mood to waste time in the spirit of tourism. The very next morning they were among the early birds of iCog Labs’s staff. As if the ‘Carpe Diem’ motto possessed their souls, they plunged into iCog Labs’s daily office-routine sharing, collaborating, and striving on OpenCog’s Projects.

The Ministry of Science and Technology was the next destination and on the early morning of February 4, while Addis Ababa’s air was still chilly, the OpenCog team along with Lin Kayser sat facing Ethiopia’s Deputy Minister of Science and Technology.

In the meeting with Dr Getahun Mekuria, the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, the main concern was directed towards the question why should people come to Ethiopia to work and invest on hi-tech?

Before the minister was able to reply, Professor Gino came-up with an excellent answer: “the food here is heavenly”!

In all honesty, that answer was not entirely farce. In recent years it seems like, Ethiopian food is becoming the new Coca Cola in the West. All the guests, even the ones from Denmark and Israel, were familiar with Ethiopian cuisine long before they set their foot in the country— the food was something they held dearly.

Continue reading on H+ Magazine

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