ADDIS ABABA — The black-and-white robot stopped and its eyes, two small red lights, suddenly lit up. Rotating about 90 degrees, it recognized the blue plastic ball a few centimeters away, came forward and kicked it.

“The robot is Chinese, but the processor is made in Ethiopia,” Getnet Aseffa explains. “A student developed it, and within a few months we will organize the first national football competition between robots, in the same vein as the International RoboCup tournament!”

Welcome to the iCog Labs experiment room in the heart of Addis Ababa’s university district. Getnet Aseffa, 28, is one of the brains behind the operation. After graduating in computer science in 2012, this avid reader of futurist author Ray Kurzweil co-created iCog with the help of American researcher Ben Goertzel. It is the first Ethiopian research and development laboratory specializing in artificial intelligence.

“Our programmers have the same skills as Chinese, Americans and Europeans,” Aseffa says. “The only difference is the economic gap and the daily challenges that we face.” Among them are lack of infrastructure, erratic Internet access and frequent power cuts. “At the beginning, developers were losing hundreds of lines of code,” he says. “Now, they back up data almost every minute.” For greater security, the laboratory’s servers are located in Germany.

Like the U.S. company Hanson Robotics, which created the humanoid robot named Han that’s able to recognize and imitate human facial expressions, iCog works for foreign customers. Ethiopian developers are in charge of improving image recognition software and other items to improve robot intelligence. On behalf of Californian companies, other lab employees are working on genetic mapping of human genes related to aging in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of longevity.

A development tool

Aseffa is convinced that cutting-edge technology can be a development tool for his country. But when he talks to his relatives about high-tech, he faces a very traditional Ethiopian community that questions the value of developing technologies of the future amid such pressing issues as the fight against poverty.

Artificial intelligence may seem far from the African realities,” Aseffa says. “But if you use it in daily life, it can improve the living conditions of human beings.”

“We support the technological leap,” he continues. For example, Africans have embraced the smartphone to receive Internet connections without the need for computers. “We can leapfrog stages through which the developed countries have gone. If not, when will we catch up, then?” For three years, Aseffa has been organizing seminars on these futuristic themes that each attact several hundred students, teachers and curious people.

For a year, and with its own funding, iCog Labs has mobilized 10 programmers to work on an Android application featuring the avatar of an Ethiopian teacher named Mrs. Yanetu. She teaches reading, writing and the basics of mathematics. Eventually, she will be able to recognize student emotions and answer their questions. Aseffa would like to distribute free tablets equipped with this application in rural areas of Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa, where there are a severe lack of infrastructure and a shortage of teachers.

They will need more funding to make this a reality. After three years, their turnover amounts to almost 140,000 euros per year. As of now, iCog receives no state support. Ethiopia has invested 87 million euros in the technology park Ethio ICT Village and doesn’t hide its ambition to become a center of excellence for scientific and technological research. Two public universities are entirely devoted to these two disciplines. The government has even imposed quotas: 70% of Ethiopian students are required to take a course in hard sciences. Some of them may be part of the first promotion of the Master’s degree in artificial intelligence that will soon open at the University of Addis Ababa.

“Now my goal is to bring robotics to elementary school,” Aseffa says with excitement, giving a plastic ball to the robot. “To develop our country, it’s necessary that children learn the basics of programming from an early age.”