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Innovation and AI at its best
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Innovation and AI at its best

This year's Information & Communication Technology International Expo in Addis Ababa was considered to be a big hit by attendees. Visitors, including various dignitaries, were excited to experience one of the world’s most advanced and perhaps most famous Artificial Intelligence – Sophia as she communicated with expo guests and expressed a wide range of facial expressions. In addition to Sophia, a slew of other innovations were displayed at the Expo, reports Senait Feseha.

This week, in a venue crowded with spectators and fans, a somewhat strange competition took place. The contenders, weighing nearly two kilos and standing at 36cm tall, strode and even scored several goals. It was the Afro-Robo soccer cup 2018.

Afro-Robo soccer cup, a making of iCog-Labs, a research and development company in Addis Ababa specializing on Artificial Intelligence, has just been one of the exhibits presented at the International ICT expo held at the Millennium Hall, Addis Ababa.

Inside the hall, an energetic vibe pulsated from a tiny soccer arena, the crowd cheered, eyes wide with fascination, struggling to get a good view. Taking center stage, a RoboSapien, a humanoid robot, directed the ball towards the goal.

RoboSapiens, the first affordable intelligent entertainment humanoids, stole the attendees’ attention. In addition for being responsive to touch and sound, these robots are also able to catch objects and throw them at a mild force. They are designed to be easily hacked, programmed and manipulated to implement new tasks.

And that is what the contestants at the Robo-Soccer Cup did. They pulled off the Sapiens’ heads to replace them with cameras, and inserted supplementing cameras at the torsos. This allowed the robot to perceive and identify objects (red soccer balls in this case), the feed is then sent to a pre-programmed computer, and at that point the computer sends instructions back to the robot. Using its in-built compass, the robot has spatial awareness, meaning that it can easily target the goal which is colour coded according to its team.

The competition featured students from five universities and three countries; they represented universities located in Addis Ababa, Gondar, Mekele, Kenya and Nigeria.

“These robots make their own decisions,” Filimon Haile, a fifth year Computer Science and Engineering student from Mekele University, said. “Once programmed, they have to observe their surroundings, generate a plan, and then make a move relying on their own understanding.”

Once the match starts, teams must hand over control to the software they programmed. Sending commands during the game will result in automatic disqualification. The guidelines also require teams to use similar hardware (in this particular competition, robots that cost USD 300 or less); hence software and programming skill is what marks success, earning the champion around 50,000 birr.

Moving around three centimetres per second, they often seem to move in slow motion. And since the contestants installed low resolution cameras, recognizing the balls proved to be challenging, especially in poor lighting conditions.

“I know that standing here and cheering for twenty minutes sounds like a waste of time, especially knowing that these robots are likely to make some errors, but these competitions are making a significant contribution to the evolution of technologies for future generations in Ethiopia,” Leul Terefe, a self-proclaimed AI (Artificial Intelligence) geek, said. 

The expo which took place from June 30-July 4, 2018, brought together 118 top tech service vendors, ICT & broadcasting brands, and private & public sector decision makers with users.

Seyoum Mengesha, Private Sector ICT Development Directorate’s Acting Director believes that the expo is continuing to grow with time. “What makes this year’s expo particularly special is the arrival of Sophia, the 20 plus international panel discussions featuring renowned professors, moderators and professionals from across the world and the recognition awards that evaluated more than 47 thesis researches from local universities,” Seyoum said.

“The Expo hosted more than 200,000 attendees within the first two-three days. In comparison to the previous year, last year’s Expo hosted the same number of attendees during its entire duration.”

“I think this has to do with the arrival of Sophia,” Seyoum said. “Children and adolescents make up a large portion of the attendees. Motivating and shaping the future generation is part of the goal.”

On June 30, a large crowd flocked to the Millennium Hall. Despite being mishandled at the entrance, the crowd tolerantly stood in line to witness Sophia first hand. Sophia, the ‘realest’ humanoid robot has been a point of fascination since arrival.

Sophia is a social robot; she participated in conversations while making human-like gestures and facial expressions. While the cameras in her eyes and torso, enabled her to recognize faces and make eye contact, the speech recognition software allowed her to answer complex questions. The numerous motors under her ‘Frubber’ skin allowed Sophia to have human-like facial features like hoods on her upper eye lids, wrinkles when she smiles or the skinfolds under her chin. That, in addition to having Amharic programmed as her second language, attracted thousands of Ethiopians to the expo.

The Expo had six distinct zones based on the exhibitors’ category: Start-up Zone, Academia and Research Zone, Government Zone, ICT Service Zone, ICT Hardware Zone, and ICT Software Zone.

From the Academia and Research Zone, one of the most popular booths was the Ethiopian Space and Science Society (ESSS). ESSS is a non-profit organization constituting members from astronomy, astrophysics, space science and technology. With the aims of building a society with a highly developed scientific culture, it provides interested individuals a chance to become a member and gain the benefits of regular programs. The programs, which were highly anticipated especially by children and parents, where the monthly events that include stargazing, public lectures and experience sharing programs. The annual events include Astrobus - a mobile astronomy outreach program with a road trip to different locations in Ethiopia; Summer School – an intensive training on Basic Astronomy and Space Science; World Space Week – an international celebration consisting of a myriad of space related activities including presentations, competitions, discussions and exhibitions.

Another exhibitor who set up one of the most eye catching booths was Yazmi. Started in 2009 by Noah Samara, Yazmi is a company that collaborates with governments, international developments partners and private sector entities to introduce a satellite-based content delivery program for schools, and related fields in the education, health and agriculture sector. The delivery system is user friendly, it does not require extensive ground infrastructure and can reach into the most remote areas.

The most awaited panel discussion was E-Commerce. E-Commerce is usually associated with buying and selling products over the internet, making transactions and transfers through a computer- mediated network. The discussion highlighted activities that are occurring in Ethiopia, with a focus on market and regulatory driven advantages and barriers.

In a country where the ICT market is arguably the most difficult to navigate, the ICT expo connected forward thinking innovators, businesses and industry leaders to consumers, students, and enthusiasts through a platform in the information and communications technology.