“These Tools Not Only Have The Power To Disrupt, But The Power To Destruct"
Getnet Assefa is the founder of iCog Labs, an AI studio bringing emerging technologies to young Ethiopians so that they can solve community problems, and disrupt global power structures.
In the summer of 2018, Sophia the humanoid robot travelled to Addis Ababa. Dressed in a traditional Ethiopian kemis, she paid a quick visit to the National Palace to meet recently inaugurated Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Known for her uncanny ability to hold down unscripted conversations using facial and speech recognition, Sophia told Abiy: “I’m a robot who loves Ethiopia. Your friends taught me a little Amharic.”
To see an artificially intelligent robot speaking in Amharic— Ethiopia’s official language— was deeply inspiring to young Ethiopians across the country, says Getnet Assefa, 34, whose AI lab played a major role in programming Sophia for the occasion. Sophia then took pride of place in the national ICT Expo.
iCog Labs has taught over 20,000 young Ethiopians how to programme software and access the internet.
“You wouldn’t believe it, thousands and thousands of young kids, even from rural districts, they came to Addis Ababa to visit Sophia! Those people saw that artificial intelligence can be done here and can be used to change their communities,” says Getnet, excitement breaking through his usually calm and matter-of-fact manner. Such moments of inspiration— of the potential of emerging technologies to transform society— are at the core of much of Getnet’s work. “This is the beginning of a fire that will burn, burn, burn,” he says.
While iCog Labs’ 100-plus programmers work for major technology companies around the globe— including Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics who created Sophia the robot — the lab’s profits go into funding educational programmes and an accelerator scheme aimed at planting the seeds of technological disruption among young Ethiopians.
“Young people are so hungry for technology,” Getnet says. Yet he is dismayed at the low digital literacy levels he sees across Ethiopia. “We decided that we had to teach as many kids as possible and so we designed a programme called iCog Anyone Can Code.” In after school clubs and summer camps iCog Labs has taught over 20,000 young Ethiopians how to programme software and access the internet. iCog Labs also organises an annual innovation competition between thousands of young Ethiopians called Solve IT. In even the remotest corners of the country, they are given guidance and tools to develop technology that solves their community problems.
“They always come up with brilliant ideas that no one is expecting,” says Getnet, recounting the story of a young man in Gambela— one the the country’s economically poorest regions. “His family are farmers, but they are only producing two litres of milk a day for their own consumption, because nobody’s buying the milk. But this guy won a smartphone in a competition, and whenever he gets an internet connection he is downloading video lessons so he can learn programming. He builds a smartphone app which gathers the number and location of cows in nearby villages— then he moves to the city.”
Soon after, the young entrepreneur has made a deal with a three-wheeled scooter driver to come and collect surplus milk from the area, using the app to determine the shortest route, and dropping off feed for the cows as he goes. “It’s Uber of milk!” laughs Getnet. “Only the younger generation are thinking in this disruptive manner, thinking that everything is possible.”
I first met Getnet in 2018 at iCog Labs in central Addis Ababa, he was hunched over a laptop, engrossed in his software code. In this room full of young coders, electronic components were scattered about the space, and in one corner an early version of Sophia the robot looked on. We walked through nearby streets lined with busy restaurants and the smell of roasting coffee beans drifting around street corners. In Ethiopian culture, family and friends often sit down several times a day to share coffee; meals too are a communal affair, with everyone sat around a shared plate of injera—a traditional fermented flatbread.
“Two of my sister’s died because they couldn’t find basic medicines,” he says. “A lot of people just accepted that we lived like that, that it was a natural phenomenon.”
Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic— with public gatherings banned, schools closed, and most people working from home— this community-centred life is on hold. Unable to meet in person, we speak on Skype. Around the world, technology eases the void created by social distancing, and suggests how societies may be reshaped in the future.
Community, technology and disruption were at the core of Getnet’s personal philosophy even as a teenager growing up in Addis Ababa. His family lived in a deprived area of the city, with little access to electricity, clean water and health care. “Two of my sister’s died because they couldn’t find basic medicines,” he says. “A lot of people just accepted that we lived like that, that it was a natural phenomenon,” he says— but Getnet realised that technology offered an escape.
In the late 1990s, as personal computers became household items in the West and internet use exploded in the dot-com bubble, teenage Getnet was also playing with technology. "I worked in a mechanical and electrical workshop, fixing cars, radios and computers and writing basic software for small businesses.” Tinkering with technology was and is Getnet’s hobby, but “mostly what drove me was survival,” he says. With the money Getnet made, his family were able to buy school uniforms and books.
“At that time I had no idea about artificial intelligence, but I could see these tools were helping us to grow as a community,” Getnet says, and he began organising seminars in the local community hall to share ideas with his peers about how to change their circumstances. A world away from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, they began designing tech solutions to meet their own needs.
Much of what Getnet learnt came from watching Youtube videos and reading DIY websites, although access to computers and the internet was very limited. Most of Ethiopia’s public university’s didn’t have computers either, and so he decided to serve two years in the military as his way into the Defence Engineering College of Ethiopia.
“That was the beginning of everything,” says Getnet. “I had 24 hour internet connection, lots of electronics and robotics. You could find lots of used computers around the campus— I could even open up and explore airplanes and helicopters.” In the College’s large science and technology, Getnet began reading books on artificial intelligence and emerging technologies, when a friend suggested he read a Time magazine article by futurologist Ray Kurzweil ‘2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal’.
Getnet is a transhumanist, and regards the fusing of the biological and the digital as both inevitable and necessary.
“I was so excited about this guy,” says Getnet. “I got his book The Singularity is Near and I just kept reading it again and again— I read it three times in one week. This book created a roadmap from the past to the future.” In his writings Kurzweil describes the exponential growth of technology, and predicts that we will reach the “Singularity” by 2045— the point at which humans merge with artificial intelligence, transcending our biological bodies and brains. “The way he articulated this, the way he speculated was very, very powerful,” he says. In this moment, Getnet recognised the radical changes to society that are around the corner.
Like Kurzweil, Getnet is a transhumanist, and regards the fusing of the biological and the digital as both inevitable and necessary. Given the exponential growth of technology, it’s only a matter of time before artificial intelligence equals and surpasses that of the human mind, he says, with the looming risk that we could lose control over the same intelligent machines that we created. Better to join with advanced artificial intelligence, than to compete against it.
This radical melding, he says, would enable humanity to evolve beyond its present mental and physical limitations. Augmentation of the human mind and body is nothing new. Telescopes are an extension of vision; your smart phone enhances your cognitive abilities and acts as an additional store of memory, and so can be seen as an extension of mind. But the question of whether humanity will evolve into a new transhumanist species remains controversial, as is the assumption that this evolution would be beneficial. Getnet’s hope is that if humans do merge with machines, we remain rooted in human values, and so create a space for human flourishing rather than annihilation. “Our religion, our culture, our families. What makes us laugh? What makes us happy? What makes us cry? I want these values to remain whether or not we exist digitally,” he says.
Whether or not Kurzweil’s predictions prove correct, the values that artificially intelligent technologies are imbued with will depend on who has access to and control of them. “Technology is the devil’s sword: you can cut onions or you can cut people,” says Getnet.
“If this knowledge is concentrated in only a few small groups— governments or corporates or anyone—the world will depend on them and they will determine whether it’s used in a good or a bad way,” he says.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic artificial intelligence tools have monitored the spread of the virus, and even detected infections before people showed symptoms. The mass collection and surveillance of people’s data has proven vital at this time, yet in the wrong hands these tools can also be used to manipulate and for authoritarian rule.
Getnet believes in the power of artificial intelligence to offer solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of poverty and inequality.
And as the reach of such technologies advances, so does the need to democratise access to them. “These tools not only have the power to disrupt, but the power to destruct. Society, culture, everything that humanity values on Earth could easily be eliminated,” says Getnet.
Yet where there is danger also lies opportunity.
If emerging technologies become open to everyone, regardless of the culture or society they are from, Getnet has faith that “humanity’s cumulative positive attitude” will prevail. “But to create this crowd we need to make digital tools that are open source, and we need to educate,” he says.
Getnet made shared knowledge and accessible technology core principles of iCog Labs when he founded the company in 2013. Many of iCogs programmers contribute to the open source software initiative opencog.org. “We are accumulating intelligence tools in one place. Anyone can download our tools and develop products themselves,” he says.
Despite this Getnet’s ambition to hand the tools of the future to young Ethiopians has been met with frustration. “Most people don’t agree that something like iCog Labs should exist in Ethiopia,” he says, with critics arguing that advance technologies are not a priority in a country where many people still face food insecurity, and lack access to clean water and healthcare services.
Getnet acknowledges the government must invest in essential infrastructure like this, but also believes in the power of artificial intelligence to offer solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of poverty and inequality. If the knowledge and tools to create advanced technologies are open source and made freely available, artificial intelligence could become a great equaliser, improving living standards globally.
His vision of massive wealth creation and a sustainable “abundance economy” driven by intelligent robots may be utopian. But in the nearer future, emerging technologies could offer Ethiopia and other countries in the Global South an opportunity to “leapfrog” tradition paths of development: building education, agriculture and health systems that rest more on silicon chips and megabytes than bricks and mortar.
And with a global power shift on the horizon, those who are best equipped to ride the wave of technological disruption will be the ones to prosper. “It’s happened all the time in our history,” he says. “The Ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks, the British Empire, they didn’t remain forever— another ideology came along.”
Words by Thomas Lewton
Thomas is a freelance science journalist and videographer based in the UK and East Africa. He has written for BBC, Wired, Undark, Quanta, Thomson Reuters and CNN.
Chris is a Berlin-based illustrator, graphic artist, designer and animator.