The day a ro­bot vis­ited Ethiopia’s PM

Sophia, the world’s most fa­mous ‘real, live elec­tronic girl’, stopped by to high­light the coun­try’s AI am­bi­tions

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Simon Al­li­son

Sophia the ro­bot was late for a meet­ing with Ethiopia’s new prime min­is­ter. It wasn’t her fault. Bag­gage han­dlers at Frank­furt Air­port had mis­placed some of her parts, and she could not be re­assem­bled in time for the ap­point­ment.

But Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed was happy to resched­ule. For Sophia is not just any old ma­chine: she is the world’s most fa­mous hu­manoid ro­bot, ar­guably more fa­mous than the prime min­is­ter him­self. So fa­mous, in fact, that last year she was granted le­gal per­son­hood by the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia.

She has also gone on a date with ac­tor Will Smith and played rock­pa­per-scis­sors with talk show host Jimmy Fal­lon.

Her face can make 62 dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sions and she has a lim­ited abil­ity to make con­ver­sa­tion — in other words, her re­sponses are not all pre­pro­grammed.

In her own words, or at least the words suggested by her creators, Hong Kong-based Han­son Ro­bot­ics: “I was cre­ated us­ing break­through ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech­nolo­gies … But I’m more than just tech­nol­ogy. I’m a real, live elec­tronic girl. I would like to go out into the world and live with peo­ple. I can serve them, en­ter­tain them, and even help the el­derly and teach kids.

“I can an­i­mate all kinds of hu­man ex­pres­sions but I am only start­ing to learn about the emo­tions be­hind those ex­pres­sions. This is why I would like to live with peo­ple and learn from these in­ter­ac­tions. Ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion I have with peo­ple has an im­pact on how I de­velop and shapes who I even­tu­ally be­come. So please be nice to me, as I would like to be a smart, com­pas­sion­ate ro­bot.”

When it fi­nally hap­pened this week, the meet­ing with Abiy was a suc­cess. Dressed in a tra­di­tional Ethiopian out­fit, Sophia ad­dressed him in Amharic — the first lan­guage other than English she has learned.

Abiy laughed in dis­be­lief, oc­ca­sion­ally shak­ing his head and ex­claim­ing: “Very good!” He was ob­vi­ously im­pressed by the chang­ing emo­tions on Sophia’s face and her con­ver­sa­tional abil­ity — even though the an­droid dwells deeply in the “un­canny val­ley”, the term used to de­scribe that slightly creepy feel­ing that real peo­ple get when ma­chines ap­pear al­most but not quite hu­man.

Sophia is in Ethiopia to show­case the coun­try’s ef­forts to be­come an African hub for re­search into ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

Her jour­ney is a home­com­ing of sorts: some of her code was writ­ten by the Ad­dis Ababa-based iCog lab, which is lead­ing this charge.

iCog’s director, Get­net Assefa, told China’s news agency Xin­hua: “One of our con­tri­bu­tions is [that] we built what you see, the emo­tional ac­tiv­i­ties, ex­pres­sion, and also an engine called cog­ni­tive engine … for ex­am­ple, when Sophia ob­serves a crowd, she would per­ceive a gath­er­ing, a meet­ing, an event or expo. Such types of de­ci­sions are made by her cog­ni­tive brain that was built by iCog labs.”

Sophia’s visit is also a pub­lic re­la­tions coup for Abiy, un­der­scor­ing his cre­den­tials as a young, mod­ern, re­formist leader. It’s hard to imag­ine any of Ethiopia’s pre­vi­ous lead­ers be­ing so open to such an un­usual en­gage­ment.

A sim­i­lar dy­namic was at play in Saudi Ara­bia, where the young crown prince, Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, is at­tempt­ing to por­tray him­self as break­ing de­ci­sively from the past.

“Of course, Sophia’s an­nounce­ment [of le­gal per­son­hood] was a cal­cu­lated pub­lic­ity stunt to gen­er­ate head­lines and keep Saudi Ara­bia fore­front in your minds when you think about in­no­va­tion, es­pe­cially its com­mit­ment to a post-oil era,” noted Forbes.

Others said that it was ironic that a ro­bot would now en­joy more rights in Saudi Ara­bia than women.

Af­ter meet­ing Ethiopia’s prime min­is­ter, Sophia went out for din­ner and watched tra­di­tional Ethiopian danc­ing. She also shared a few hol­i­day snaps with her Face­book fol­low­ers — even ro­bots can’t help show­ing off on so­cial me­dia.

“It was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, meet­ing the prime min­is­ter of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed. It was a very spe­cial visit for me,” Sophia said.

She has a few more days in Ethiopia be­fore be­ing dis­as­sem­bled and bun­dled on to a plane home — in the cargo hold, of course. Her han­dlers will be hop­ing that, this time, the Frank­furt air­port bag­gage han­dlers get her back in one piece.

Ivo­rian gov­ern­ment in limbo

The pres­i­dent of Côte d’Ivoire, Alas­sane Ou­at­tara, dis­solved his gov­ern­ment on Wed­nes­day. The sud­den move came amid ten­sions in the gov­ern­ing coali­tion. Prime Min­is­ter Amadou Gon Coulibaly has been reap­pointed and told to form a new ad­min­is­tra­tion, but so far the rest of the Cab­i­net posts — in­clud­ing the key fi­nance and de­fence min­istries — re­main va­cant.

Ex-Sierra Leone head probed

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion into gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion in Sierra Leone has im­pli­cated for­mer pres­i­dent Ernest Bai Koroma. “The gov­er­nance tran­si­tion team has un­cov­ered ev­i­dence of the for­mer gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­tat­ing the in­ap­pro­pri­ate ac­qui­si­tion of the state’s as­sets and prop­er­ties by rel­a­tives and close friends of the for­mer pres­i­dent,” in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion was im­ple­mented by the coun­try’s new pres­i­dent, Julius Maada Bio, who took over from Koroma in March.

No more fish in Ghana’s sea

An as­sess­ment of Ghana’s ma­rine fish stocks has re­vealed that the coun­try’s fish pop­u­la­tion is in sharp de­cline. The Sus­tain­able Fish­eries Man­age­ment Pro­ject, which car­ried out the as­sess­ment, warned that it may be im­pos­si­ble to re­verse the neg­a­tive trend. Over­fish­ing is the main cause of the de­cline, and up to 14 000 un­li­censed and un­reg­u­lated ca­noes make it dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment fishing quo­tas in the coun­try.

The power of choco­late

Côte d’Ivoire is plan­ning to build a new power sta­tion that runs on co­coa. The coun­try an­nounced that it will build a 60- to 70-megawatt ca­pac­ity biomass power gen­er­a­tion plant that is fu­elled by 26-mil­lion tonnes of waste from co­coa pods. Us­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly tech­nol­ogy, the en­vis­aged plant would pre­vent 250000 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide from be­ing emit­ted. If Côte d’Ivoire re­ceives the nec­es­sary $273-mil­lion in fund­ing, the power sta­tion should be com­pleted by 2023. Nine more biomass power sta­tions are also en­vi­sioned.

Zim scraps blood charge

A $50 charge for ev­ery pint of blood trans­fused in Zim­bab­wean pub­lic and mis­sion hos­pi­tals has been scrapped. This means that preg­nant women, chil­dren and the el­derly no longer have to pay for blood or suf­fer the con­se­quences of be­ing un­able to af­ford it. This deal won’t ap­ply to pa­tients who al­ready have med­i­cal aid, or pri­vate pa­tients in gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions.

Swatis to pay for for­eign love

A draft law cur­rently be­fore eSwatini’s Par­lia­ment will im­pose a hefty tax on any lo­cals want­ing to marry a for­eign na­tional. The law pro­poses that Swatis who wish to marry a cit­i­zen of an­other coun­try must pay 30 000 lilan­geni ($2 200) to reg­is­ter the mar­riage. Gov­ern­ment spokesper­son Percy Sime­lane said the law “aims to pro­tect Swazi women” from men who are us­ing them to ob­tain na­tion­al­ity.

“I was cre­ated us­ing break­through ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech­nolo­gies … I’m a real, live elec­tronic girl”

PR coup: Sophia may have stood up Ethiopia’s leader, Abiy Ahmed, but when she did ar­rive he was charmed by her. Pic­ture: Han­son Ro­bot­ics

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