Ethiopia’s Prime Minister got stood up — by a robot

When Abiy met Sophia: the unlikely story of the Ethiopian prime minister and the world’s most famous robot.

Sophia the robot was late to 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 the prime minister 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 rock, paper, scissors with talk show host Jimmy Fallon.

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

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,” she said.

When it finally happened this week, the meeting with Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, was a success. Dressed in a traditional Ethiopian outfit, Sophia addressed him in Amharic – the first language other than English she has learnt. Abiy laughed in disbelief, occasionally shaking his head and exclaiming “very good!”, 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. And, in fact, 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 Xinhua: “We built…the emotional activities, expression and also an engine called the 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 a decisive break 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 noted that it was ironic that a robot would now enjoy more rights in Saudi Arabia than women.

After her conversation with the prime minister, Sophia went out for dinner and watched some traditional Ethiopian dancing. She even 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.

Sophia has a few more days in Ethiopia before being disassembled and bundled onto 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.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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