5 things with... Dr. Timnit Gebru (Exclusive)



Timnit was in town as a guest speaker on a very ambitious project, Girls Can Code (GCC) that was held at the national archives & library of Ethiopia this past Saturday. GCC program was launched in 2015 and Hiwot Bishawis the project manager. Students with interest in coding from 9 high schools were part of the project this year. Dr Timnit shared her experience on AI & coding to students and attendees in a discussion that was carried out by the host of the event, Saba Kahsay

EthioCreatives sat down exclusively with Timnit to do our "5 things with..." segment. Here it is.

EC/1. A lot of us here in Ethiopia don't know most of talented Ethiopians abroad doing amazing things. So, who is Timnit? What is her speciality? Why AI? What was the most difficult thing to do when you started this journey?

I started working in AI a few years ago. Before that, I was a hardware engineer. I didn't really plan on working in AI. I worked on optical medical devices at some point and got interested in image processing of the acquired images. Then I got interested in computer vision, data mining etc and that's how I got into AI. The most difficult thing is not the subject but the isolation you feel when you are a woman, and specifically a Black woman and also someone from Africa and you are in the US working in this field.

EC/2. Is it difficult to be a woman in the AI world? Why do you think more girls are not participating on AI field? What should be done to increase women's participation in coding? Especially here in Ethiopia.

Yes, its difficult because of the attitude of those in the field and the conscious and subconscious ways in which you constantly have to prove yourself. People constantly get interrupted, your ideas get attributed to the nearest man (or they are just not taken seriously) you get underpaid and undervalued, but if you negotiate for higher salary or position or something like this you are made to feel petty and like you are asking for too much. Even the women who start to leave because of things like this, the environment is hostile.

EC/3. What do you think should be done in order for us Ethiopians to find AI interesting and be part of it by involving in big projects? Do you believe we have what it takes?

The most prestigious thing to study in Ethiopia is medicine. I think if Ethiopians understood that AI could be applied to all sectors (including medicine), they would be excited about it. I believe we have what it takes but we have to be supportive of our youth and create opportunities for them. I also think that there is a lack of information where people don't know that they can even do this.

EC/4. Do you visit Ethiopia often or is it your first time? What is your favourite thing in Addis? What can you say about the coding and programming industry in Ethiopia? What do you think needs to be done to make it compete with the rest of the word?

Yes, I visit often. My favourite thing in Addis is how there are many cafes and other places to hang out. I like initiatives like Ice Addis. We need to have more of those. The one thing I noticed is that there is not only a lack of information but a lack of a countrywide network. People don't know about the different initiatives other people are doing. One needs to have a strong network of people to get anything done. We need to have a very good university curriculum and postgraduate curriculum. We also need to have labs where students can practice coding. People should think about creating technology that works in their context. For example, many people don't have access to computers but they have access to smartphones. How can we teach computer science using smartphones?

EC/5. What should we expect from Timnit in the future? New projects coming up? What would your friends say if we ask them about you? Tell us who Timint is minus AI life. Her hobby or talents...

Hopefully, more research output as well as fruitful initiatives to bring international conferences to Ethiopia, grow the tech echo system, interest in AI etc. My friends would say that I am a very absent-minded person and lose everything. I like music, dancing hanging out with family, friends etc.

We would like to thank Timnit for taking the time to chat with us and share her amazing insight. We wish her all the best in her future and endeavours. We also would like to thank GCC program project manager, Hiwot, for inviting us to the event.

Daniel Shalu