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“Mama Robotics” wows a nation


18-YEAR-OLD artificial intelligence whizz Mercy Sampson’s robotics prototypes have wowed Nigeria. Now she wants Africa to focus on artificial intelligence and the opportunities provided by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). But she also has a personal point to prove. She’s a deaf person living in a country where that is a problem.

As a young deaf girl living in a country that provides very little support for those with disabilities, Mercy Sampson seemed likely to grow up destitute. Now 18, the teen, who lost her auditory ability at 3, is having none of that.

“When people see the things I create they do not believe I am deaf. My name is Mercy but I love it when my friends call me ‘mama robotics’,” she said with a smile.

Changing stereotypes about people living with disability in Africa and about who can and cannot pursue their dreams, hi-tech or not, is very much a part of Sampson’s daily life. She gained national recognition when she invented a robot that dispenses hand sanitiser, then developed a prototype for a fire-fighting robot. She also made waves by taking a team of deaf students to a robotics challenge.

Born in the city of Jos, Nigeria, the high school student’s life took a dramatic turn when at the age of three, she was diagnosed with hearing loss. Her parents tried in vain to seek medical intervention but were eventually resigned to enrolling her into a school for the deaf. They vowed, however, that physical constraints would not define the future for their daughter.

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This unconditional love seems to have ignited an optimism in Mercy, who, fascinated by robotics and artificial intelligence, chose to pursue a technology-oriented education.

The software development and rollout of artificial intelligence (AI) is often touted as a precondition for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and tech hubs across Nigeria are host to scores of startups with AI ambitions. Mercy has been vocal about the need for more AI as countries like Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Morocco and Ethiopia begin building out 4IR infrastructure.

According to a Brookings study, artificial intelligence for Africa presents an opportunity that could put the continent at the forefront of the 4IR.

“The future is intelligent: By 2030, artificial intelligence will add US$15.7 trillion to the global GDP, with US$6.6 trillion projected to be from increased productivity and US$9.1 trillion from consumption effects,” reads the report.

Africa wants a slice of that future. Rapidly evolving AI technology is expected to solve some of Africa’s most pressing challenges, driving agriculture, healthcare and public and financial services.

There are a number of barriers that could keep Africa, however. The most important are the lack of supportive infrastructure, lack of required skills, and the quality and availability of data, to fuel AI.

Sampson, however, exudes confidence in the future of the continent. She believes there is nothing she cannot create with her robots. The 18-year-old deaf girl says that for her, artificial intelligence is like playing computer games.

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Sampson’s teacher, Wuni Bitrus, recounts how Mercy was the first to figure out how to operate a robot while everyone else struggled, the night before a competition that launched Sampson on the nation – the MakeX robotics regional competition in Abuja. Mary wowed the country by leading an all-deaf team to the event.

“Mary shocked us the night before the competition. All the teams were struggling to understand the robots she had collected from one of the instructors and in less than two minutes, figured it out. She’s a very smart girl, I remember after that competition she told me she will never sleep again. She will work hard and be the world’s best,” Bitrus said.

Bitrus is the co-founder of the African Technology Foundation and started the initiative out of concerns that the tech industry was booming and that the deaf were being left behind.

“There are indeed numerous interventions for tech skills acquisition across Africa but sadly not just geared towards building the deaf community for careers in technology,” he said.

According to Bitrus, Sampson has proven exceptional at working with AI and displays superb critical thinking. She is now set to sit her A-levels exams next year, hopes she will pass and enrol for a degree in robotics engineering. “I’ll study very hard to pass my West African Examination Council that way no one will remember I am deaf,” she said.

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Sampson has been exceptionally lucky in linking up with Bitrus. One of the hurdles for deaf Nigerians is that they are only allowed to study arts-related courses. “Very few schools offer science. No tertiary institution allows deaf students to study outside special education,” she explained.

However, she exudes confidence that her success will trail-blaze, not just for the deaf but all persons living with a disability on the continent. Her favourite invention? The robotic dispenser, which dispenses sanitiser when it senses a hand.

“It’s my favourite work because it’s the first time I’m using robotic skills to solve an immediate problem. Seeing people use my robot made me feel so fulfilled, now I want to do more,” she said.

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By The African Mirror