Africa’s First Igbo Humanoid Robot - My name is 'Omeife' (video)

Somewhere in Mabushi, a crossroad area between the inner and outer districts of Abuja, Nigeria, Uniccon Group, a two-year-old Nigerian technology firm, has built a humanoid: a 6-foot-tall multilingual human-like robot called Omeife. From an idea that was conceptualised in 2020 to a back-and-forth construction—slow wins and quick-succession learning—that stretched across two years, Omeife, built as a female Igbo character that understands and speaks eight different languages, is now a product ready to meet the world.

Powered by sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms developed in-house by the company’s team of scientists, Omeife has a deep understanding of African culture and behavioural patterns. Speaking to TechCabal about the project over a call, Chuks Ekwueme, who founded the company in 2020 and serves as its CEO, revealed that the humanoid also has a real time understanding of its environment including active listening and the ability to focus on a specific conversation thread as it’s happening. “It’s not just multilingual, it has the ability to switch languages and interact with specific gestures—hand illustrations, smile and other bodily gestures—that match the tone of the conversation,” said Ekwueme. Omeife currently speaks English, French, Arabic, Kiswahili, Pidgin, Wazobia, Afrikaans, and of course, Igbo.

No, I don’t think we want it to do that,” Ekwueme said when asked if Omeife has the ability to frown or show expressions of sadness.

But what really underscores the Africanness built into Omeife is its ability to speak each language with a native accent, pitch and vocabulary, with detailed pronunciations of words, sentences and even phrases. African politeness values are also entrenched into its social interaction functions. Ekwueme said Omeife pays attention to a specific person to keep the conversation alive, and chooses its words carefully—sieves out words, phrases, sentences and expressions that are not polite in African cultures. “This particular attribute makes it safe to interact with kids,” Ekwueme added. He also added that Omeife has a learning pipeline that helps it to improve and understand new things from conversations. It can also recall and understand old concepts better with new information.

Omeife also has terrain intelligence in that it knows its own ground level and stability on the floor, which helps it navigate on non-flat surfaces and maintain good balance. It also has a position awareness feature and a grip sensor that allows it to size, understand shape, and how to hold things with its hands.

Uniccon Group is keeping the hope of improving the humanoid to the point of mass-producing and selling it for starting from $30,000 upward, Ekwueme said. This is similar to Tesla’s plan for its humanoid. Musk said the humanoid, upon completion, will sell for $20,000. Optimus is built for physicality while Omeife is built for intellectual social engagement. “We can also build for physicality, all we need to do is to modify the AI and strengthen the hardware component of our humanoid,” Ekwueme said confidently.

Mass producing and selling for such a price—more than Tesla’s humanoid’s floor price—might be a long shot, considering that there aren’t many robot mass-producing companies in the world at the moment. It might also take some time for the world to accept the commercialisation of a made-in-African robot, compare to those from other regions that have been in the game for decades. Building a robot is the beginning of the journey for Ekwueme and his team, driving global acceptance and adoption to it is likely going to be more tasking. But sheer will is important while building in uncharted territory. It’s working for Musk, and it just might work for Ekwueme too. Also at this pivotal point where African technology space is gaining lots of attention and investment interest, the need to diversify and build exportable deeptech solutions shouldn’t be overlooked and discouraged. And as initially argued here, Africa is somewhat ripe to start solving global problems: projects like Omeife and similar ones currently under development are testament to this thesis.

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