Written by NiMechE Press

  • September 26, 2020
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     Is Robotics & AI the future? — An exclusive interview

Definitely, the world is moving very close to a stage where humans will have to depend on Robots for a good number of activities. For a country like Nigeria, we obviously lost out in the industrial revolution age, and we can’t afford to lose out in this technological and digital age. The long talked about future of the digital age is now. How do we fit into it? Is a country like Nigeria ripe for robotics and Artificial intelligence? All these and many more made Team Da vinci (Correspondents Chiawa Emmanuel and Ogunsola Emmanuel) of the NIMechE UI press take out time to interview Dr. Olusola, the founder of Robotics and Artificial intelligence Nigeria(RAIN). So, Just grab a seat, probably with your pop corn and enjoy this ride.

Good day sir, our audience are eager to know you, can you introduce yourself?
My name is Dr Olusola Ayoola, I’m the founder of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Nigeria (RAIN). We are currently headquartered in Ibadan and by the first month of next year, we would be opening our lekki centre in Lagos. At the same time I’m a lecturer in UI; I joined UI in November, 2019 when I came back from the UK. I lecture mainly the masters students on Robotics and Control systems. I’m a UI graduate, finished in 2011 with a first class degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. So I got a Federal government scholarship to study Advanced control and systems engineering in Manchester. I achieved a distinction and the University gave me a scholarship to do my PhD.

Wow, thank you very much sir. So, what was growing up like and what key experiences or people majorly influenced your choice of career?
Growing up, I had always wanted to be a lawyer because I like talking and arguing and my family is a family of lawyers. But then, a religious scholar said to my mum that he had a vision that I was with a stethoscope which means I should be a medical doctor. That was in JSS3. So I said okay, and then went on to become a science student. Along the line, it dawned on me that I’m not good for medical sciences because Biology has a lot of scientific names and the likes, and I couldn’t keep up with those terminologies. So I considered Engineering. I asked a family friend who is a medical doctor to list engineering courses for me because I knew nothing about it. I then told him sir, I can’t be a medical doctor, can you tell me which of the engineering courses is the toughest so I won’t feel like a failure for not studying law or medicine. He said they are all tough but maybe Electrical (laughs). That’s not to speak against you anyway. So that was how I chose electrical engineering.

Interesting! So what do you do at RAIN for those who do not know?
First of all, RAIN is the very first of its kind of its kind in Nigeria. So we do everything concerning Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. We train adult graduates, undergraduates and children from age 7-13 who are very new in the field. We train adults in the sense that we have a 9months full course in Robot development and automation, AI and Machine learning. We run every day (Monday-Friday) from 9.30am to 4.30pm like a school. We run a full school for proper grilling-practical and theory the same way I had it in Manchester. That’s the same template we use. We also have internships for university students who want some exposure. Internships cost #50,000 per month while trainings cost #1.25million for 9 months.

So when and how was the RAIN concept conceived?

All this while when I started my UK studies, I said to myself; the education in Nigeria is not adequate. How can you spend 5years in the university when they spend 3years and yet, become better engineers than us? We spend 5years learning theory and plotting graphs. Nigerian universities hardly buy parts; and the Nigerian government won’t do it, they only do things that will make you vote for them. So I decided that I will come back to set up something that would make Nigeria able to compete with UK, china and co. I saw the need to come and re-train graduates. That was how it started and I decided to name it with something for the future and not the past so that people will know where we are going to. That’s how Robotics and Artificial Intelligence came also placing Nigeria on the map.

Wow! This is amazing. So, how has the RAIN journey been so far? What has been the giant milestone?
Immaculate, Divine. How do you start a company in March and by the end of the month, the whole nation is on lockdown, yet we were still able to bounce back. During that period, many people lost their jobs and money was a big problem and people weren’t willing to pay huge money for things anymore. I expected many people to stop, but on the contrary, more people started making enquiries. People were willing to have more skills in the field. So, what ought to kill the business seem to have grown this business. We started with about 8students and now we have about 54 users of the facilities upon the fact that we shut down in April and may. Funny enough, we haven’t spent much on advert, yet we have students from different states. That’s because our marketing is not physical but online. Now the federal government and state government are interested in RAIN. So it’s been immaculate. The giant milestone honestly, apart from the fact that we’ve been touching lives, we’ve made young children who had no experience to dp great things, building stuffs which final year students build as projects in universities. So for me that’s a giant milestone. Beyond that, we’ve been able to support businesses. Like we had a group of investors who wanted to start a clothing line and want it to be an air-conditioned jacket which can be worn on summer, winter or any weather. It’s only available in Japan and it’s almost ready. So that’s another milestone.

Great! This really is a huge milestone. Considering the fees here, is there any way of influencing investors to invest in people who are willing to learn but can’t afford it?
Investors are willing to sponsor. The minister of youth and sports, because of his mandate as the minister, wants to see that he sends out about 50-100 new trainees to RAIN in form of a scholarship. Many people cannot afford the program because I know it’s highly expensive but of course, if the government supports, they can access it. Speaking with a commissioner in Ondo state, he said RAIN should come to Ondo state on the account that CBN would provide loans for those who are willing to train and the government will stand for them. So investors are willing, but they want to see us run first and see the outcome before they can invest. So it’s my duty to move RAIN to a level where investors like government will be willing to sponsor.

Awesome. So, in what ways do you think this pandemic has affected the Robotics and AI sector?
It has affected it hugely, before; people would tell you that Nigeria is not ripe for robotics. They say we are still looking for power and food. But COVID has taught them that will be a time when robots will have to be the ones to go to the streets and markets to get stuffs; they will perform most of our activities. Because of COVID borders were shut and people needed ventilators; even the US had to start producing it themselves. So, COVID made us realize that we’ve been too dependent on China. Nigeria needed nose masks and we resorted to using clothes to make nose masks instead of waiting. Therefore, COVID has made us realize that Nigeria has to develop her own technology. So now, nobody is saying is Nigeria ripe for robotics? What they are saying is do we have people who can train us because everybody wants the skill. Everybody now appreciates it, so robotics has come to stay.

Hmm, thank you sir. Looking at Nigeria as a country, what do you think the future holds for Robotics & AI?
The future of anything depends on the people’s interest, government’s interest and the environment they create. People want to learn, and luckily for us, directly or indirectly, government is showing interest too. For example, due to COVID, the government has introduced robots in airports and hospitals to scan people, thereby reducing the risks doctors face. So everybody is now interested in it. But the question is; can we buy it? Can we afford it? Can we get it? So the future is very bright for robotics and AI in Nigeria. We’ll be needing people who can build and repair these robots. So if we have robotics engineers who can think outside the box, we’ll break barriers and sail.

Alright sir. Considering your prolific knowledge in AI, do you think coding is a requirement to be a key player in the industry?
First of all, coding and programming are the same. Coding is when you type the language which anyone cannot understand which only the computer can read. But when you upload it to a chip, a micro processor, it operates based on those set of instructions, then you have programmed it. So you learn programming by coding. And there’s no way you can develop a robot without learning how to code. C++, python, R programming are tools you cannot do without. But you don’t have to have that prerequisite knowledge before starting. So at RAIN, we take you from the scratch.

Considering your robust undergraduate and postgraduate experience, what advice do you have for young undergraduates especially those in technology?
Nigerian undergraduates need to realize their future is in their hands. When you are in the university to get a degree, how you will end up learning anything and contributing to the society and becoming the person you’ve always wished to become is up to what you do to achieve that. You need to go out of your way to learn even through taking further steps to ask your lecturers questions. Final year projects are also opportunities for students to excel in their field but most people contract it out, not realizing that it’s an opportunity to train themselves in that area. Students should also take internship periods very serious too.

Any advice to young students looking forward to having a tech start ups in Nigeria?
First of all, identify a problem in your country so you can have a unique selling point. Do not be among those that start trying to displace people from the market, the sky is wide enough. Don’t do what others are doing, do something new. Think of a problem, think of a solution. For a start up, have an idea of the problem, meet mentors in the field to guide you.

So finally, do you have any scholarship in mind for people who cannot afford being in RAIN?
At RAIN we try to give out every year a full scholarship and we hope to do that again in 2021. So we hope to give more than one slot with time and with the help of the government. It’s called THE DOOR LIGHT FOUNDATION SCHOLARSHIP. It’s for graduates who finish with a first class from any related engineering course and has passion for Robotics.

That is really great and we are sure many would work towards this.

Thank you very much for your time sir, we really appreciate it.

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