How Ethiopia’s Rediet Abebe is using algorithms and AI to address socio-economic inequality

How Ethiopia’s Rediet Abebe is using algorithms and AI to address socio-economic inequality
11 min read

Rediet Abebe is a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science at Cornell University, with interests in algorithms, artificial intelligence, and their applications to social good.  She is interested in using ideas from algorithms, networks, and data science to better understand and implement interventions in socio-economic inequality.

Rediet Abebe

Prior to Cornell, Rediet completed an M.S. in Applied Mathematics from Harvard University, an M.A. in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge as a Harvard-Cambridge Fellow, and a B.A. in Mathematics from Harvard University. She has also completed two research internships at Microsoft Research.

Rediet grew up in a low-income family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she followed the national curriculum before getting a merit-based scholarship to attend a local international high school.

“I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My mother has been working as a civil servant for the past 3 decades. So for me and my two siblings, Tsega and Ililan, our main option was attending local public schools. My mom has always been dedicated to getting us the best education possible. In my case, she stood in line for many hours several days in a row to get me into Nazareth School in Addis Ababa, which was an inexpensive, all-girls Catholic school that my sister would also later attend. I was enrolled at Nazareth School through middle school, where I followed the national curriculum. In eighth grade, I won a merit-based scholarship given out to four students from city to attend International Community School of Addis Ababa. At ICS, I followed the International Baccalaureate curriculum before applying to universities abroad.”

Rediet has also co-founded several initiatives to help identify and forge new research paths and create more collaborative environments at the intersection of computer science and social sciences. These include an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research group on Mechanism Design for Social Good and corresponding workshops at the ACM Conference on Economics and Computation. The group and workshops have hosted speakers from computer science, economics, global health, sociology, as well as many related fields. 

The goal of this initiative is to build domain knowledge in topics including affordable housing, economic inequality, and social mobility, to identify algorithmic, optimization, and mechanism design problems aimed at improving access to opportunity.

In spring 2017, Rediet co-founded and has since been co-organising the Black in AI group, which aims to foster collaborations and increase the presence of Black researchers in AI. In December 2017, she co-organised the first Black in AI Workshop at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS ’17), which is the largest machine learning conference. She has also been a dedicated mentor to many women and under-represented minorities through various programs.

Rediet at the 2017 Facebook PhD Fellows Workshop (Photo Credit: Facebook Research)

  • You seem to have a passion for Mathematics. What inspired this, and why the switch to Computer Science?

“My family tells me that I was interested in math for as long as they can remember. My mother recalls that before I even got to first grade, when I was home-schooled, I would go through my math lessons very quickly and would insist on more lessons! 

I realised that I’d like to pursue math as a career in middle school when we started learning geometry. I was mesmerised by the concreteness and elegance of it, and I would often spend entire weekends trying to understand why different geometric identities hold. I don’t remember how I learned this, but someone mentioned to me that professors get to do this for a living, and I thought ‘that must be the coolest job ever’.

I studied math through college at Harvard and was planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics after finishing my masters in math at the University of Cambridge. I spent the summer before at the University of Chicago, where I got exposed to algorithms. During my time in Cambridge, I took some classes related to algorithms and game theory. This experience put me on a totally different path. I realised that I could work on these mathematically-flavoured problems that have always interested me, but also apply them to answer societal questions. So, now, in addition to spending entire weekends trying to prove theorems, I also get to work on problems that can directly improve our understanding of societal processes.”

  • Tell us about the project you are currently working on.

“Along with Kira Goldner (a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington) I co-organise the Mechanism Design for Social Good group, which is an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional group with the goal of identifying research topics for which algorithmic, mechanism design, and AI techniques have the potential to improve access to opportunity. Through this group, we have been exploring domains such as housing, economic inequality, and the developing world through an interdisciplinary lens. My research involves using algorithms and AI to shed light on under-explored dimensions of socioeconomic inequality. This includes improving our measurements and understanding of the impact of factors such as social capital, financial shocks, and access to information. I also work on improving resource allocations, targeting education and designing systems to mitigate inequality.”

  • What are your career plans after your PhD?

“I’m still very excited about the prospect of becoming a professor! In fact, during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I’ve learnt many things about the job that make it more appealing to me. In addition to doing research, I really enjoy teaching, and that’s a huge part of the job. I’m also very passionate about mentoring. I’ve greatly benefited from many senior students and faculty members who have taken me under their wings at various points in my academic development. I try to do the same with younger students. Long-term mentor-mentee relationships such as those in Ph.D. advisees are especially enriching experiences. I have had the fortune of working closely with both my graduate adviser here at Cornell and various members of my dissertation committee and other researchers. I think I’d really enjoy being on the other end!

I’ve also taken on other roles during my time as a graduate student, including being a Graduate Resident Fellow on Cornell’s West Campus and a Graduate Student Ambassador at the Cornell Graduate School. As a faculty member, I would enjoy not only teaching and mentoring students in my departments, but also being part of the broader university community.”

  • Do you think having the opportunity to study abroad has shaped your STEM career positively?

“It has, in many ways. I remember that one of the first things I did when I arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate was to go to Widener Library. I walked around for almost two hours looking at the rows and rows of books on each floor. I had never seen so many books in my entire life! The libraries that I had access to before were a thousand times smaller, if not more. Studying abroad, and especially at these institutions that I attended, opened up a lot of opportunities for me that I could not previously imagined. I also met many of my mentors and collaborators who have helped me in my growth as a researcher through this experience, and I am very grateful!

I am also hopeful that such opportunities will expand to cover all of Ethiopia, and more broadly Africa. There is growing interest in mathematics and computer science, and there is a lot of incredible work coming out of institutions in Africa. For instance, at the first Black in AI workshop, which I co-organized with some friends and colleagues, we had presentations from Ciira Maina and George Musumba from Dedan Kimathi University of Technology and Bonolo Mathibel from IBM Research Africa, as well as many other poster presentations by African researchers. There are various initiatives across the continent. Just in Ethiopia, Jelani Nelson is organizing Addis Coder, a programming and algorithms summer program for high school students. I was also at the initiation of the African Girls Can Code Initiative launched by UN Women just this past week. I’m hopeful that soon all Africa women and girls will have the option to stay at their hometowns and having access to the same opportunities and resources as they would abroad.”

  • What are your predictions for artificial intelligence next year? And how do you think this can advance social good in Ethiopia?

“This past year has been an incredible year for AI! The community is responding to the pressing need to both increase the diversity of the field, and also formalise ways to discuss societal implications of our research.

Concerning fairness and ethics considerations of AI, we have seen two conferences that started just this past year – the ACM/AAAI Conference on AI, Ethics and Society (AIES) and the Conference on Fairness, Ethics, and Transparency (FAT*). Both of these grew out of the recognition that AI research cannot be pursued as a purely technical endeavour, but must be responsive to societal concerns. There are larger and larger communities that are approaching AI from an interdisciplinary perspective, including in AI for social good; and it’s thrilling to be part of this movement!

This past year, we also co-founded the Black in AI group and co-organized the first Black in AI workshop at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) in December. NIPS is the largest machine learning conference, but until this past year it was only attended by a handful of Black researchers. This year was different. The workshop drew hundreds of Black researchers to NIPS! The Black in AI group is growing rapidly, including across the African continent, and I believe has been helpful in fostering research collaborations. I think we will see more work on AI by Africans and for Africa!”