Establishing the First Artificial Intelligence Hub in Iraq

My Journey into AI, from accepting a scholarship to study in the US to co-founding the first AI Hub in Iraq

“Towards a More Intelligent Tomorrow ” by Sarah Chokali

In March 2016, when Deep Mind’s AlphaGo beat the world champion in Go — a game so complex that it has more board positions than there are atoms in the universe — it’s become clear to me, and the whole world for that matter, that AI is the future.

AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol — Source: Getty Images

At that time, my interest was piqued, but unfortunately, the AI community and job market were non-existent in Iraq, so I remained focused on developing Code Lab — an initiative that teaches young people coding skills in various fields and connects them to potential employers — which would launch later that year. To date, we have done nine bootcamps taking in over 150 students, the majority of which are now working as senior software engineers in well-respected companies, and many of them started their very own tech startups!

Celebrating the graduation of Code Lab’s full-stack web development bootcamp

Fast forward to May 2018, when I got the chance to attend both Facebook’s f8 and Google I/O conferences in person and, more importantly, connect and interact with actual AI experts. After many AI-focused sessions, conversations, and demos, I became more determined than ever to pursue a career in AI and foster an AI community in Iraq to build upon my previous work on building tech communities like GDG Baghdad, Fikra Space, and others.

Giving the keynote speech at GDG Baghdad’s Google I/O Extended event, covering the latest developer products and tools announcements from Google

Given that the situation in Iraq was similar to what it was in 2016 when it came to AI adoption, education, and community, I decided to start looking for opportunities to study abroad. In May 2019, I got awarded the Fulbright scholarship to study at the Univerisity of Georgia for a master’s in AI degree and moved to the US later that year.

I quickly realized that the education system in the US was far ahead of what we had in Iraq, so I naturally had a lot of catching up to do and pretty much spent the following year learning from my coursework, along with a bunch of online courses like DeepLearning.AI’s TensorFlow and Deep Learning specializations. And thanks to the pandemic, I had a lot of time to dive into learning AI to sharpen my newly found knowledge and skills.

Running into Laurence Moroney at Google I/O 2019 who taught me the TensorFlow through the TensorFlow Professional Certificate Specialization on Coursera

By the end of 2020, I was in close contact with Muntadher AL-Kaabi, a fellow AI enthusiast living in Baghdad, Iraq who was in a similar situation where he couldn’t find an AI community and ecosystem that would guide and support him to grow. We had many discussions regarding the situation and ways to solve it and eventually decided to take the first steps in building an AI ecosystem by creating a community for AI enthusiasts to share their knowledge and developing a talent pool that local companies interested in implementing AI can tap into. In December 2020, we launched an 8-weeks intensive online Machine Learning bootcamp for free, which got excellent reception and served as an example of the need for an AI community to guide people into this field.

The graduation picture of the first-ever Machine Learning bootcamp in Iraq after students showcased their capstone projects. The event place online during COVID lockdowns.

Soon after, several local communities did their own Machine Learning and AI-related courses and bootcamps, proving that there is indeed an interest in this critical field, making me more determined to develop a vibrant AI community in Iraq. However, I had a degree to finish, so I spent the following months working on my thesis on Arabic Image Captioning with Attention. After tons of caffeine and countless all-nighters, I successfully defended my thesis in June 2021, earning a master’s degree in AI with great distinction.

Celebrating my successful thesis defense with my advisory committee with Dr. Frederick Maier as chair and Dr. Khaled Rasheed and Dr. Sheng Li as members. Brought to you by Zoom!

It was time to continue working on teaching AI to young Iraqis and foster a vibrant and welcoming community where those interested in the field can find a place to belong and grow. I also knew that we couldn’t do it independently, given the significant work it takes to make such an initiative successful, impactful, and sustainable. So we partnered up with GIZ — a German development agency that provides services in the field of international development cooperation and international education work —, a partnership that would give birth to AI Dojo, the first AI Hub in Iraq that aims to foster a vibrant AI ecosystem in Iraq that supports both individuals interested in taking up a career in AI and provide consultation for SMBs that want to integrate AI into their products and services.

A session from AI Dojo’s Machine Learning bootcamp where students were learning to build deep learning models and training them using Google Colab

We started teaching people essential AI skills by giving workshops in our own space and in universities to expand our reach and impact. And on January 2022, we began AI Dojo’s first Machine Learning bootcamp, which lasted for three months and was filled with hands-on training sessions and portfolio-building projects and assignments, we have also open-sourced all of our training material!

AI Dojo’s Interactive Live AI Sessions, talking about Deep Learning & TensorFlow’s Ecosystem

Last week we held a graduation ceremony for the first cohort where our students showcased their bootcamp’s capstone projects in front of an audience of potential employers. The projects worked on topics like X-ray Classification and Analysis, Personal Clothing Recommendation System, Sales Forecasting, and many more.

AI Dojo’s ML Bootcamp First Cohort

Our work is only beginning, and there’s a long way to go to build a vibrant Iraqi AI ecosystem. I’m proud of the team's work and excited for the challenges ahead. We’re continuing to provide free workshops and courses and hosting online live sessions to discuss various topics relating to AI and answer the audience’s questions. There’s another bootcamp just around the corner! Follow AI Dojo on Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram to learn about our upcoming events as they happen.

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Full-stack software engineer working on empowering the tech & AI community in Iraq via @CodeLabBootcamp @TheAIDojo

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Sabri Monaf Sabri

Sabri Monaf Sabri

Full-stack software engineer working on empowering the tech & AI community in Iraq via @CodeLabBootcamp @TheAIDojo

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