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IBM aims AI at Africa

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Artificial intelligence is seen as an advanced and dangerous technology, but IBM is showing how it can help solve problems for Africa, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Artificial intelligence has been getting a bad rap lately. It’s been blamed for the way Facebook and Twitter promote fake news on the basis of showing people more of what they are already click through to read. That in turn is credited by some with handing Donald Trump the US presidency. It’s also been blamed for introducing bias into anything from home loan approvals to facial recognition systems, which tend to be more accurate with Caucasian faces than those of others.

But a team of scientists at a research facility in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, hopes to change all that. 

“We are working on beneficial AI,” says Tapiwa  Chiwewe, a scientist at IBM Research, which opened its second global research lab in Africa at the Tshimologong precinct in 2016. “We want to create AI that benefits people. In Africa, there are all kinds of socio-economic problems and we’re in a unique position to create AI that improves people’s lives. But we also want to create economic and social value.”

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The emphasis is not on AI for its own sake, or operating independently of humans, but on creating symbiotic systems that help humans perform their roles better.

“These range from data driven healthcare to digital urban ecosystems,” says Craig Holmes, vice president for Industry Solutions and Business Development at IBM Middle East and Africa. “We’re researching air-quality management in partnership with the city of Johannesburg and Tshwane, we’re looking at traffic management in cities, and even wildfire risk prediction in the Cape Town area.”

Many of these projects will deliver benefits in the medium- to long-term future, but at least one is ready to roll out. It will be launched this Sunday, April 22, marking Earth Day. Appropriately, it is aimed at promoting sustainable energy.

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It’s called EmpowerSolar, and is a web-based application for designing solar powered solutions for domestic and business use. 

IBM explains on the site: “The app uses a sophisticated algorithm to determine an optimal solution, along with an estimated price based on current typical prices. The algorithm takes into account the amount of sunlight at your chosen location, along with the specified usage of the various electrical appliances chosen.”

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The app was developed by Dr Ashley Gritzman, a young scientist at IBM Research. By coincidence, he had graduated as an electrical engineer and was an installer of solar systems before joining IBM. 

“I had a small startup, assessing people’s energy usage, monitoring household or small business consumption, and told them how to reduce their energy use, ranging from changing old light bulbs to LED, to using solar geysers for water heating. Then we’d spec the systems, and design and install. I saw there was a big divide between home owners who may want energy efficiency, and the knowledge of installers and retailers of the technology.

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“When I joined this lab, they asked, what contribution can we make to the energy question in South Africa? I saw a big gap of information. For example, solar is regarded as way too expensive for many and they wouldn’t look at it. But in fact, people have no idea what it will cost. If they assume it will cost hundreds of thousands of rands, they won’t even pick up the phone to enquire. I wanted to bridge the gap between homeowners and new technology.”

Part of Gritzman’s motivation was the dramatic fall in solar costs: the price of panels has fallen 50% in the last 5 years. The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme, designed to encourage private investment in renewable energy, has seen contract prices fall from R4 to 65c per Kilowatt Hour since 2011.

“South Africa has great resources in both solar and wind, and there is no longer a question that it is cheaper than new-built coal or nuclear. But it has to be super user-friendly, so that my parents can use it; it has to be technically accurate and pricing has to be correct, or else it’s not useful. And the electrical designs it comes up with have to work and be correct.

“When I was doing the solar stuff myself, a design would take a lot of time and a lot of calculations to do an initial quote. Then they also want to run the garage lights, for example, and you have to redo it. The app will be useful to home owners, but also to installers to do a quick design and costing.”

Gritzman’s PhD was in machine learning and image processing, which fits in perfectly with the artificial intelligence focus of the Research Lab and IBM’s Watson AI engine, which has been used for numerous medical breakthroughs, ranging from cancer research to tuberculosis treatment. However, EmpowerSolar fed a personal passion, and he was quickly able to drive it from idea to reality.

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“It’s a responsive web site, it looks like an app, but doesn’t have to be downloaded. You choose your location, and we ask a few questions that are easy to understand. The big difference is in how much sun you get.  We’ve got little sliders, and ask people to use those to select direction, angle of roof and appliances they’d like to use with solar energy.

“When I was an installer, we’d just say how many kilowatt hours do you use a month, and most people don’t know. So we build this from the ground up, with categories, like home office, kitchen, and lighting, and within each we have a database of generic appliances.”

Part of the purpose of the service is to promote energy-efficient behaviour. As users indicate the appliances they use, messages pop up that, for example, advise that an electric geyser uses a large amount of electricity, and indicates the cost and benefit of installing gas or solar. Nothing is hidden. The application includes costs for solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, inverters and installation costs.

Gritzman is as enthusiastic about South Africa’s advantages as he is about solar power.

“South Africa really is sunny. If you compare us with Germany, one of the world leaders in solar, the least sunny spot in South Africa still has more sun than the most sunny city in Germany. That puts in perspective what opportunity we have.”

* Try out the EmpowerSolar application at https://empowersolar.mybluemix.net/

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Which IoT horse should you back?

The emerging IoT is evolving at a rapid pace with more companies entering the market. The development of new product and communication systems is likely to continue to grow over the next few years, after which we could begin to see a few dominant players emerge, says DARREN OXLEE, CTOf of Utility Systems.

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But in the interim, many companies face a dilemma because, in such a new industry, there are so many unknowns about its trajectory. With the variety of options available (particularly regarding the medium of communication), there’s the a question of which horse to back.

Many players also haven’t fully come to grips with the commercial models in IoT (specifically, how much it costs to run these systems).

Which communication protocol should you consider for your IoT application? Depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s a summary of the main low-power, wide area network (LPWAN) communications options that are currently available, along with their applicability:

SIGFOX 

SigFox has what is arguably the most traction in the LPWAN space, thanks to its successful marketing campaigns in Europe. It also has strong support from vendors including Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, and Axom.

It’s a relatively simple technology, ultra-narrowband (100 Hz), and sends very small data (12 bytes) very slowly (300 bps). So it’s perfect for applications where systems need to send small, infrequent bursts of data. Its lack of downlink capabilities, however, could make it unsuitable for applications that require two-way communication.

LORA 

LoRaWAN is a standard governed by the LoRa Alliance. It’s not open because the underlying chipset is only available through Semtech – though this should change in future.

Its functionality is like SigFox: it’s primarily intended for uplink-only applications with multiple nodes, although downlink messages are possible. But unlike SigFox, LoRa uses multiple frequency channels and data rates with coded messages. These are less likely to interfere with one another, increasing the concentrator capacity.

RPMA 

Ingenu Technology Solutions has developed a proprietary technology called Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) in the 2.4 GHz band. Due to its architecture, it’s said to have a superior uplink and downlink capacity compared to other models.

It also claims to have better doppler, scheduling, and interference characteristics, as well as a better link budget of 177 dB compared to LoRa’s 157 dB and SigFox’s 149 dB. Plus, it operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which is globally available for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so there are no regional architecture changes needed – unlike SigFox and LoRa.

LTE-M 

LTE-M (LTE Cat-M1) is a cellular technology that has gained traction in the United States and is specifically designed for IoT or machine‑to‑machine (M2M) communications.

It’s a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) interface that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements (375 kb/s upload and download speeds in half duplex mode). It also enables longer battery lifecycles and greater in‑building range compared to standard cellular technologies like 2G, 3G, or LTE Cat 1.

Key features include:

·       Voice functionality via VoLTE

·       Full mobility and in‑vehicle hand‑over

·       Low power consumption

·       Extended in‑building range

NB-IOT 

Narrowband IoT (NB‑IoT or LTE Cat NB1) is part of the same 3GPP Release 13 standard3 that defined LTE Cat M1 – both are licensed as LPWAN technologies that work virtually anywhere. NB-IoT connects devices simply and efficiently on already established mobile networks and handles small amounts of infrequent two‑way data securely and reliably.

NB‑IoT is well suited for applications like gas and water meters through regular and small data transmissions, as network coverage is a key issue in smart metering rollouts. Meters also tend to be in difficult locations like cellars, deep underground, or in remote areas. NB‑IoT has excellent coverage and penetration to address this.

MY FORECAST

The LPWAN technology stack is fluid, so I foresee it evolving more over the coming years. During this time, I suspect that we’ll see:

1.     Different markets adopting different technologies based on factors like dominant technology players and local regulations

2.     The technologies diverging for a period and then converging with a few key players, which I think will be SigFox, LoRa, and the two LTE-based technologies

3.     A significant technological shift in 3-5 years, which will disrupt this space again

So, which horse should you back?

I don’t believe it’s prudent to pick a single technology now; lock-in could cause serious restrictions in the long-term. A modular, agile approach to implementing the correct communications mechanism for your requirements carries less risk.

The commercial model is also hugely important. The cellular and telecommunications companies will understandably want to maximise their returns and you’ll want to position yourself to share an equitable part of the revenue.

So: do your homework. And good luck!

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Ms Office hack attacks up 4X

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Exploits, software that takes advantage of a bug or vulnerability, for Microsoft Office in-the-wild hit the list of cyber headaches in Q1 2018. Overall, the number of users attacked with malicious Office documents rose more than four times compared with Q1 2017. In just three months, its share of exploits used in attacks grew to almost 50% – this is double the average share of exploits for Microsoft Office across 2017. These are the main findings from Kaspersky Lab’s Q1 IT threat evolution report.

Attacks based on exploits are considered to be very powerful, as they do not require any additional interactions with the user and can deliver their dangerous code discreetly. They are therefore widely used; both by cybercriminals looking for profit and by more sophisticated nation-backed state actors for their malicious purposes.

The first quarter of 2018 experienced a massive inflow of these exploits, targeting popular Microsoft Office software. According to Kaspersky Lab experts, this is likely to be the peak of a longer trend, as at least ten in-the-wild exploits for Microsoft Office software were identified in 2017-2018 – compared to two zero-day exploits for Adobe Flash player used in-the-wild during the same time period.

The share of the latter in the distribution of exploits used in attacks is decreasing as expected (accounting for slightly less than 3% in the first quarter) – Adobe and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making it difficult to exploit Flash Player.

After cybercriminals find out about a vulnerability, they prepare a ready-to-go exploit. They then frequently use spear-phishing as the infection vector, compromising users and companies through emails with malicious attachments. Worse still, such spear-phishing attack vectors are usually discreet and very actively used in sophisticated targeted attacks – there were many examples of this in the last six months alone.

For instance, in late 2017, Kaspersky Lab’s advanced exploit prevention systems identified a new Adobe Flash zero-day exploit used in-the-wild against our customers. The exploit was delivered through a Microsoft Office document and the final payload was the latest version of FinSpy malware. Analysis of the payload enabled researchers to confidently link this attack to a sophisticated actor known as ‘BlackOasis’. The same month, Kaspersky Lab’s experts published a detailed analysis of СVE-2017-11826, a critical zero-day vulnerability used to launch targeted attacks in all versions of Microsoft Office. The exploit for this vulnerability is an RTF document containing a DOCX document that exploits СVE-2017-11826 in the Office Open XML parser. Finally, just a couple of days ago, information on Internet Explorer zero day CVE-2018-8174 was published. This vulnerability was also used in targeted attacks.

“The threat landscape in the first quarter again shows us that a lack of attention to patch management is one of the most significant cyber-dangers. While vendors usually issue patches for the vulnerabilities, users often can’t update their products in time, which results in waves of discreet and highly effective attacks once the vulnerabilities have been exposed to the broad cybercriminal community,” notes Alexander Liskin, security expert at Kaspersky Lab.

Other online threat statistics from the Q1, 2018 report include:

  • Kaspersky Lab solutions detected and repelled 796,806,112 malicious attacks from online resources located in 194 countries around the world.
  • 282,807,433 unique URLs were recognised as malicious by web antivirus components.
  • Attempted infections by malware that aims to steal money via online access to bank accounts were registered on 204,448 user computers.
  • Kaspersky Lab’s file antivirus detected a total of 187,597,494 unique malicious and potentially unwanted objects.
  • Kaspersky Lab mobile security products also detected:
    • 1,322,578 malicious installation packages.
    • 18,912 mobile banking Trojans (installation packages).

To reduce the risk of infection, users are advised to:

  • Keep the software installed on your PC up to date, and enable the auto-update feature if it is available.
  • Wherever possible, choose a software vendor that demonstrates a responsible approach to a vulnerability problem. Check if the software vendor has its own bug bounty program.

·         Use robust security solutions , which have special features to protect against exploits, such as Automatic Exploit Prevention.

·         Regularly run a system scan to check for possible infections and make sure you keep all software up to date.

  • Businesses should use a security solution that provides vulnerability, patch management and exploit prevention components, such as Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business. The patch management feature automatically eliminates vulnerabilities and proactively patches them. The exploit prevention component monitors suspicious actions of applications and blocks malicious files executions.
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