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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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Notre Dame, Scoop Makhathini, GoT, top week in search

From fire disaster to social media disaster, the top Google searches this week covered a wide gamut of themes.

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Paris and the whole world looked on in shock as the 856-year-old medieval Catholic cathedral crumbled into ash. The tragic infernal destruction of this tourist attraction of historical and religious significance led South Africans to generate more than 200 000 search queries for “Notre Dame Cathedral” on Monday. Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire that razed the architectural icon.

In other top trending searches on Google this week, radio presenter Siyabonga Ngwekazi, AKA Scoop Makhathini, went viral when it appeared he had taken to Twitter to expose his girlfriend, Akhona Carpede, for cheating on him. Scoop has since come out to say that he was not responsible for the bitter rant and that his account was hacked. “Scoop Makhathini” generated more than 20 000 search queries on Wednesday.

Fans generated more than 20 000 search queries for “Sam Smith” on Tuesday ahead of the the British superstar’s Cape Town performance at the Grand West Casino. Smith ended up cutting his performance short that night due to vocal strain.

Local Game of Thrones superfans were beside themselves on Sunday, searching the internet high and low for the first episode of the American fantasy drama’s eighth season. “Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 1” generated more than 100 000 queries on Google Search on the weekend.

As the festivities kicked off in California with headliners such as Childish Gambino and Ariana Grande, South Africans generated more than 2 000 search queries for “Coachella” on Saturday.

South Africans generated more than 5 000 search queries for “Wendy Williams” on Friday  as it emerged that the American talk show host had filed for divorce from her husband Kevin Hunter after 21 years of marriage. Hunter has long been rumored to have been cheating on Williams, which reportedly finally led to the divorce.

Search trends information is gleaned from data collated by Google based on what South Africans have been searching for and asking Google. Google processes more than 40 000 search queries every second. This translates to more than a billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. Live Google search trends data is available at https://www.google.co.za/trends/hottrends#pn=p40

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5G smartphones to hit 5M sales in 2019

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According to the latest research from Strategy Analytics, global smartphone shipments will reach a modest 5 million units in 2019. Early 5G smartphone models will be expensive and available in limited volumes. Samsung, LG and Huawei will be the early 5G smartphone leaders this year, followed by Apple next year.

Ken Hyers, Director at Strategy Analytics, said, “We forecast global 5G smartphone shipments will reach a modest 5 million units in 2019. Less than 1 percent of all smartphones shipped worldwide will be 5G-enabled this year. Global 5G smartphone shipments are tiny for now, due to expensive device pricing, component bottlenecks, and restricted availability of active 5G networks.”

Ville Petteri-Ukonaho, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, added, “Samsung will be the early 5G smartphone leader in the first half of 2019, due to initial launches across South Korea and the United States. We predict LG, Huawei, Xiaomi, Motorola and others will follow later in the year, followed by Apple iPhone with its first 5G model during the second half of 2020. The iPhone looks set to be at least a year behind Samsung in the 5G smartphone race and Apple must be careful not to fall too far behind.”

Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, added, “The short-term outlook for 5G smartphones is weak, but the long-term opportunity remains huge. We forecast 1 billion 5G smartphones to ship worldwide per year by 2025. The introduction of 5G networks, by carriers like Verizon or China Mobile, opens up high-speed, ultra-low-latency services such as 8K video, streaming games, and augmented reality for business. The next big question for the mobile industry is how much extra consumers are really willing to pay, if anything, for those emerging 5G smartphones and services.”

Strategy Analytics provides a snapshot analyses for the outlook for 5G smartphone market in this Insight report: 5G Smartphones : From Zero to a Billion

Strategy Analytics provides a deep-dive into the air-interface technologies that will power phones through 2024 across 88 countries here: Global Handset Sales Forecast by 88 Countries and 19 Technologies : 2003 to 2024

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