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Robots will be our partners

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Even though some view the latest developments in AI a little daunting, ANTON VAN HEERDEN, Managing Director and Executive Vice-President, Africa & Middle East at Sage, believes we need to see bots and advanced AI as an opportunity to be more efficient.

South African developers and enterprises are showcasing some of the ways they’re putting the newest artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to work, this week at BotCon in Cape Town. Some of the latest developments are a little scary, especially for those who have grown up with rogue AIs and robots in science-fiction or have read the headlines about how we’ll lose millions of jobs worldwide to automation by 2020.

What does this mean for the average business builder or entrepreneur in South Africa? My view is that they should see bots and advanced AI as an opportunity to be more efficient, and make room for more meaningful work for their human employees. Of course, we’ll all need to upskill and reskill ourselves—as millions of people have needed to do in other technology revolutions throughout history— but the good thing is that AI and robotics can help us become more productive and do more ‘human’ work and less of the mundane stuff.

Humans + AI = a great team for small business

AI and bots could change the way small businesses work as much as mobile phones and the Internet have. But rather than replacing human employees, it will help people working for and managing Small & Medium Businesses to achieve more with their time. Used correctly, humans and AI can achieve more together than either can on its own.

Even though many bots today offer fairly basic functionality and features, the pace of innovation in AI and machine learning is accelerating. Advances in areas such as natural language processing (NLP) and speech recognition enable us to interact with machines in ways that feel more natural to us. Just think, for example, of asking Siri a question using your voice compared to fiddling with the onscreen keyboard of your iPhone.

More time to innovate and make happy customers

Letting a ‘bot’ file your expense claims, seek quotes for a caterer for your product launch or respond to basic online customer chat requests could save human capacity for innovation and customer service. Sage, for example recently announced that the first accounting chat bot Pegg now has over 20,000 users in 110 countries.

This is important for small businesses since our research consistently shows that finding time for innovation and creativity is a huge bugbear for time-strapped business builders around the world. It’s little wonder, then, that our recent research also illustrates that South African entrepreneurs are enthusiastic about AI rather than fearful (Forum for Business Builders – South Africa data).

South African entrepreneurs love technology and have traditionally been eager to embrace tools that help them get more things done every day. The research also shows that 43% of respondents are ready Hi Arthurfor AI and bots to help them organise their professional life for them. Nearly half (47%) agreed that they would feel comfortable with AI and Bots organising their personal life for them.

Around 61% of respondents chose AI as the most important technology trend for 2017, with only 18% choosing the blockchain. And some 71% said that they would welcome an admin-free world – the sort of world that AI, blockchain and the next wave of disruptive digital technologies will help us to create.

In the final analysis, technology is there to free us from drudge tasks, so that we can focus on the exciting, creative work that humans still do best.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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