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Technology comes good

What do celebrities like Charlize Theron, Jon Bon Jovi, and charitable causes have in common with technology? Everything, if a recent mega tech conference is anything to go by, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The city is Orlando, Florida. The stage is brightly lit. The actress all but shimmers as she addresses the audience.

“This is the city where I shot Monster,” says Charlize Theron, whose role in that movie made her the first South African to win an Oscar.

But she’s not here to talk about movies. The event where she is talking has nothing to do with movies. Rather, it is one of the biggest business technology conferences of the year. More than 20 000 business and technology professionals have descended on Orlando for the annual Sapphire Now event, hosted by global enterprise resource planning (ERP) software leader SAP.

The prime focus of the event is the release of a new software suite called SAP C/4HANA, designed to usher in what SAP CEO Bill McDermott calls a new generation of customer relations management.

“At the centre is the person, not the transaction,” he declares. The key to this person-focused approach is “intelligent customer experience”, both a philosophy and a new name for the category of software that includes C/4HANA. 

McDermott tells business leaders attending his opening keynote session: “Brands are not defined by you, they are defined by your customers. Customers are rebelling against being treated as sales opportunities. Customers are not records in a system; customers are people. Customers have needs and desires, and those have to be at the centre of your design.”

It is this people-focused theme that sets the stage for Charlize Theron, along with stars like Jon Bon Jovi and several Olympic medalists, to share their ideals and motivations.

During an on-stage interview with one of SAP’s most senior female leaders, executive board member Adaire Fox-Martin, Theron shares her views on leadership and purpose. Mostly, however, she speaks of her dedication to a cause close to her heart: the Charlize Therson Aids Outreach Project.

Asked by Fox-Martin why she chose that direction, she speaks passionately about her feelings for South Africa.

“I was born and raised in South Africa and South Africa is the hardest hit country in the world when it comes to HIV and Aids,” she says. “We represent 1% of the world’s population but 19% of the world’s HIV-positive population. More people are living with HIV – 7-million – than anywhere else in the world. 

“It’s a very modern country, there’s a real modern face to SA, it’s a very rich country, although still grappling with its democracy. It’s a young democracy. We have things that make our country more complicated than anywhere in the world. 

“More cultures are living together than anywhere else, which makes for an incredible country. A country like South Africa should not be dealing with HIV Aids in the way that it does.”

In case the audience doesn’t get the message, she emphasises one of the overriding themes of the conference: “For me, it is very personal.”

Her many return visits to South Africa, she says, made her realise she could do something.

Charlize Theron speaks at Sapphire Now in Orlando. Photo by Arthur Goldstuck

“Every time I went back, I saw the devastation this virus had on my country on every level. Emotionally, it stayed with me, and I realised I was living in these two worlds: one in America where I had been given these opportunities, then going back and seeing young girls like myself not living with opportunities, not having knowledge or education. 

“This gave me the drive to take what I had in my life in America and help children who don’t have the tools or resources we have in other countries. We should care about that because it will come round and affect us no matter where we are in the world.”

She leaves the audience with a powerful message: “I’m proud to say South Africa has the biggest HIV treating programme in the world, but we can’t treat ourselves out of HIV and AIDS. We can’t treat it; we have to stop it.”

In contrast, rock star Jon Bon Jovi’s message is almost tame. In conversation with Bill McDermott, he speaks of being moved by the sight, from the window of his luxury hotel room more than a decade ago, of a homeless man sleeping on the streets of Philadelphia. It inspired him to start the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, a non-profit organisation focused on hunger and homelessness in the United States.

Coincidentally, it is another South Africa, little known outside the software world, who shows how technology and compassion truly come together. 

Robert Enslin, who built up the SAP business in South Africa in the 1990s, worked his way up the ranks to become president of the SAP Cloud Business Group and a member of the SAP executive board.

He also serves as the executive sponsor for SAP’s Autism at Work program, which integrates people with autism into the workforce. It had become clear to SAP that, while people on the autism spectrum did not often interview well, they excelled at programming once they were hired as software developers. As a result, it launched the Autism at Work programme in 2013.

At Sapphire Now, Enslin discusses SAP’s commitment to the project in a session titled “Inclusion Drives Innovation”. 

“In order to compete in the innovation economy, companies need employees who think differently,” he says. “We have a corporate goal to employ 650 colleagues on the autism spectrum by 2020. The initiative currently includes nearly 120 colleagues filling over 20 different positions, and is active in nine countries.”

Enslin is also honorary global Chairman of the Els for Autism Golf Challenge, initiated by South Africa’s golfing legend Ernie Els. While this takes the cause into the world of sports, Enslin is well-known for his views on workplace inclusion.

“Having a diverse workforce no longer means just gender parity,” he says. “Diversity means employing people across generations and cultures, employing differently-abled people, and making sure you have equality across all dimensions of diversity.”

Ultimately, and surprisingly, it is Jon Bon Jovi who sums up the key message coming out of the conference as he sums up his advice to the youth: 

“Remain true to who you are, don’t follow fads and fashions because, by the time you get to it, it will already be past. The greatest gift the next generation can give is to aspire to inspire. Don’t sing The Macerena because it is a worldwide number one, but try to write Blowing in the Wind because that song will change people’s lives.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

 

Cars

Motor Racing meets Machine Learning

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The car of tomorrow, most of us imagine, is being built by the great automobile manufacturers of the world. More and more, however, we are seeing information technology companies joining the race to power the autonomous vehicle future.

Last year, chip-maker Intel paid $15.3-billion to acquire Israeli company Mobileye, a leader in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. Google’s autonomous taxi division, Waymo, has been valued at $45-billion.

Now there’s a new name to add to the roster of technology giants driving the future.

DeepRacer on the inside

Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest cloud computing service and a subsidiary of Amazon.com,  last month unveiled a scale model autonomous racing car for developers to build new artificial intelligence applications. Almost in the same breath, at its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, it showcased the work being done with machine learning in Formula 1 racing.

AWS DeepRacer is a 1/18th scale fully autonomous race car, designed to incorporate the features and behaviour of a full-sized vehicle. It boasts all-wheel drive, monster truck tires, an HD video camera, and on-board computing power. In short, everything a kid would want of a self-driving toy car.

But then, it also adds everything a developer would need to make the car autonomous in ways that, for now, can only be imagined. It uses a new form of machine learning (ML), the technology that allows computer systems to improve their functions progressively as they receive feedback from their activities. ML is at the heart of artificial intelligence (AI), and will be core to autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

AWS has taken ML a step further, with an approach called reinforcement learning. This allows for quicker development of ML models and applications, and DeepRacer is designed to allow developers to experiment with and hone their skill in this area. It is built on top of another AWS platform, called Amazon SageMaker, which enables developers and data scientists to build, train, and deploy machine learning quickly and easily.

Along with DeepRacer, AWS also announced the DeepRacer League, the world’s first global autonomous racing league, open to anyone who orders the scale model from AWS.

DeepRacer on the outside

As if to prove that DeepRacer is not just a quirky entry into the world of motor racing, AWS also showcased the work it is doing with the Formula One Group. Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director of Motor Sports, joined AWS CEO Andy Jassy during the keynote address at the re:Invent conference, to demonstrate how motor racing meets machine learning.

“More than a million data points a second are transmitted between car and team during a Formula 1 race,” he said. “From this data, we can make predictions about what we expect to happen in a wheel-to-wheel situation, overtaking advantage, and pit stop advantage. ML can help us apply a proper analysis of a situation, and also bring it to fans.

“Formula 1 is a complete team contest. If you look at a video of tyre-changing in a pit stop – it takes 1.6 seconds to change four wheels and tyres – blink and you will miss it. Imagine the training that goes into it? It’s also a contest of innovative minds.”

AWS CEO Andy Jassy unveils DeepRacer

Formula 1 racing has more than 500 million global fans and generated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2017. As a result, there are massive demands on performance, analysis and information. 

During a race, up to 120 sensors on each car generate up to 3GB of data and 1 500 data points – every second. It is impossible to analyse this data on the fly without an ML platform like Amazon SageMaker. It has a further advantage: the data scientists are able to incorporate 65 years of historical race data to compare performance, make predictions, and provide insights into the teams’ and drivers’ split-second decisions and strategies.

This means Formula 1 can pinpoint how a driver is performing and whether or not drivers have pushed themselves over the limit.

“By leveraging Amazon SageMaker and AWS’s machine-learning services, we are able to deliver these powerful insights and predictions to fans in real time,” said Pete Samara, director of innovation and digital technology at Formula 1.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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LG rethinks portable speakers

LG adds three sizes to its XBoom Go portable speaker line in a portable revision, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Portable Bluetooth speakers are fairly commonplace at a pool party because they’re battery-powered. The only issue is that louder speakers usually distort the music or break the bank. The LG XBoom aims to change this.

LG has partnered with Meridian Audio to produce great sounding speakers that can go loud without distorting the audio. Meridian Audio is an expert in high-performance, high-fidelity audio experiences. The company is best known for producing the industry’s first audiophile-quality compact disc player and provide audio equipment to McLaren and Jaguar Land Rover.

The Bluetooth software in the XBoom Go is Qualcomm aptX HD compatible, meaning that 24bit vinyl-quality audio can be played through this speaker over Bluetooth instead of standard-fidelity audio.

The major phone assistants feature on these speakers, with tethered Google Assistant or Apple Siri functionality from one’s smartphone. This makes it very convenient to use the voice assistant button to skip tracks and change music when one’s hands are wet.

Three models of the XBoom Go series – the PK3, PK5 and PK7 – offer different audio functions depending on the audio needs of the user. Best fits for these speakers are:

  • PK3 – The Pool Friendly Speaker: The PK3 is IPX7 water resistant, up to 1 metre for 30 minutes, making this speaker accident proof at pool parties. Boasting up to 12 hours of playback from its built-in battery, this speaker will last as long as the party.

  • PK5 – The Party Friendly Speaker: Even if the lunch braai turns into a midnight feast, this speaker will play throughout as its battery lasts up to 18 hours. Clear Vocal technology is added to the PK5, which reduces audio imperfections from the music for a sharper sound. It is also water and splash resistant and has a handle, allowing for it to be easily carried. Built-in LED lights which pulse with the beat of the music on this speaker provide a light show for any song.

  • PK7 –  The Audiophile’s Speaker: With a battery life that lasts for up to 22 hours, the PK7 also contains an LED light to the rhythm of the sound. The speaker integrates a convenient handle grip that allows for it to be transported securely. The powerful PK7 Bluetooth speaker also distributes its high frequencies across two separate tweeters for more precise sonic detail.

Overall, LG’s XBoom PK portable speakers are a phenomenal set of high-quality wireless speakers.

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