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The next big change

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The world is about to change, yet again, and in ways few can imagine. South Africa won’t be immune, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Self-driving cars, text by thinking, and sensors in your body warning you of medical issues before they happen are some of the bewildering advances in technology expected over the next ten years. 

Even countries that are not linked by umbilical cord to the innovation hubs of Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and Shanghai will feel the impact. But many are woefully unprepared. 

In South Africa, banks, insurance companies and marketers are investing heavily in both their own innovations and in buying up start-ups that can help them catch up. Beyond those industries, however, it tends to be business as usual.

This is one of the reasons that an organisation called the Mobility Centre for Africa (MCA) has convened a conference this week to advance discussions around disruptive technologies affecting the transport industry, with the aim of predicting future scenarios for African cities.

Described as a platform for the research, testing and deployment of future smart mobility solutions, the MCA brings together the public sector, industry and academia. It seeks an integrated approach to the research and development of electric and autonomous vehicles. But, more importantly, it wants to prepare South Africa and Africa’s road and related infrastructure for legislative changes and infrastructure standards.

The MCA has held similar events in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town over the past six months. Its 4th Future Mobility Roundtable is being hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni, one of the few metros in Africa that has developed a truly long-term vision – stretching out all the way to 2055. The event focuses on predicting future scenarios in line with this vision. Drones, artificial intelligence, smart cities, electric vehicles and cloud computing will be among the areas where industry leaders will share their predictions and recommend a course for the future of the country.

What can be expected?

The shape of the future is already being outlined at major technology events the world over. Starting with January’s Las Vegas-based CES (Consumer Electronics Show), the world’s biggest launchpad for new technology, it became clear that one of the key changes we can expect is a move away from touch screens as interfaces and towards voice.

Signs everywhere exhorted visitors to say “Alexa” or “Hey Google”, to activate devices fitted with Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. The latter was to be found in smart TVs, cars and even coffee machines.

Kitchen appliance maker Gourmia was marketing not its latest appliances, but the fact that its air fryers and pressure cookers were now voice enabled.

The integration of voice with vehicle infotainment and navigation systems saw the trend speed into the automotive arena. Panasonic announced a partnership with Amazon to create Alexa Onboard, to integrate Alexa’s voice control features with cars. Panasonic’s Skip Generation IVI – for In-Vehicle Infotainment – has also been upgraded to the latest version of Android, allowing it all the functionality of Google Assistant.

Smart speakers to control smart homes will become commonplace this year. Headphones, heaters and fridges will respond to our voices.

Other new technologies that leaped out from CES were:

  • Smart TVs using HDR10+, a new standard that allows every single frame of a video or TV broadcast to be mastered individually, meaning that they will adapt the colour and brightness of the display to the needs of every single scene;
  • Nissan’s Brain-to-Vehicle, or B2V, a technology that allows the driver’s brain waves to be synchornised with the vehicle so that, for example, the driver’s intention to brake will be signalled to the car up to one second before the brakes are activated, allowing the car to optimise power to the brakes at just the right moment,
  • The advent of 5G, the next generation of mobile connectivity, with Intel demonstrating a 1.6Gigabyte per second connection that could stream a 4K – or ultra high-definition – video along with a virtual reality movie, at the same time, on a single connection, leaving bandwidth to spare.
  • Innovative ways of launching new models of cars: Kia for the first time chose CES over the Detroit Motor Show to launch a new car, with the Kia Niro EV Concept hybrid car unveiled in Las Vegas. BMW used CES to launch the new X2 in virtual reality – the first car ever formally unveiled in VR. As a result of such activity, CES entered the top 10 of American automobile shows, and we can expect even more automotive focus at tech shows in future.

At the beginning of February, the Cisco Live! Conference in Barcelona saw forecasts, previously covered in this column, going all the way to 2055, coincidentally sharing a time frame with Ekurhuleni.

Among other, according to Rowan Trollope, senior vice president at Cisco, we can expect the following:

2022: Dubai will launch the worlds first driverless hover taxi. 

2027: The first commercial launch of a technology called text-by-thinking. 

2030s: New job tiles on LinkedIn will include positions like Avatar Manager, Body Part Maker, Vertical Farmer, Nano Medic, Climate Change Reversal Specialist, and Waste Data Handler. 

2036:  As a result of reverse engineering the human brain, Alzheimer’s will finally be cured. 

2040: The average home PC will have the computing power of 1-billion human brains. 

2050: Virtual telepathy will dominate personal communications. 

2055: The first permanent human presence on Mars. 

Later in February, global consulting firm Accenture unveiled Technology Vision 2018, an annual report that identifies technological trends most likely to disrupt business in the coming years.

More than 6 000 businesses across 19 industries in 25 countries, including South Africa, were surveyed. The key finding was that the technology revolution is arriving.

 “South African businesses and IT executives are increasingly embracing the power of technology, with 80% of those surveyed agreeing that it can help companies weave themselves seamlessly into the fabric of daily life,” said Willie Schoeman, managing director of Accenture Technology in Africa. 

“Many people may not even realise that they are interacting with new innovations like AI. If you’ve received an automated telemarketing call or interacted with a chatbot online, then AI has already influenced your life.”

Clearly, the changes have only just begun.

  • 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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Spotify hits sweet spot

Streaming has shifted the music industry away from ownership and towards customer experience, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week marked the end of the beginning of the streaming music revolution. Apple announced the closing of iTunes, the 18-year-old platform that helped shift the music industry from physical to digital. At its height, in 2014, close to a billion people were using it.

However, the business model was still based on traditional ownership of music. Users either converted their physical music into digital tracks, or bought songs from iTunes. Apple founder Steve Jobs said back in 2003, when the iPod music player was launched, that consumers “don’t want to rent their music… They don’t want subscriptions”.

History proved him spectacularly wrong, and when streaming subscriptions services like Spotify and Pandora began taking off, even as iTunes hit the 800-million user mark, the company launched Apple Music in a dramatic acknowledgment that subscriptions were the future. It was also an admission that iTunes, which had also become a download service for movies and TV shows, had become top-heavy and frustrating to use.

Apple’s late arrival in the streaming world has cost it: In January this year, Apple Music reached 50-million subscribers – exactly half the number paying monthly subs to Spotify.

Spotify took South African music by storm when it launched here in March 2018, thanks to close collaboration with local artists.  It has a dedicated South African team that creates playlists for South Africans, in genres that appeal to local audiences. It also has a local ad sales team, and achieved early success with automotive brands like BMW and Mini using the platform extensively.

The company does not break down user statistics by country but, says Claudius Boller, managing director for Middle East and Africa, uptake exceeded all expectations.

“It’s been an amazing year,” he told Business Times. “Engagement in South Africa has crossed the world average. Users are extremely active, lean forward, and engage with playlists on a daily basis. We are not running many campaigns to move people from our free service to the Premium offering, but people do it right away.

“The metric we look at is how often and how long people use Spotify on average per day, and we have already seen those on premium subscriptions using Spotify much more than Facebook per day.”

The South African audience has another key differentiator, says Boller: “The market is extremely loyal. We know other music services have been in the market for many years. But when people make up their minds to try Spotify, they fall in love with it and continue to use it. The drop-off rate of people using our service is one of the lowest of all the markets in which Spotify operates.”

One of the secrets of Spotify’s success is the close relationship it builds with what it calls “the creative community” – both artists and labels.

“They are extra engaged, because of the data they are able to get. We give them a huge amount of data in a way that is very easy to digest. Through Spotify for Artists, they can see in real time how many listeners they have, their demographics, where they are listening, and where their audience is growing. If Jeremy Loops is doing very well in Australia, he can adjust where to promote his music and how to plan his touring schedule.

“We also use that data to work more closely with the creative community. We bring artists, labels and managers together for educational events so that they can get to know how to use the data. We give them practical advice, for example that they should release music on the same day on all platforms, including radio and streaming services, to maximise monetisation.”

Music entrepreneur Siya Metane agrees that audience data is one of the greatest benefits of streaming music. Better known as Slikour, founding member of the legendary hip hop group Skwatta Kamp, he now runs SlikourOnLife, an online urban music site and community with well over a million regular users. Understanding user trends has been at the heart of the growth of the platform, and he believes Spotify and its competitors add yet another dimension.

“The analytics that the streaming platforms provide give artists more insight of where their music is being consumed,” he says. “It is therefore giving the artists and their managers insight on where to invest nationally or globally. Such information has not been readily available to artists and managers before. Historically, everything was based on the physical purchase of a copy in a region – most of the time locally.”

But there is a downside, he says: “The cost of the streaming sacrifice is losing a whole R100 per album to a streaming company that pays you based on their pro rata plays on their service. Therefore only a few people can benefit. But streaming has definitely shifted the business from music alone to everything else music can influence.”

Both Vodacom and MTN have recognised the potential of streaming music to add value to their services, which are becoming increasingly commoditised. MTN late last year bought the local music streaming service Simfy Africa, and Vodacom in April this year launched its own streaming music service, called My Muze. The latter invites aspiring musicians to upload their music, with the possibility of being discovered and signed to a music label.

“The music industry has changed rapidly in recent times in that everything now lives digitally,” says Rehana Hassim, portfolio manager for music at Vodacom. “We also hope to attract new young consumers, to whom music remains one of the biggest passion points, providing various ways to engage with and consume the music they love.”

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AI reveals SA domestic abuse trends

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By Kriti Sharma, leading global voice on ethical technology and founder of AI for Good and Joanne van der Walt, Director, Sage Foundation 

Digital abuse, infidelity, and alcohol abuse are emerging as common conversation topics between victims of domestic violence in South Africa and rAInbow, an artificial intelligence-powered smart companion.

Developed with funding partner, Sage Foundation, and social justice organisation, The Soul City Institute, rAInbow allows users to ‘chat’ to a non-human over Facebook Messenger. It provides a safe space for domestic violence victims to access information about their rights, support options, and where they can find help – in friendly, simple language.

When we launched rAInbow in November last year, we didn’t expect that it would facilitate over 200,000 conversations with 7,000 users – 150,000 of those within the first three months of launch. One of the reasons we believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) can fill a gap in victim support is because many victims are uncomfortable talking to another person about their experience – due largely to social and cultural taboos, embarrassment, and shame.

The data gathered from anonymised rAInbow conversations** providesinvaluable insight into this complex issue; insight that we can use to improve our communication and prevention strategies.

Digital abuse: Behind the screens

Around 30% of rAInbow users believe it’s acceptable for their partners to check their phones and to insist on knowing who they’re talking to at all times.

Yet this constitutes a form of verbal and/or emotional abuse because abusers exploit technology and social media to monitor, control, shame, stalk, harass, and intimidate their victims. In conversations with rAInbow, many victims reveal that they don’t know what constitutes digital abuse because they can’t recognise the signs.

You could be a victim of digital abuse if your partner demands to know your passwords and who you’re talking to, reads your messages, and dictates who you can be friends with on social media.

The bottom line is, when you’re in a relationship, all communication with your partner – be it digital or face-to-face – should be respectful. You should never feel pressured into doing anything you’re uncomfortable with.

Infidelity: Is cheating really abuse?

Infidelity emerged as one of the main challenges facing rAInbow users in abusive relationships. In such cases, the cheating partner usually blames you for his/her cheating, does it intentionally to hurt you, or threatens to cheat again to control you. Infidelity is often accompanied by lying, manipulation, and blame-shifting – all recognised abusive behaviours.

Technology has exacerbated the problem. It’s now easier to access dating sites, pornography, and chat platforms, facilitating behaviour like ‘sexting’, which some people may consider infidelity.

‘Alcohol made me do it’

Alcohol and drugs are common triggers for violent episodes, with rAInbow users saying their partners were more likely to lash out at them verbally or physically after they’d been drinking. While alcohol itself doesn’t cause domestic violence, it can aggravate already tense situations.

Alcohol impairs people’s judgement and behaviour, to the point where they may lose control and become aggressive, short-tempered, and abusive. In most situations, the abusive partner will blame the alcohol for their actions and may not remember what they did or said the next day. The abused partner, however, has to live with the memories and after-effects of the abuse.

Everyone’s responsibility

In his State of the Nation Address earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa said violence against women and children has reached “epidemic proportions” and that ending abuse would be made an urgent national priority. Corporates, NGOs, and ordinary citizens also have a responsibility to end the scourge.

Technology like rAInbow provides the vital information needed to start driving radical change – at policy and societal level. The conversations that rAInbow is having with users is making us think differently about how to approach this issue. It’s apparent that we need targeted, personalised education drives that help victims identify abuse and explain how and where to get help. It’s also apparent that there’s a strong need for information that can be accessed in a safe, anonymous, and non-judgemental space.

We need to use the aggregated data that’s available to us to make better decisions about action plans and strategies. Solutions like rAInbow can provide governments with the information they need to tackle abuse.

To find out how you can contribute to the rAInbow project, e-mail humans@aiforgood.co.uk.

** All conversational data is anonymised. It is used to improve rAInbow and help organisations make better decisions about where to focus their efforts to combat abuse.

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