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The robots are coming!

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Machine learning is going to alter our world, improving healthcare, the manufacturing industry and assisting in the prediction of supply and demand levels across various industries, writes RESHAAD SHA, Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Director at DFA.

For those who are into science fiction, the term ‘machine learning’ immediately conjures up images of computers taking over the world, either to send murderous terminators from the future to our present or to place us all inside the Matrix as living power batteries.

Fortunately, the truth about machine learning is not only far more prosaic, but also much more promising for the future of the human race. Basically, machine learning uses algorithms that iteratively learn from data, meaning that it enables computers to find hidden insights without being explicitly programmed where to look. The iterative aspect is especially important, as it means that as the computer is exposed to new data, it is able to independently adapt.

The process of machine learning is similar to that of data mining, in that both systems search through data to look for patterns. However, where data mining extracts information for human comprehension, machine learning uses it to detect patterns in data and to adjust its program actions accordingly. Incredibly, it’s a science that is not new; it is one that was, in fact, predicted nearly 70 years ago by Alan Turing, widely considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. He suggested that by 2000, computers would be able to ‘think’.

Turing was clearly not far off as the world is already seeing machine learning being put into practice across a range of sectors, and all of these vertical markets are benefiting enormously from the application of this technology. Some of the benefits are outlined below, but these are merely scratching the surface of where we might eventually go with this ground-breaking technology.

Innovative applications

For starters, it is applicable to healthcare, as machine learning algorithms can process more information and spot more patterns than humans can, by several orders of magnitude. This means they are more likely to pick up individual health issues, and do so more rapidly and effectively than a human diagnosis could. Machine learning can also be used to understand risk factors for disease in large populations.

In customer-facing businesses, it is also enabling marketing personalisation. The more that a company understands about its customers, the better it can serve them, and machine learning algorithms are providing the kind of intimate picture of a customer that enables such personalisation to take place.

Perhaps the most obvious use of machine learning is its use in online search engines, where the engine uses this technology and watches how you respond to search results, learning from these and ensuring it delivers better results in the future.

Of all the uses for machine learning, one of the most exciting ones – particularly for those of us old enough to remember ‘Knight Rider’ and his self-driving Trans Am – is in the various types of smart cars now being developed. A recent IBM survey of top auto executives saw some 74% of these stating they expected there would be smart cars on the roads by 2025.

These vehicles will not only integrate into the Internet of Things (IoT), but also learn about their owners and their environment. A smart car might adjust the internal settings automatically, based on the driver, report and even fix problems itself, will certainly be able to drive itself, and will offer real time advice about traffic and road conditions.In extreme cases the vehicle may even take evasive action to avoid a potential collision.

A good example of such smart cars is the Tesla models fitted with the company’s version 7.0 Autopilot system. Tesla’s Autopilot system makes use of machine-learning techniques that are continuously learning from human actions. Over the past year or so, this system has quietly been monitoring drivers as they drive various routes. The more often the car drives on a particular route, the more the machine learns how the human approaches, for example, a particular corner.

The idea, according to Tesla, is for the vehicles featuring Autopilot to be self-driving capable from the moment legislation catches up to the technology. And because it requires only simple software updates to stay relevant, users who purchased a vehicle a year ago will still be capable of utilising this feature when it becomes legal.

Let the machine drive

Naturally, machine learning lies at the very core of this long-awaited self-driving car revolution, which is clearly one of its most advanced and complex applications. Self-driving vehicles, after all, need to not only be able to ‘understand’ the rules of driving and how to actually drive, but must also be able to monitor the movements and signals of other cars and infrastructure, as well as being capable of learning to negotiate exceptions and make split-second decisions.

It should be obvious then that driverless cars will require an immense amount of data gathering and analysis; they will also need to connect to cloud-based traffic and navigation services, and will draw on leading technologies in sensors, displays, on-board and off-board computing, in-vehicle operating systems, wireless and in-vehicle data communication, analytics, speech recognition and content management. All of this leads to considerable benefits and opportunities: reduced accident rates, increased productivity, improved traffic flow, lowered emissions and much more.

The question is, how are cars expected to access all this data? After all, we are talking about information transmitted not only from other vehicles, but potentially from traffic lights, nearby buildings and rail crossings, not to mention GPS signals and even pedestrians’ phones, just to name a few.

It is here that the IoT will become a crucial platform, as it will be IoT-enabled sensors that are used to transmit most of this data to and from the automated vehicle. This, in turn, means that the network that these objects and sensors connect to will have to be cost efficient, ubiquitous and reliable.

But is South Africa – a country renowned for high data costs and ongoing struggles with connectivity – going to be in a position any time soon to have the kind of network necessary to facilitate self-driving cars?

The good news is yes. In fact, in all likelihood, SA will have an effective IoT network long before the first local cars start driving themselves, thanks to SqwidNet, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), which is also the licensed Sigfox operator for SA. Sigfox has a global network that spans 29 countries and is specifically designed to deliver IoT connectivity.

The company also has access to a wide range of IoT-based solutions, many of which have already been deployed in cities around the world. This means that not only will we have the network to enable future smart everything, but also a range of other solutions that will already have been tried and tested in other environments. In other words, by the time of their deployment, the new technology kinks will already have been worked out.

There is no doubt that we are on the cusp of another technological revolution, one which is going to make everyone’s lives easier and more connected. The IoT and machine learning look set to fundamentally alter the way our world works – in a manner that is exactly the opposite of a killer robot from the future.

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SA consumers buy 3.2m smartphones in Q1

Smartphone sales in South Africa grew by 12.4% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018, reaching around 3.2 million units for the period.

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However, the value of the smartphone segment increased by 22.8% as sales of entry-level devices to low- and mid-income consumers continued to drive the market, according to point of sale data from market research firm, GfK South Africa.

GfK South Africa’s data reveals that telecommunications retail enjoyed a strong start to the year, with revenue growing 22.4% year-on-year. The growing popularity of phablets and higher unit prices (as a result of a weaker rand) helped to drive this increase in revenue, against a backdrop of low or negative growth in many segments of the consumer technology market.

“The mobile device market showed good growth in the quarter, despite rising prices during the period under review,” says Norman Muzhona, Solutions Specialist for Telecommunications at GfK South Africa. “In addition to the exchange rate, the introduction of popular, new mid-tier devices by several leading vendors helped to drive higher retail revenues in the telecoms market.”

Information technology retail revenues for the quarter contracted 4.8% compared to 2017, largely because of decreasing monitor prices and a 38.9% decline in tablet revenues. However, desktop computer revenues grew 39% and mobile computing revenues grew 6.5% year-on-year, thanks to higher prices and increased sales of higher-end products.

Says Berno Mare, Solutions Specialist for IT, Office Equipment and Value Added Services: “Retailers introduced new computing devices priced in the R3000 band during the quarter and enjoyed surprisingly strong demand for these entry-level units.

“Telcos enjoyed robust growth in mobile computing retail sales, thanks to credit deals, subsidised contracts and attractive data offers. However, South African consumers are heavily indebted, which may dampen growth for the rest of the year.”

With consumers rapidly migrating to smartphones, sales of traditional mobile phones continued to decline, down 1.6% year-on-year to around 2 million for the quarter. However, the exchange rate and the introduction of higher-priced brands helped to drive a 8.9% year-on-year revenue increase in mobile phone revenues during the period under review.

This follows the 21% drop in mobile phone unit sales in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. “Operators continue to lead the transition from feature phones to smartphones as they pursue higher data revenues,” says Muzhona. “The entry-level market for smartphones is fiercely competitive, and the minimum specs of lower cost smartphones is improving all the time.”

GfK South Africa expects the migration from mobile phones to smartphones to accelerate in 2018. However, it remains to be seen if the introduction of 4G-enabled, Voice-over-LTE-ready feature phones will have any impact on the South African mobile phone market.

Sectors of the consumer electronic market that showed strong growth for the first quarter of 2018 include loudspeakers—revenues up 21.6% year-on-year, thanks to demand of Bluetooth-enabled product—and ultrahigh definition (UHD) panel TVs—where revenues grew 33%, thanks to the growing affordability of the technology. UHD unit shipments were up 76%, while the average selling price of the products fell 24%.

Other market highlights for the first quarter of 2018 include:

  • Photo category revenues were up 8.1% year-on-year.
  • Small domestic appliance revenues grew 8%, following a 10.3% decline in Q1 2016 over Q1 2015. Hot air fryers sold well, as did kettles and toasters.
  • Major domestic appliances showed small year-on-year growth over Q1 2016, despite a decline in average selling price in many sub-categories of this market. Cooling products continued to make the highest contribution to growth in this segment.
  • Office Equipment revenues declined 18% year-on-year, led downwards by lower printer and cartridge sales volumes.
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What kids want online

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Kaspersky Lab’s latest report on the online activities of children – based on statistics received from its solutions and modules with child protection features – highlights children’s online activities and the importance of protecting them when online. For example, video content globally, comprised 17% of searches over the last months. Although many videos watched as a result of these searches may be harmless, it is still possible for children to accidentally end up watching videos that contain inappropriate content.

The report shows anonymised statistics from Kaspersky Lab’s flagship consumer solutions for Windows PCs and Macs that have the Parental Control module switched on and from Kaspersky Safe Kids, a standalone service for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices.

In South Africa, communication sites (such as social media, messengers, or emails) were the most popular pages visited by computers with parental controls switched on – with users in South Africa visiting these sites in 69% of cases over the previous 12 months. Software, audio, and video accounted for 17% of searches. Websites with this content have become significantly more popular since last year, when it was only the fifth most popular category globally at 6%. The top four is rounded off with electronic commerce (4.2%) and alcohol, tobacco, and websites about narcotics (3.9%), which is a new addition compared to this time last year.

The report presents search results on the ten most-popular languages* for the last 6 months. The data shows that the video & audio category – including requests related to any video content, streaming services, video bloggers, series and movies – are the most regularly ‘googled’ by children (17% of the total requests). The second and third places go to translation (14%) and communication (10%) websites respectively. Interestingly, games websites sit in fourth place, generating only 9% of the total search requests.

We can also see a clear language difference for search requests: for example, video and music websites are typically searched for in English, which can be explained by the fact that the majority of movies, TV series and musical groups have English names. Spanish-speaking kids carry out more requests for translation sites, while communication services are mostly searched for in Russian.

More than any other nationality, Chinese-speaking children look for education services, while French-speaking kids are more interested in sport and games websites. In turn, German-speaking requests dominate in the “shopping” category. The leading number of search requests for porn are in Arabic, and for anime are in Japanese.

“Kids in different countries have different interests and online behaviors, but what links them all is their need to be protected online from potentially harmful content. Children looking for animated content could accidentally open a porn video. Or they could start searching for innocent videos and unintentionally end up on websites containing violent content, both of which could have a long-term impact on their impressionable and vulnerable minds,” says Anna Larkina, Web-content Analysis Expert at Kaspersky Lab.

As well as analysing searches, the report also looks into which websites children visit or attempt to visit that contain potentially harmful content which falls under one of the 14 preset categories** for the last 12 months.

The mobile trend is again highlighted in the figures for computer games, which are now in fifth place locally on the list at 3%. As kids continue to show a preference for mobile games rather than computer games, this category will only continue to decrease in popularity on computers over the coming months and years.cleardot.gif

“No matter what they are doing online, it is important for parents not to leave their children’s digital activities unattended, because there’s a big difference between care and obtrusiveness. While it is important to trust your children and educate them about how to behave safely online, even your good advice cannot protect them from something unexpectedly showing up on the screen. That’s why advanced security solutions are key to ensuring children have positive online experiences, rather than harmful ones,” adds Anna Larkina.

The Kaspersky Total Security and Kaspersky Internet Security consumer solutions include a Parental Control module to help adults protect their children against online threats and block sites or apps containing inappropriate content. In turn, the Kaspersky Safe Kids solution allows parents to monitor what their children do, see or search for online across all devices, including mobile devices, and offers useful advice on how to help children behave safely online.

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