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Blockchain beyond Bitcoin

Distributed ledger technology like blockchain was only associated to the financial services until recently. However, companies in other industries are starting to understand its power, write MARY ANN FRANCIS and GILLES GRAVIER of Wipro.

Distributed ledger technology has, so far, been largely discussed only in the context of the financial services industry, specifically in the area of payments. Blockchain technology was popularised by its application in the wildly-popular new crypto-currency Bitcoin, for example.

But blockchain has many wondrous applications in a variety of other industries as well; where visionary firms are starting to understand its power to transform their operations.

Essentially, blockchain allows for the creation of timestamped digital assets, and digital records, which are impossible to tamper with, delete, or edit, commonly referred to as immutable.

So, for a vastly different scenario than moving currencies – imagine a diamond producer leveraging holographic identity technology, where a record of all transactions could be connected to this holograph, and entered into a blockchain. Consumers could see the public record of all prior transactions, and get assurance that the diamond was sourced ethically.

Following the same principles, a blockchain could be used by fine art distributors to confirm the validity of its pieces, or by lawyers to validate the accuracy of photo and video evidence, or by governments when issuing title deeds to homeowners.

The possibilities are endless. There are already companies, start-ups, offering products that cover these specific use cases.

Transparency and efficiency

As a distributed ledger, blockchain technology presents companies with an opportunity to fundamentally re-architect many of its internal processes, and the ways in which they interact with partners, suppliers, distributors, and others in the varied ecosystem.

Whether the use-case is smart-contracts, cryptocurrencies, proof-of-assets, or anything else that blockchains enable, companies are able to interact in a more collaborative, but highly-secure, trusted, manner.

But many CEOs remain reticent to seriously look at adopting blockchain technologies into the company’s business strategies. And it’s true that this area of technology seems to be moving at a rapid pace – zooming into mainstream conversations on the back of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. To some, blockchain looks volatile, uncertain, risky.

However, blockchain technology can be applied to businesses in South Africa, to improvise record management and transactional efficiency in a wide range of different processes and value chains.

So just how quickly could blockchains take off in SA, considering the very many possibilities for the technology? At this year’s Gartner Symposium/ITxpo Africa, held in late-September in Cape Town, conference delegates showed overwhelming interest in its use.

From keynotes to sideline discussions, the enthusiasm for blockchain technology was palpable, making analysts more bullish on the prospects for blockchain in the short-term. Very possibly, the technology could grip the imaginations of business in a similar way to the Cloud revolution, for instance.

Getting started

The best starting point is to research blockchain deeply and widely, understanding potential use-cases for your industry; and then looking at which internal processes and external transactions could potentially be improved. Which areas would benefit from greater transparency, greater collaboration?

Every company is different. Some rely more heavily on digital assets and services than others, others have embraced connected sensors and devices (the “Internet of Things”) more warmly than others, and some naturally have a more innovative leaning.

But in our experience there are exciting blockchain-related opportunities in even the most traditional organisations.

Following this discovery phase, it is critical to partner with an objective blockchain specialist that can help to craft the strategy. Firms that try to ‘rate their own work’ in this field often miss opportunities, or create blockchain plans that fail to respond to the most urgent business priorities. As we find ourselves in the top of the hype-cycle for blockchain, we still find ourselves in search of the app that brings maximum ROI.

It is recommended that businesses look for three key competencies in a blockchain partner:

•             Thought-leading advisory and consulting services with the ability to design, implement and support blockchain initiatives, along with rich domain expertise in use cases across various industry verticals

•             A deep pool of partners, start-ups and innovators with whom solutions can be created and tailored to the organisation’s unique needs

•             The execution capability to actually run blockchain PoCs and evolve them into fully-fledged solutions – integrating the technology into existing operations.

With blockchain, the traditional principles governing ‘systems of record’ are fundamentally reversed, and many business leaders are still somewhat confused about how this highly-sophisticated shared ledger technology actually works.

But while it’s essential to read deeply and understand blockchain principles, for one’s end-client, we can refer to the analogy of the internet to explain why we don’t have to wait for clients wrap their heads around the technology.

Most of us do not understand the technicalities of the TCP/IP protocol, but that doesn’t hinder us from surfing the web and exchanging emails. In the same way, clients will come to trust blockchain, in the same way they trust the Internet.

Those organisations starting now on a blockchain journey will have a first-mover advantage over slower-moving peers, getting a jump start on the competition and repositioning themselves for a future where blockchains govern all sorts of interactions and transactions in the future. Scale use of blockchain is still a 3-5-year journey – starting now will lessen the urgency some are experiencing now.

* Mary Ann Francis, Executive Advisor and Practice Partner for Global Treasury, Payments and blockchain at Wipro Limited, and Gilles Gravier, Director and Senior Advisor for Open Source and blockchain at Wipro Limited

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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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