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Driving or driven? It all begins in the 2020s

Ole!Connect’s, DESERÉ ORRILL, takes a look underneath the hood of autonomous transportation, what it means to our future mobility, and whether we are ready to relinquish the wheel

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Currently, there’s a lot of posturing among the major car manufacturers as they jockey for position in the autonomous vehicle chase. Most of them are predicting that there will be some form of self-driving vehicle on the roads by the early to mid-2020s – most likely as ride-hailing services or commercial transportation (set routes, set times).

Notwithstanding the optimism, and before we all climb into robotically chauffeured cars or have our online goods delivered by people-less vans and trucks, there are still many hurdles to be overcome. Not only from a technological, but also from a business, regulatory and user point of view. Trial and error, never-ending learning, infinite software updates and our new-old friend artificial intelligence are paving the road on which autonomous vehicles will cruise.

Quite rightly, people are both excited by and fearful of the prospect of truly autonomous transportation. Positive thoughts relate to the elimination of human error: an autonomous vehicle is unlikely to be pulled over for reckless or drunk driving, accidents due to drowsiness or heart attacks. But the thought of technology, literally with a mind of its own, driving on our open roads and neighbourhood streets, is also a scary idea.

It seems that the easiest part of the equation may be in perfecting the self-driving technology hardware, despite its many complicated aspects. Companies like Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, Mercedes and others are pouring billions into their own R&D, and hundreds of smaller companies are offering improved radars, cameras, lidars, maps, data management systems, and more to the major vehicle companies.

However, according to Nidhi Kalra, a roboticist who co-directs the Rand Corporation’s Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, what makes autonomous vehicles extremely different from even the most advanced regular cars, is not merely the additional hardware. Rather, it is the software that is required to make these systems functional, and the amount of it. 

Yes, there’s virtually no end to the intelligent systems that are required to replicate human behaviour behind a steering wheel. In addition to getting to know our human driving techniques, the complex software environment also needs to include localisation systems, high-definition map overlays, perception systems, planning systems, not to mention all the software needed to make the vehicle go forward without a foot on the fuel pedal or a hand on the steering wheel.

Other even more human aspects to driving further add to the complexity: car cultures differ from city to city, driving habits vary from courteous to aggressive and everything in between, and cities have their own style of driving that makes things flow. All this software gets updated all.the.time, so when it comes to the operating systems, self-drive cars are likely always to be a work-in-progress. It’s a comforting thought if you’re a software developer, but a bit uncomfortable if you’re a passenger in transit when the updates come through.

The safety-related updates that software in autonomous vehicles need to undergo are extremely rigorous and time consuming, and therefore also costly. This makes it difficult to gauge when the safety measures will be deemed adequate – if ever – and could also mean that the frequency of software updates is consciously reduced. Researchers are working on ways to speed up that process, to get important robotics safety updates proven, out and patched quickly.  

However, the environment is in a constant state of flux or change. Even as a system is perfected according to the conditions it perceives today, so new and different conditions are unravelling all the time. Human instinct for adaption is innate, but machines need to review, assess, analyse and interpret situations and human reactions many times over in order to take appropriate actions. It is this constant machine learning that will help ceaselessly improve the software that interprets the sensor data, which is based on artificial intelligence and real-world examples to train the system.

Knowing how to build a self-driving vehicle that works is one thing: building millions of them and operating them is another entirely. Keeping vehicles on the road involves a myriad of other service providers to help keep the vehicles running: dealers, repair shops, fuel pumps, charging stations, parking garages. While this will create numerous business opportunities – some which have not even been imagined – the existing maze of interlinked companies built up over a century will need to be vastly modified to help maintain driverless vehicles.

Then, there is the conundrum around regulatory questions, which authorities around the world will still spend many years resolving. 

Firstly, how do you change safety standards that have been written with human drivers in mind? How should vehicles without drivers be certified? How are insurance risks addressed? 

As it is envisaged that the first self-driving vehicles in commercial operation are likely to be transit services, it may be easier to legislate for vehicles that operate within these static and limited confines on predefined routes. However, this is still a far cry from what sort of legislation will be required for truly driverless cars, and the development of these regulations will have a profound influence on the roll-out rate of autonomous vehicles.

And then, there are all the other departments that would require legislation and changes to ways of thinking and dealing with vehicle safety and road accidents or incidents. Imagine the first wrangles between autonomous vehicle manufacturer, regulator, insurance companies, lawyers and legislators in the event of an accident. We have no idea yet where this should even begin, and certainly no concept of where it could end.

Like in all healthy businesses and industry sectors, competition is inevitable: when will the price wars start between the major providers of autonomous vehicles and how will they decide to recoup their massive R&D costs? How will the terrain be shared between the big dogs? Who will dominate which section of the market? And how will these battles affect the timeframe for the roll-out of autonomous vehicles to ordinary users?

While there may be some cost saving, and certainly an increase in road safety, the modus operandi of the average person’s commute to work and completion of regular chores that involve transportation of one kind or another will change forever. As the cost of transportation decreases, and all the supporting industries essential to regular vehicle operation and maintenance have fallen away or been replaced with modified versions, the global economy will look quite different. 

The pace at which these changes take place will play a monumental role in the pace at which autonomous vehicles may become a part of everyday life.

Similarly, humans may be able to change the landscape of their urban world, with different ways of mobility enabling a different community arrangement and lifestyle. With autonomous vehicles operating safely on predetermined routes, it could mean that people could travel more frequently and further, but to a smaller variety of destinations. 

Will this be welcomed, or will there be resistance? Humans’ own preferences may still affect the development path of autonomous vehicles in ways that have not yet been foreseen by the vehicle manufacturers, whose eyes are naturally on the pot of gold that awaits them at the end of the self-drive rainbow.

As a positively prescient article in the New York Times* in 1908 declared, “The Horseless Carriage means trouble”. We should therefore all take a breather to wonder how our world will change when human constructs become the “drivers”, and we humans merely “the driven”. Coming sooner than we think. Or is it?

*(https://www.nytimes.com/1973/03/25/archives/the-horseless-carriage-means-troublele.html)

* Deseré Orrill is the co-Founder and Chairman of Ole! Connect, a digital marketing agency based in Cape Town. She is currently completing her MBA in Design Thinking, with a special emphasis on all things digital. 

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TikTok takes on COVID-19

The fastest growing social media platform in the world has also become an epicenter of public education about the coronavirus, attracting more than 30-billion views, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The young have been getting a bad rap for wanting to party on while COVID-19 sends the world into lockdown. But a different movie is playing itself out on the social platform that is growing fastest among teenagers: TikTok.

Awareness campaigns by TikTok itself, collaboration with the International Red Cross, and spontaneous videos made by TikTok creators have combined into a barrage of information, education, awareness and social consciousness around the coronavirus.

Both globally and in South Africa, TikTok’s COVID-19 campaigns have gone viral.

The local #HayiCorona challenge, designed to remind people not to touch their face and wash hands regularly, has passed 1.5-million views. The TikTok collaboration with the International Red Cross, the #WashingHands challenge, has passed 12.6-million views.

One of the best-known participants in these challenges is the past year’s icon of South African talent, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, took up the global challenge with a 20-second hand-washing video. It put together a performance that brings tremendous energy to what can be a clichéd message, and ends with a punt for the Department of Health’s WhatsApp information service. The video can be viewed below.

@ndlovuyouthchoir

Our community has limited access to running water. Follow these instructions on how to safely wash your hands using a bucket. ##coronavirus##washinghands

♬ original sound – ndlovuyouthchoir

“On a global scale, TikTok also partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that, while creators are still having fun and expressing themselves on the platform, they stay informed with COVID-19 information coming from a reliable source,” a TikTok spokesperson told us. “Through the partnership, the WHO has created an informational page on TikTok that offers information to curb the spread of the coronavirus as well as dispelling myths.”

The page can be viewed at https://vm.tiktok.com/GHTEGf

TikTok has hosted a number of livestreams with WHO experts, attracting users from more than 70 countries, tuning in for live question and answer sessions. It has also introduced labels on coronavirus-related videos, to point users to trusted information. Resources are also offered directly in the app and in a dedicated COVID-19 section of TikTok’s Safety Center, at https://www.tiktok.com/safety/resources/covid-19.

If users simply want to explore videos on the topic, they can search via the #coronavirus hashtag, or click on https://vm.tiktok.com/swKbn4. The hashtag has had an astonishing 33.8-billion views, indicating the scale of activity and interest around the topic on the platform.

Read more on the next page about how South Africans have embraced the campaign.

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On World Backup Day: backup, backup, backup

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It was World Backup Day yesterday, 31 March, at a time when business continuity is threatened as never before. That makes calls for protecting email and defending against ransomware all the more urgent.

The global coronavirus pandemic has brought into stark relief many organisations’ lack of business continuity plans and policies. With more than two billion people around the globe in forced lockdown in wide-ranging government efforts to stem the tide of infections, an unprecedented number of employees are working remotely.

This interruption to the normal way of work is precisely what an effective and resilient business continuity strategy should plan for, says Heino Gevers, cybersecurity specialist at Mimecast

“Companies need uninterrupted access to critical business applications during times of disruption, including safe and secure web and email access for workers that are now operating outside the normal perimeters of the organisation,” he says. “In addition, comprehensive backup and archiving solutions should be ready to restore access to critical business applications should there be any unplanned downtime to ensure continuity until the crisis passes.”

According to Gevers, the current global crisis is likely to push business continuity up the list of priorities for many organisations that have been disrupted by the effects of the coronavirus.

“Organisations are facing new challenges to their productivity; for example in terms of technical support. If a remote user is infected with malware or ransomware, how does the IT team restore that device or do any remediation without being able to physically access it?”

Gevers advises that organisations implement tools that enhances the data protection capabilities of commonly-used tools such as Office365 and can leverage archived data to provide quick recovery of email data in the event of accidental loss, malicious attacks or technical failure. 

“As adoption of cloud-based business applications grow in the wake of forced lockdowns around the globe, companies need to ensure they have the tools to recover in any situation,” he says. “This includes a data management strategy that combines archiving, backup and data protection capabilities to allow for quick restoration of critical systems and applications in the event of disruption.”

Jasmit Sagoo, head of technology at Veritas for the United Kingdom and Ireland, warns that this is a golden age for cybercriminals looking for ransomware opportunities.

“As the global cost of ransomware continues to grow, this World Backup Day, Veritas is saying: ‘don’t pay up, back up!’,” he says. “Ransomware is said to generate an estimated annual revenue of $1 billion a year, and companies who are not consistent in backing up their data are allowing criminals to line their pockets.

“Ransomware attacks exist only because some businesses can’t survive unless the hackers give them back their data.  So, the key to survival is removing that reliance and being able to regain access to data, without engaging with the cybercriminals.  The best way to do that is with a sound backup strategy.

“Sagoo advises organisations to create isolated, offline backup copies of their data to keep it out of reach of any attackers.  They then need to proactively monitor and restrict backup credentials, while running backups frequently to shrink the risk of potential data loss. Businesses should also test and retest their ransomware defences regularly.

“Ransomware strikes without warning and it doesn’t discriminate between its targets – it can happen to any organisation, large or small. Despite their best efforts, most companies will fall to at least one attack. What distinguishes one victim from another is the ability to bounce back, which ultimately depends on its backup strategy.

“When ransomware hits, organisations that aren’t prepared often feel helpless to do anything other than to submit to their attacker’s demands.   That’s why we’re urging all businesses to use World Backup Day as a catalyst to get ahead of the situation and get their data protected.”

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