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Enter the Blockchain era

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LEE NAIK, MD of Accenture Digital for South Africa believes the next era in banking will be Blockchain, as among other things it allows faster and more secure transactions, comprehensive audit trails and greatly reduced costs.

An internet of finance. The renaissance of money. If the previous decade was the age of mobile banking, the next looks set to be the era of Blockchain. No other technology has more potential to change the very face of how banking takes place.

People get tangled in the technical side of what Blockchain is – skip to 29:00 of this podcast for a fantastic explanation from Stuff editor Craig Wilson – so I want to rather focus on the incredible implications of this technology.

Currently, our model for managing the flow of money is antiquated. Transactions take place across multiple payment engines that all need central brokerage, which takes time, incurs cost and introduces needless complexity. As a decentralised ledger of transactions, Blockchain introduces a standardised framework for transactions rather than the individual payment ‘language’ of each bank.

Just how much of a game-changer is this? Just think of the Tower of Babel. Taking place in a time where everyone spoke the same language, humanity came to an agreement to build what was effectively an Old Testament version of the Burj Khalifa. God, realising what was about to happen, said a few holy words and caused the builders to suddenly speak a multitude of extremely confusing languages so they couldn’t cooperate properly.

The story shows the power of having a single unified language. A real life example would be the use of Sanskrit throughout the ancient world. Blockchain shows the same promise by offering a lingua franca for transactions across different banks and nations.

This is what makes the technology such a game changer. As a vehicle for universal, transparent communication, Blockchain’s potential for innovation is huge. Just like the Babel story, it allows us to reach right up to the heavens.

A world shaped by Blockchain

What does this mean for the business world? At the moment, no-one’s entirely sure, although it’s sure to be disruptive. Blockchain’s decentralisation and community-based assurance means it allows for faster and more secure transactions, comprehensive audit trails and greatly reduced costs, among other things. I’m incredibly excited about the potential applications across all industries.

Banks take note: Blockchain is effectively borderless, potentially enabling instant money transfers from any location. With Africa standing out as one of the largest and fastest-growing remittance markets in the world, Blockchain could potentially free up billions in costly brokerage fees. Numerous start-ups and some large banks are already testing out Bitcoin and other Wallet services in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Then there is the possibility for smart assets to drastically change models of ownership. Blockchain currencies like Ethereum and Ripple could allow for the risk-free exchange of real-world assets in a single transaction. Imagine being able to enter into an instant smart bond that pays for itself and has a risk-free interest rate.

It’s not just banks that will feel the effects either. A Blockchain-based energy network for example could effectively allow consumers to bypass traditional utilities providers and enjoy ‘peer-to-peer’ electricity. Need some energy? Who needs a service provider when you have a neighbour with solar panels willing to sell.

And that’s just a tiny sampling of potential use cases – there’s the possibility of specialty lending, tamper-proof digital record-keeping, transparent e-voting and much, much more. Here’s what I believe enterprises should be doing in order to sniff these out.

Just do it

Not every application is necessarily suited for distributed ledgers. There’s just one way to find out – by jumping into the sandbox and playing around with the toys available. Dedicate some resources to testing out possible use cases and developing potential proofs-of-concept. Partner with FinTech companies and start-ups who already have some Blockchain knowledge and set up a space for experimentation, free of the pressure of short-term monetisation.

Join the community

The best way of keeping ahead of the Blockchain curve is to become part of the conversation. There’s a thriving cryptocurrency community out there that covers every industry and talking point. Immerse yourself in the discussions and you’ll be up to date on what the evangelists, sceptics and early adopters are really thinking.

Start having the conversation

One of the biggest obstacles to mainstream Blockchain adoption is that of regulation. Similar to Uber, which faces regulatory roadblocks in many of the countries it launches in, Blockchain players will also have an uphill battle to fight. In Africa especially, legislation tends to be somewhat silent on the basics of IT systems. Similarly, there needs to be an understanding among your own staff on what Blockchain is, how to use it effectively and what exactly it can do. Start preparing the narrative now so that the educational foundation is there when the time comes to launch distributed ledger applications into operation.

Go for glory

Blockchain isn’t going to become mainstream overnight, but many companies – from small start-ups to major financial institutions – are already testing use cases in an attempt to be first to market. It’s tempting to either try outrace the competition or sit back and wait until use cases are fairly established to swoop in as a best in class alternative. But why not both? It’s always preferable to be a disruptive force, but this calls for a strategy that is as bold as it is structured. Start with what your customer wants, utilising existing use cases – other organisations’ as well as your own – as tools to build experiences that go above and beyond.

Have you begun to explore the possibilities for Blockchain in your enterprise? How far along is your industry in the adoption of cryptocurrencies?

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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By 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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How load-shedding is killing our cellphone signals

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Extensive load-shedding, combined with the theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, is placing a massive strain on mobile network providers.

MTN says the majority of MTN’S sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down. 

“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected and MTN has invested heavily in generators and backup batteries to maintain communication for customers, despite the lack of electrical power,” the operator said in a statement today.

However, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive: Corporate Affairs, at MTN SA, “The high frequency of the cycles of load shedding have meant batteries were unable to fully recharge. They generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge.”

An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries. 

“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” says O’Sullivan.

Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, says the brazen theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.

“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding.”

Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.

Click here to read more about efforts to combat copper theft.

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