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From bots to Slack, all change for financial software

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At the annual conference of one of the world’s leading accounting software companies in Chicago this week, big names were overshadowed by future technologies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It’s not often that actors like Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow have to compete for attention with accountants, but they have an uphill task this week.

At the Sage Summit 2016 conference in Chicago this week, these big stars are due to participate in keynote events highlighting their ventures into high-tech start-ups in the next two days. However, the biggest news came in yesterday’s opening keynote address by CEO Stephen Kelly, who declared a technology revolution for entrepreneurs and business builders.

Kelly was under significant pressure to deliver: more than 15 000 entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprise owners make the Sage Summit the world’s largest gathering of entrepreneurs and business builders. He did not disappoint them.

After investing more than R2-billion in research and development over the past year, Sage unveiled a plethora of new mobile, social, chatbot and Internet of Things offerings. It also launched a new Sage Live page offering customers support, product offerings and pricing.

“With a more connected world comes new demands on our hero business builders,” said Kelly. “We are working on making concepts like the Internet of Things, machine learning, blockchain and data sciences into a reality for businesses, accountants and partners. This is way more than cloud and mobile-first. It’s designing and building technologies that truly power businesses, freeing entrepreneurs to grow and win.”

With, 100 000 accountants around the world using Sage software, along with numerous other user categories, much of the buzz was focused on the news that the company’s real-time accounting solution, Sage Live, will be integrated with cutting edge tools from sales software leaders Salesforce.

Sage also formally launched a new admin “bot” – an artificial intelligence conversation system built into instant messaging and social media platforms. Called “Pegg”, it is a smart assistant that uses conversation to let users track expenses via any  messaging app.

“Pegg removes the complexities and enables entrepreneurs to manage finances through conversation,” according to a company statement. “By digitising information at the point of capture, it takes away the pain from receipts and expenses, eradicating the need for paper and data entry. “

The first social platform to integrate Pegg is Slack, a social network geared towards enterprise messaging and collaboration. However, users can also work with it in Facebook Messenger, which has led the market in introducing chat bots.

“With the rise of freelancing and the sharing economy, the number of small businesses is growing exponentially,” says Kriti Sharma, Sage’s global director for mobile product management. “Most of these business owners use messaging apps, and with Pegg we aim to bridge the gap between these apps and work, rendering accounting invisible to the end user and making running a business as simple as sending a text.”

One of the most visionary evolutions of financial software was demonstrated by Sage’s executive vice president for product marketing, Jennifer Warawa. She showed how Sage Live can be integrated with TomTom Telematics for businesses with any size vehicle fleet to record mileage and automate expense reports – without any human intervention.

By running on the Salesforce platform, it can use existing integrations with third parties like TomTom WEBFLEET and make service journey data automatically available in Sage Live.

While this in itself may not set pulses racing, the vision behind such integration suggests a near future where administration takes second place to the more serious business of, well, running a business. It is not intended to put accountants out of business, but rather to allow them to play a more strategic role in business growth rather than focus on the “hard labour” of coordinating documents, logs, and other activity information.

The CEO’s keynote also saw some hard-hitting criticism of the support structures provided by officialdom. For one thing, it emerged that South African businesses are not alone in feeling that government lets them down. Kelly unveiled research which showed American entrepreneurs expressing high dissatisfaction with the support they get from the US Government.

In case there was any lingering suspicion of the Summit being a mere public relations exercise, he also weighed in on the ineffectual role of official events like the World Economic Forum in Davos, which he dismissed as being “out of touch”.

This echoes the views expressed earlier this year by Anton Van Heerden, managing director of Sage in South and Southern Africa. In a post on LinkedIn, he wrote that  important voices were being excluded from the conversations taking place at Davos: “those of the risk-takers, entrepreneurs and small business owners who are increasingly the major drivers of wealth and job creation around the world.”

As a result, Kelly announced this week, Sage would introduce a series of policy events around the world to focus on the real needs of entrepreneurs.

It is a risky move to take Sage beyond the world of software and into the realm of policy. However, it is clear that the quest to remain relevant to customers goes beyond technology.

  •  Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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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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