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How Blockchain can save water, and more

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The designers of a unique water saving solution that uses blockchain technology to incentivise users to use less water were the winners of a special prize at the continent’s largest blockchain hackathon held in Cape Town last week.

The Unlock The Block hackathon was hosted by Linum Labs and the African Institute of Financial Markets And Risk Management (AIFMRM) and culminated in Cape Town’s first ever Blockchain Symposium.  Almost 80 participants from around the world attended.

The special prize was awarded to project SudoTesla, designed to transfer water tokens via the Ethereum network to a smart meter. The tokens are allocated by the designated utility and users are compensated for water that they save.

The special prize awarded the team, led by Michael Sanne of South Africa, included a month at Absa’s Rise facilities at the Woodstock Exchange in order to further develop their project. Sanne said he hoped it would be possible to bring such a project to fruition one day, even if it was challenging. “Water is a scarce resource, and this solution aims to help manage that resource”, he said.

The overall first prize was split between two teams: the first being BlockPoll, who built a blockchain voting system facilitating better governance in companies, as well as transparency and security in elections. Judge Co-Pierre Georg, Associate Professor at AIFMRM, described their solution as “incredibly slick”.

BlockPoll’s team, consisting of WhenMoon?’s Brandon Kenley Verkerk, Christopher Maree, Iordan Tchaparov and Kavilan Nair, say the design’s main advantages are that it’s decentralised, immutable, and easily auditable. Moreover, they add, it’s easy to use, secure, and open source.

The other winning team was Proof of Steak by Yuna, which Georg described as “a really awesome tech solution to a true African issue”.  The team, consisting of Kungela Mzuku, Kyle Roos and Una Singo, allows farmers to use their cattle as collateral on a block-chain, enabling peer-to-peer lending. The team described this as a “uniquely African” and “contextual approach” which would “allow anyone in the world to invest in your cow”. Farmers register their cattle on the blockchain, which functions as an immutable ledger, and investors provide funding to the farmer.

A further special prize for innovation was awarded to team EWAN from Berlin, who built a curation market application.

Prior to the event, Linum Labs’ Devon Krantz said beyond the immediate value of cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology held great potential for “changing systems that already exist”.

“The event has shown us two things, firstly that the applications of blockchain technology in improving people’s lives in Africa are immense and second, it is much easier to build those applications than many people think – we just need to work together,” added Paul Kohlhaas, Founder of Linum Labs.

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Front from left: Una Singo (Yuna), Kelly Parkhurst (Absa), Christopher Maree(WhenMoon),Brandon Kenley Verkerk (WhenMoon), IordanTchaparov (WhenMoon), Kavilan Nair (WhenMoon), Kungela Mzuku (Yuna), Kyle Roos (Yuna) Back from left: Sean Mouton (Absa), Julien Eluard (Status), Co-Pierre(AIFMRM), Paul Kohlhaus (Linum Labs), Andrew Tudhope(Linum Labs)

“This is a historic moment in time,” Georg said at the event. “Our economy will soon embark on a fourth industrial revolution.” Economic leadership would lie in the provision of scarce skills, he said. “There is therefore a need to think outside the box. Something clicked in our minds. This led to the hackathon.” Collaborations and partnerships of this kind, he added, would continue to address the need for scarce skills.

The Unlock the Block blockchain Hackathon was a 10-day long event during which participants learned some of these scarce skills, including how to develop blockchain applications. The first five days were dedicated to a digital “boot camp”, during which participants were exposed to overarching fintech trends and the blockchain tools needed to develop decentralised applications and protocols. Topics covered included Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies, and sessions were led by industry experts.

At the end of the hackathon, participants were given three days to develop their own blockchain application. The Symposium occurred on the final day.

The Hackathon was sponsored by both South African and international businesses, including Absa, Microsoft, Old Mutual, Status, Foundery, Consensys, Citi, Pick ‘n Pay, UCT and Rise.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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