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How digital can expand free trade

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Free trade has been an enduring goal of the international community for more than a century. Despite broad technological progress, modern transaction systems remain heavily burdened by antiquated practices. This creates “friction” that slows global commerce and hinders service delivery.

Banks, for example, still issue letters of credit to importers, a practice that has remained virtually unchanged for 700 years since its origin in medieval Italy. The practice requires the costly and time-consuming entry of a banking intermediary into many transactions. Cross-border regulations, customs delays, fraud and corruption are also frictions that add a significant layer of costs, time, and complexity to global trade and business flows. An IBM test determined that paperwork alone accounted for 15 percent of the cost of a shipment of produce from Africa to Europe.

Emerging digital technologies, in the form of blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI), can help reduce or eliminate these frictions by enhancing “digital trust” in transactions.

Blockchain became famous as the technology underpinning the digital currency Bitcoin, but its uses go far beyond payments. Blockchain puts data into shared, distributed ledgers that allow every participant access to the entire history of a transaction using a “permissioned” network—one that is highly secure and can distinguish who can see what.

And because it can process and analyze massive quantities of data, AI can use blockchain data to gain valuable insights and detect patterns in nearly-real time. AI systems can employ this data to generate hypotheses, piece together reasoned arguments, and make recommendations for action.

IBM and Everledger, a company that tracks and protects high-value goods, have built a system based on this approach. It applies AI to analyze secure data on one million diamonds that are kept on a blockchain in a fraction of the time humans could do this. Among other things, the platform ensures that diamonds are authentic and compliant with thousands of regulations, including those imposed by the United Nations to prevent the sale of conflict diamonds.

Friction not only inhibits trade and business flows, it also inhibits people. Small farmers, evaluating the costs of shipping produce overseas—from bank fees to paperwork to bribes—may decide it is simply not worth the time and money to try to sell outside of local markets.

Digital technologies can remove barriers to economic participation by lowering costs and building trust into business relationships. For example, blockchain eliminates the prospect that a trading partner will have to engage in an expensive and time-consuming audit should a transaction with a smaller, lesser-known party go wrong. With a single version of transaction data on a ledger, all the required information to settle a dispute may be evident and visible to everyone who has permission to see it. The audit trail is laid out in one place and there is no need to involve costly intermediaries.

IBM estimates that more than $300 billion in the underlying costs of global commerce can be optimized with digital technologies like AI and blockchain. A simulation conducted by our Chief Economist’s office of the impact of blockchain adoption on the economies of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa found lower prices and significant improvements in real GDP and fiscal balances across each country. These findings are detailed in a new book published by the International Monetary Fund called Digital Revolutions in Public Finance (ISBN 9781484315224).

The good news for governments is that these technologies can be adopted at relatively low cost through the internet and cloud computing. Moreover, their benefits have been shown so far to require small changes to legal and regulatory frameworks. However, private sector cooperation and participation are essential. Businesses must agree to a new set of government policies on transactions and data-sharing built around blockchain.

The democratization of secure transaction processing depends on effective public-private partnerships. National governments have every incentive to create them. Millions who have been denied access to the marketplace will benefit from the removal of friction from international commerce. In this way, the expansion of digital trust can lead us to a new era of freer and more equitable trade.

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Low-cost wireless sport earphones get a kickstart

Wireless earphone brands are common, but not crowdfunded brands. BRYAN TURNER takes the K Sport Wireless for a run.

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As wireless technology becomes better, Bluetooth earphones have become popular in the consumer market. KuaiFit aspires to make them even more accessible to more people through a cheaper, quality product, by selling the K Sport Wireless Earphones directly from its Kickstarter page

KuaiFit has an app by the same name which offers voice-guided personal training services in almost every type of exercise, from cardio to weight-lifting. A vast range of connectivity to third-party sensors is available, like heart rate sensors and GPS devices, which work well with guided coaching. 

The app starts off with selecting a fitness level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Thereafter, one has the ability to connect with real personal trainers via a subscription to its paid service. The subscription comes free for 6 months with the earphones, and R30 per month thereafter. 

The box includes a manual, a USB to two USB Type B connectors, different sized soft plastic eartips and the two earphone units. Each earphone is wireless and connects to the other independently of wires. This puts the K Sport Wireless in the realm of the Apple Earpods in terms of connection style. 

The earphones are just over 2cm wide and 2cm high. The set is black with a light blue KuaiFit logo on the earphone’s button. 

The button functions as an on/off switch when long-pressed and a play/pause button when quick-pressed. The dual-button set-up is convenient in everyday use, allowing for playback control depending on which hand is free. Two connectivity modes are available, single earphone mode or dual earphone mode. The dual earphone mode intelligently connects the second earphone and syncs stereo audio a few seconds after powering on. 

In terms of connectivity, the earphones are Bluetooth 4.1 with a massive 10-meter range, provided there are no obstacles between the device and the earphones. While it’s not Bluetooth 5, it still falls into the Bluetooth Low Energy connection category, meaning that the smartphone’s battery won’t be drastically affected by a consistent connection to the earphones. The batteries within the earphones aren’t specifically listed but last anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the mode. 

Audio quality is surprisingly good for earphones at this price point. The headset style is restricted to in-ear due to its small design and probable usage in movement-intensive activities. As a result, one has to be very careful how one puts these earphones, in because bass has the potential of getting reduced from an incorrect in-ear placement. In-ear earphones are usually notorious for ear discomfort and suction pain after extended usage. These earphones are one of the very few in this price range that are comfortable and don’t cause discomfort. The good quality of the soft plastic ear tip is definitely a factor in the high level of comfort of the in-ear earphone experience.

Overall, the K Sport Wireless earphones are great considering the sound quality and the low price: US$30 on Kickstarter.

Find them on Kickstarter here.

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Taxify enters Google Maps

A recent update to Taxify now uses Google Maps which allows users to identify their drivers, find public transport and search for billing options.

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People planning their travel routes using Google Maps will now see a Taxify icon in the app, in addition to the familiar car, public transport, walking and billing options.

Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2016 and as of October 2018 operates in seven South African cities – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane.

Once riders have searched for their destination and asked the app for directions, Google Maps shares the proximity of cars on the Taxify platform, as well as an estimated fare for the trip.

If users see that taking the Taxify option is their best bet, they can simply tap on the ‘Open app’ icon, to complete the process of booking the ride. Customers without the app on their device will be prompted to install Taxify first.

This integration makes it possible for users to evaluate which of the private, public or e-hailing modes of transport are most time-efficient and cost-effective.

“This integration with Google Maps makes it so much easier for users to choose the best way to move around their city,” says Gareth Taylor, Taxify’s country manager for South Africa. “They’ll have quick comparisons between estimated arrival times for the different modes of transport, as well as fares they can expect to pay, which will help save both time and money,” he added.

Taxify rides in Google Maps are rolling out globally today and will be available in more than 15 countries, with South Africa being one of the first countries to benefit from this convenient service.

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