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How SMS bridges the deafness divide

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Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the east coast of the USA, had twenty times more deaf inhabitants for its population size than the rest of the country. But the islanders didn’t consider this hereditary deafness a disability because the entire community, both hearing and deaf, were proficient in sign language thus removing any communication barriers. But what of the rest of world, where deafness is considered a disability, where sign-language is an unknown territory? DR PIETER STREICHER, MD at BulkSMS.com explains that technology can help.

A 2004 research paper, Everyone Here Speaks TXT: Deaf people Using SMS in Australia and the Rest of the World, by Mary and Des Power, predicted that SMS has a similar ability to improve communications between deaf communities, and wondered whether this would extend to relationships with hearing people.

Six years later headway has been made in some countries – with organisations such as the Child Africa International School in Uganda using SMS to teach deaf children alongside hearing children – but there is still some work to do in South Africa.

Khulekani Trevor Ngcobo, programme manager at South African National Deaf Association (SANDA), agrees with this opinion. According to Ngcobo, SMS has definitely improved his communication with both deaf and hearing communities. But it has yet to enable the deaf community to better access businesses and services to its full potential.

Another notable gap is the lack of SMS communication channels to emergency services such as roadside assistance or insurance hotlines, which would be enormously beneficial to deaf people.

It makes sense that so many deaf people have adopted SMS as a preferred communications channel around the world. It is text-based, easy to use, affordable and is mobile. The vibrating function of the handset alerts the user about a message. Unlike other technology designed specifically for Deaf people, such as teletypewriters (TTY), it does not require each party to have bespoke equipment or rely on an expensive, time-intensive and intrusive intermediary to translate messages back and forth.

In fact, the deaf community is simply following the global trend preferring SMS. Figures released recently by mobile maven Tomi Ahonen show that SMS is the most widely used data application on the planet, with 53% of the total world’s population and 78% of the world’s mobile phone users texting. Around the world, people are increasingly conversing using SMS, and making fewer and fewer voice calls, particularly in the youth market. It is not unusual for people to check their SMS throughout social engagements, and indeed to SMS friends in the same room, whether or not they are hearing or deaf.

According to Ngcobo, who sends about 500 SMS a month, he uses SMS both socially and for business purposes to communicate with people and to get information. Thanks to SMS, he has a bigger social and business network and has had text conversations with people who haven’t known he is deaf.

He says that he is seeing business use of SMS increasing, and that account payment reminders and banking services are particularly useful. But there is room for improvement when it comes to businesses engaging with deaf people via SMS.

‚A deaf person’s greatest problem is not simply that he or she cannot hear, but that the lack of hearing is socially isolating,‚ wrote Nora Ellan Groce in her book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, about the Martha’s Vineyard community.

Add to this the importance of ‚weak‚ connections, that loose network you turn to when you are job-hunting or need an opinion on a holiday destination, for instance, and that is so important in providing an alternative point of view to prevent a group becoming too insular. SMS has been a contributor to deaf people being able to form ‚weak‚ relations as it expands their communication from face-to-face engagements only.

SANDA is actively lobbying the mobile service providers to provide Deaf-specific services and it is possible to opt for SMS-only pricing packages in South Africa. Specifically business users and emergency services could offer more sophisticated SMS-based communication channels which no doubt would be rapidly taken up by hearing customers as well, given the popularity of SMS.

In addition, a lot could be done in terms of handset design to improve the SMS inbox, allowing messages to be searched, better delivery reports and better contact management.

The good news is though, that with the rise and rise of popularity of SMS, both deaf and hearing users will both drive and benefit from these advances. And ultimately SMS has the potential to greatly reduce the social disability of being Deaf.

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Prepare for deepfake impact

Is the world as we know it ready for the real impact of deepfake? CAREY VAN VLAANDEREN, CEO at ESET SA, digs deeper

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Deepfake technology is rapidly becoming easier and quicker to create and it’s opening a door into a new form of cybercrime. Although it’s still mostly seen as relatively harmful or even humorous, this craze could take a more sinister turn in the future and be at the heart of political scandals, cybercrime, or even unimaginable concepts involving fake videos. And it won’t be just public figures that bear the brunt. 

deepfake is the technique of human-image synthesis based on artificial intelligence to create fake content either from scratch or using existing video designed to replicate the look and sound of a real human. Such videos can look incredibly real and currently many of these videos involve celebrities or public figures saying something outrageous or untrue.

New research shows a huge increase in the creation of deepfake videos, with the number online almost doubling in the last nine months alone. Deepfakes are increasing in quality at a swift rate, too. This video showing Bill Hader morphing effortlessly between Tom Cruise and Seth Rogan is just one example of how authentic these videos are looking, as well as sounding. If you search YouTube for the term ‘deepfake’ it will make you realise we are viewing the tip of the iceberg as to what is to come.

In fact, we have already seen deepfake technology used for fraud, where a deepfaked voice was reportedly used to scam a CEO out of a large sum of cash. It is believed the CEO of an unnamed UK firm thought he was on the phone to his boss and followed the orders to immediately transfer €220,000 (roughly US$244,000) to a Hungarian supplier’s bank account. If it was this easy to influence someone by just asking them to do it over the phone, then surely we will need better security in place to mitigate this threat.

Fooling the naked eye

We have also seen apps making DeepNudes where apps were able to turn any clothed person into a topless photo in seconds. Although, luckily, this particular app has now been taken offline, what if this comes back in another form with a vengeance and is able to create convincingly authentic-looking video?

There is also evidence that the production of these videos is becoming a lucrative business especially in the pornography industry. The BBC says “96% of these videos are of female celebrities having their likenesses swapped into sexually explicit videos – without their knowledge or consent”.

recent Californian bill has taken a leap of faith and made it illegal to create a pornographic deepfake of someone without their consent with a penalty of up to $150,000. But chances are that no legislation will be enough to deter some people from fabricating the videos.

To be sure, an article from The Economist discusses that in order to make a convincing enough deepfake you would need a serious amount of video footage and/or voice recordings in order to make even a short deepfake clip.

Having said that, In the not-too-distant future, it may be entirely possible to take just a few short Instagram stories to create a deepfake that is believed by the majority of their followers online or by anyone else who knows them. We may see some unimaginable videos appearing of people closer to home – the boss, our colleagues, our peers, our family. Additionally, deepfakes may also be used for bullying in schools, the office or even further afield.

Furthermore, cybercriminals will definitely use such technology to spearphish victims. Deepfakes keep getting cheaper to create and become near-impossible to detect with the human eye alone. As a result, alt that fakery could very easily muddy the water between fact and fiction, which in turn could force us to not trust anything – even when presented with what our senses are telling us to believe.

Heading off the very real threat

So, what can be done to prepare us for this threat? First, we need to better educate people that deepfakes exist, how they work and the potential damage they can cause. We will all need to learn to treat even the most realistic videos we see that they could be a total fabrication.

Secondly, technology desperately needs to develop better detection of deepfakes. There is already research going into it, but it’s nowhere near where it should be yet. Although machine learning is at the heart of creating them in the first place, there needs to be something in place that acts as the antidote being able to detect them without relying on human eyes alone.

Finally, social media platforms need to realize there is a huge potential threat with the impact of deepfakes because when you mix a shocking video with social media, the outcome tends to spread very rapidly and potentially could have a detrimental impact on society.

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A career in data science – or your money back

The Explore Data Science Academy is offering high demand skills courses – and guarantees employment for trainees

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The Explore Data Science Academy (EDSA) has announced several new courses in 2020 that it says will radically change the shape of data science education in South Africa. 

Comprising Data Science, Data Engineering, Data Analytics and Machine Learning, each six-month course provides vital digital skills that are in high demand in the market place.  The full time, fully immersive courses each cost R60 000 including VAT. 

The courses are differentiated from any other available by the fact that EDSA has introduced a money back promise if it cannot place the candidate in a job within six months of graduation and at a minimum annual starting salary of R240 000.

“For South Africans with drive and aptitude, this is the perfect opportunity to launch a career in what has been called the sexiest career of the 21stcentury,” says Explore founder Shaun Dippnall.

Dippnall and his team are betting on the explosive demand for data science skills locally and globally.

 “There is a massive supply-demand gap in the area of data science and our universities and colleges are struggling to keep up with the rapid growth and changing nature of specific digital skills being demanded by companies.  

“We are offering specifically a work ready opportunity in a highly skills deficient sector, and one which guarantees employment thereafter.”

The latter is particularly pertinent to young South Africans – a segment which currently faces a 30 percent unemployment rate. 

“If you have skills in either Data Science, Data Engineering, Data Analytics or Machine Learning, you will find work locally, even globally. We’re confident of that,” says Dippnall.

EDSA is part of the larger Explore organisation and has for the past two years offered young people an opportunity to be trained as data scientists and embark on careers in a fast-growing sector of the economy.  

In its first year of operation, EDSA trained 100 learners as data scientists in a fully sponsored, full-time 12-month course.  In year two, this number increased to 400.  

“Because we are connected with hundreds of employers and have an excellent understanding of the skills they need, our current placement rate is over 90 percent of the students we’ve taught,” Dippnall says. “These learners can earn an average of R360 000 annually, hence our offer of your money back if there is no employment at a minimum annual salary of R240k within six months.

“With one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world – recently announced as a national emergency by the President – it is important that institutions teach skills that are in demand and where learners can earn a healthy living afterwards.”

There are qualifying criteria, however. Candidates need to live in close proximity (within one hour commuting distance), or be prepared to live, in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, and need to be between the ages of 18 and 55. 

“Our application process is very tough. We’ll test for aptitude and attitude using the qualifying framework we’ve built over the years. If you’re smart enough, you’ll be accepted,” says Dippnall.

To find out more, visit  http://www.explore-datascience.net.

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