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IBM aims AI at Africa

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Artificial intelligence is seen as an advanced and dangerous technology, but IBM is showing how it can help solve problems for Africa, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Artificial intelligence has been getting a bad rap lately. It’s been blamed for the way Facebook and Twitter promote fake news on the basis of showing people more of what they are already click through to read. That in turn is credited by some with handing Donald Trump the US presidency. It’s also been blamed for introducing bias into anything from home loan approvals to facial recognition systems, which tend to be more accurate with Caucasian faces than those of others.

But a team of scientists at a research facility in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, hopes to change all that. 

“We are working on beneficial AI,” says Tapiwa  Chiwewe, a scientist at IBM Research, which opened its second global research lab in Africa at the Tshimologong precinct in 2016. “We want to create AI that benefits people. In Africa, there are all kinds of socio-economic problems and we’re in a unique position to create AI that improves people’s lives. But we also want to create economic and social value.”

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The emphasis is not on AI for its own sake, or operating independently of humans, but on creating symbiotic systems that help humans perform their roles better.

“These range from data driven healthcare to digital urban ecosystems,” says Craig Holmes, vice president for Industry Solutions and Business Development at IBM Middle East and Africa. “We’re researching air-quality management in partnership with the city of Johannesburg and Tshwane, we’re looking at traffic management in cities, and even wildfire risk prediction in the Cape Town area.”

Many of these projects will deliver benefits in the medium- to long-term future, but at least one is ready to roll out. It will be launched this Sunday, April 22, marking Earth Day. Appropriately, it is aimed at promoting sustainable energy.

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It’s called EmpowerSolar, and is a web-based application for designing solar powered solutions for domestic and business use. 

IBM explains on the site: “The app uses a sophisticated algorithm to determine an optimal solution, along with an estimated price based on current typical prices. The algorithm takes into account the amount of sunlight at your chosen location, along with the specified usage of the various electrical appliances chosen.”

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The app was developed by Dr Ashley Gritzman, a young scientist at IBM Research. By coincidence, he had graduated as an electrical engineer and was an installer of solar systems before joining IBM. 

“I had a small startup, assessing people’s energy usage, monitoring household or small business consumption, and told them how to reduce their energy use, ranging from changing old light bulbs to LED, to using solar geysers for water heating. Then we’d spec the systems, and design and install. I saw there was a big divide between home owners who may want energy efficiency, and the knowledge of installers and retailers of the technology.

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“When I joined this lab, they asked, what contribution can we make to the energy question in South Africa? I saw a big gap of information. For example, solar is regarded as way too expensive for many and they wouldn’t look at it. But in fact, people have no idea what it will cost. If they assume it will cost hundreds of thousands of rands, they won’t even pick up the phone to enquire. I wanted to bridge the gap between homeowners and new technology.”

Part of Gritzman’s motivation was the dramatic fall in solar costs: the price of panels has fallen 50% in the last 5 years. The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme, designed to encourage private investment in renewable energy, has seen contract prices fall from R4 to 65c per Kilowatt Hour since 2011.

“South Africa has great resources in both solar and wind, and there is no longer a question that it is cheaper than new-built coal or nuclear. But it has to be super user-friendly, so that my parents can use it; it has to be technically accurate and pricing has to be correct, or else it’s not useful. And the electrical designs it comes up with have to work and be correct.

“When I was doing the solar stuff myself, a design would take a lot of time and a lot of calculations to do an initial quote. Then they also want to run the garage lights, for example, and you have to redo it. The app will be useful to home owners, but also to installers to do a quick design and costing.”

Gritzman’s PhD was in machine learning and image processing, which fits in perfectly with the artificial intelligence focus of the Research Lab and IBM’s Watson AI engine, which has been used for numerous medical breakthroughs, ranging from cancer research to tuberculosis treatment. However, EmpowerSolar fed a personal passion, and he was quickly able to drive it from idea to reality.

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“It’s a responsive web site, it looks like an app, but doesn’t have to be downloaded. You choose your location, and we ask a few questions that are easy to understand. The big difference is in how much sun you get.  We’ve got little sliders, and ask people to use those to select direction, angle of roof and appliances they’d like to use with solar energy.

“When I was an installer, we’d just say how many kilowatt hours do you use a month, and most people don’t know. So we build this from the ground up, with categories, like home office, kitchen, and lighting, and within each we have a database of generic appliances.”

Part of the purpose of the service is to promote energy-efficient behaviour. As users indicate the appliances they use, messages pop up that, for example, advise that an electric geyser uses a large amount of electricity, and indicates the cost and benefit of installing gas or solar. Nothing is hidden. The application includes costs for solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, inverters and installation costs.

Gritzman is as enthusiastic about South Africa’s advantages as he is about solar power.

“South Africa really is sunny. If you compare us with Germany, one of the world leaders in solar, the least sunny spot in South Africa still has more sun than the most sunny city in Germany. That puts in perspective what opportunity we have.”

* Try out the EmpowerSolar application at https://empowersolar.mybluemix.net/

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Rain, Telkom Mobile, lead in affordable data

A new report by the telecoms regulator in South Africa reveal the true consumer champions in mobile data costs

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The latest bi-annual tariff analysis report produced by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) reveals that Telkom Mobile data costs for bundles are two-thirds lower than those of Vodacom and MTN. On the other hand, Rain is half the price again of Telkom. 

The report focuses on the 163 tariff notifications lodged with ICASA during the period 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2018.

“It seeks to ensure that there is retail price transparency within the electronic communications sector, the purpose of which is to enable consumers to make an informed choice, in terms of tariff plan preferences and/or preferred service providers based on their different offerings,” said Icasa.

ICASA says it observed the competitiveness between licensees in terms of the number of promotions that were on offer in the market, with 31 promotions launched during the period. 

The report shows that MTN and Vodacom charge the same prices for a 1GB and a 3GB data bundle at R149 and R299 respectively.  On the other hand, Telkom Mobile charges (for similar-sized data bundles) R100 (1GB) and R201 (3GB). Cell C discontinued its 1GB bundle, which was replaced with a 1.5GB bundle offered at the same price as the replaced 1GB data bundle at R149. 

Rain’s “One Plan Package” prepaid mobile data offering of R50 for a 1GB bundle remains the most affordable when compared to the offers from other MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators).  

“This development should have a positive impact on customers’ pockets as they are paying less compared to similar data bundles and increases choice,” said Icasa.

The report also revealed that the cost of out-of-bundle data had halved at both MTN and Vodacom, from 99c per Megabyte a year ago to 49c per Megabyte in the first quarter of this year. This was still two thirds more expensive than Telkom Mobile, which has charged 29c per Megabyte throughout this period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, from having positioned itself as consumer champion in recent years, Cell C has fallen on hard times, image-wise: it is by far the most expensive mobile network for out-of-bundle data, at R1.10 per Megabyte. Its prices have not budged in the past year.

The report highlights the disparities between the haves and have-nots in the dramatically plummeting cost of data per Megabyte as one buys bigger and bigger bundles on a 30-day basis (see graph below).

For 20 Gigabyte bundles, all mobile operators are in effect charging 4c per Megabyte. Only at that level do costs come in at under Rain’s standard tariffs regardless of use.

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Qualcomm wins 5G as Apple and Intel cave in

A flurry of announcements from three major tech players ushered in a new mobile chip landscape, wrItes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week’s shock announcement by Intel that it was canning its 5G modem business leaves the American market wide open to Qualcomm, in the wake of the latter winning a bruising patent war with Apple.

Intel Corporation announced its intention to “exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices”.

Intel said it would also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business, sharpening its focus on a market expected to be dominated by Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

Intel said it would continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but did not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020. In other words, it would no longer be supplying chips for iPhones and iPads in competition with Qualcomm.

“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel, and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realise the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”

The news came immediately after Qualcomm and Apple issued a joint announced of an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm, along with a six-year license agreement, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Apple had previously accused Qualcomm of abusing its dominant position in modem chips for smartphones and charging excessive license fees. It ordered its contract manufacturers, first, to stop paying Qualcomm for the chips, and then to stop using the chips altogether, turning instead to Intel.
With Apple paying up and Intel pulling out, Qualcomm is suddenly in the pound seats. It shares hit their highest levels in five years after the announcements.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “As we lead the world to 5G, we envision this next big change in cellular technology spurring a new era of intelligent, connected devices and enabling new opportunities in connected cars, remote delivery of health care services, and the IoT — including smart cities, smart homes, and wearables. Qualcomm Incorporated includes our licensing business, QTL, and the vast majority of our patent portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Strategy Analytics released a report on the same day that showed Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia will lead the market in core 5G infrastructure, namely Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment, by 2023 as the 5G market takes off. Huawei is expected to have the edge as a result of the vast scale of the early 5G market in China and its long term steady investment in R&D. According to a report entitled “Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia”, two outliers, Samsung and ZTE, are expected to expand their global presence alongside emerging vendors as competition heats up.

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