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Meet world’s first AI-created whisky

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By Esat Dedezade, Managing Editor, Microsoft News Centre – Europe 

Over 1,000 years ago, travelling monks migrated from mainland Europe to discover new worlds. Their paths led them to Scotland and Ireland, and among their collective wisdom was the knowledge of distillation – the process of extracting and purifying liquid.

Lacking the vineyards and grapes from their original lands, they began to ferment grain mash – a mixture of water, grain and yeast – and in doing so, introduced the first whisky to the world.

Derived from the Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae, or water of life. This was translated into Old Irish as uisce beatha, before various iterations in early English gave us the whisky (or whiskey) we know today.

Since these early beginnings, whisky production has spread to all corners of the globe. From Ireland and Scotland, to Japan, the US, Australia and more, this ancient art has traversed cultures and boundaries, with each distillery infusing their unique soul into each blend.

Sweden-based Mackmyra Whisky is one such distillery. Founded in 1999 after eight friends decided to create their own whisky, it has since won several international awards, and its Master Blender has recently been inducted into Whisky Magazine’s hall of fame. The distillery’s ambitions, however, reach much further.

Together with Finnish tech company Fourkind and Microsoft, Mackmyra is creating the world’s first whisky developed with artificial intelligence (AI). In an industry synonymous with deep-rooted tradition, human expertise and craftsmanship, what happens when 1,000-year-old techniques meet advanced 21st century technology?

It’s all in the blend
To better understand the role of an AI distiller, we first need to understand what gives whisky its distinct character. Whiskies aren’t just differentiated by their different ingredients, but also by the charred wooden casks they’re stored in. Rather than mere containers, the casks themselves play a vital role in giving each blend its unique flavour.

When whisky is first distilled, it’s a clear liquid that can have an elegant or a smoky character. To get the rich aroma, flavour and colour we’re used to seeing, this clear form, known as new make, needs to spend at least three years (usually much longer,) in wooden casks. This is the maturation phase, where the all-important flavour infusion takes place. 

Over time, whiskies slowly begin to take on the colour, aroma and flavours from the casks in which they’re stored, which also includes the flavours and aromas of their previous contents, such as bourbon, sherry, wine or other spirits. “From these casks, we can generate hundreds of thousands of different whiskies,” states Angela D’Orazio, Master Blender at Mackmyra.

Master Distillers can spend their whole lives meticulously tasting, tweaking and experimenting to create the best flavours possible, turning acts of chemistry into a form of art – and this is where Mackmyra wants AI to work its magic.

“We always strive to challenge the traditions in the very traditional whisky trade, and that’s something we can really do now with the help of AI. We see AI as a part of our digital development, and it is really exciting to let AI be a complement to the craft of producing a high-quality whisky. For me as a Master Blender, it is a great achievement to be able to say that I’m now also a mentor for the first ever created AI whisky in the world“, says D’Orazio.

This is the first time that AI has been used to augment and automate the most time-consuming process of whisky creation. According to D’Orazio: “It’s much more complex than models used to create beer, due to the sheer number of combinations available, and the fact that whisky recipe generation is more art than engineering.”

Generated by AI, curated by people
Humans have always selected the different blends of ingredients and casks to create near-infinite flavour combinations.

Currently, the distillery’s machine learning models, powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and Azure cognitive services, are fed with Mackmyra’s existing recipes (including those for award-winning blends), sales data, and customer preferences. With this dataset the AI can generate more than 70 million recipes that it predicts will be popular, and of the highest quality based on what kind of cask types there are in the warehouse.

This is not only faster than a person carrying out the process manually, but thanks to the algorithm’s ability to sift through and calculate a vast amount of data, new and innovative combinations that would otherwise never have been considered, can be found. It’s important to stress, however, that this AI solution is not designed to replace a Master Blender.

“The work of a Master Blender is not at risk,” D’Orazio states. “While the whisky recipe is created by AI, we still benefit from a person’s expertise and knowledge, especially the human sensory part, that can never be replaced by any program. We believe that the whisky is AI-generated, but human-curated. Ultimately, the decision is made by a person.

Beyond the glass
Mackmyra’s AI-generated whisky will be available from Autumn 2019. According to the distillery, this is the first time that a complex consumer product recipe has been created with machine learning – but whisky is just the beginning. 

“This AI-generation can have an impact in different industries globally,” says Jarno Kartela, Machine Learning Partner at Fourkind, the company behind the AI algorithm. “I envision AI systems generating recipes for sweets, perfumes, beverages, and maybe even sneaker designs. Many of these have already been attempted, but large-scale adoption is still lagging behind.”

“We are showing the way forward, and these new AI solutions can be used to generate products that retain the spirit, look and feel of the brands behind them, while at the same time being new and unique”, continues Kartela.

A future where the power and speed of AI is paired with the ingenuity and expertise of a person to break new boundaries? We’ll certainly drink to that.

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The shape of the SME future

What does the future of technology look like for South Africa’s SMEs? COLIN TIMMIS, general country manager of Xero SA and a professional accountant, looks into the tech crystal ball

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Over the past decade, technology has radically changed the way businesses operate. Now, even small businesses have access to powerful tools that were previously expensive or complicated.

The pace of change has been rapid – and it’s unlikely to slow down. Businesses must keep up with technology to stay competitive. According to research conducted by Citrix, 92% of companies across South Africa’s key industries agree that digital adoption directly affects company profits. However, 54% still feel unprepared for the future.

So, what does the future of technology look like for South Africa’s small businesses? How can the other 46% of companies prepare?

5G and WiFi 6 – faster internet speed

In the foreseeable future, we will see a rapid increase in the use of fibre across South Africa. According to Xero’s State of Small Business Report produced with World Wide Worx, 49% of small businesses surveyed used ADSL connections and only 37% used fibre. When asked to describe their internet connections, 45% said they were ‘great’, while 43% said they were ‘okay but not 100% reliable’. 57% of those who said their connection was ‘great’ were fibre users.

South Africa is still playing catch-up in terms of internet connectivity and speed. However, WiFi 6 is set to improve the way routers distribute traffic to connected devices and increase the transfer speeds by around 30%. For when you’re on the go, 5G is the next generation of mobile data standard. It’s already being trialed by South African carrier Rain, and a broader rollout is expected in 2020.

Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence – more efficient software

Even if you aren’t aware of it, you’re probably already using smart software which leverages machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) in your business. While only a tiny proportion of respondents (0.25%) from Xero’s State of Small Business Report say they are using them, most businesses are aware of how important they are.

AI and ML are great at taking large amounts of data and spotting patterns that humans might miss. They help businesses cover some of the more routine tasks so they are freed-up to focus on the most important priorities. For example, tedious tasks like bank reconciliation, can now be completely automated.

Blockchain – safer, more secure transfers

If you hear ‘blockchain’ and think ‘cryptocurrency,’ you’re not alone. However, the technology also has something to offer when it comes to existing payment technologies. Through its complexity and high level of encryption, integration with blockchain can make transferring valuable assets more secure. It can also be used for more effective fraud prevention and other security-focused tasks.

The cloud – access data everywhere

Cloud computing is starting to become a standard part of life for many small businesses in South Africa today. According to Xero’s State of Small Business report, 19% of respondents surveyed make use of cloud technology. Of these respondents, 98% reported a significant increase in profit thanks to adopting this technology – and 99% identified an increase in efficiency.

The trend towards cloud adoption is likely to continue as we see the development of technologies, like faster speed through fibre, WiFi 6, 5G, and machine learning powering it.

Integrated financial software

When it comes to accounting in a small business, these new technologies will enable much smarter ways of working. Take bank reconciliation, for example, where cloud storage and machine learning will search through documents and expenses on your behalf to compile reports.

Eventually, we will be able to access everything we want in one integrated, seamless hub. We can see this development through the use of app integration. Xero has 800+ apps already compatible, which enables small businesses to automate, gain better insight and grow their businesses all through one ecosystem of partners.

Access to capital

Open banking, the process of banks and financial services opening their APIs to the market, will shape how businesses access funding. By sharing their financial data instantly, potential investors have immediate access to a company’s revenue, profits and cashflow – enabling them to make fast, informed decisions.

Platforms like Xero keep all of a company’s financial data up to date. That way, when the company needs to file for a loan their documents are ready to go. Xero is also continuously pursuing new partnerships to help fuel small business growth. Earlier this year Xero partnered with three new alternative lenders, to help improve access to funding.

Digital adoption offers an island of stability in the volatile South African economy. Technology allows businesses to run more efficiently, remain globally integrated, and maximise their profits. Companies which keep up with the latest technology, from incorporating it into their processes to training staff, will have a real advantage over their competitors.

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Cash is here to stay, and other trends shaping payments

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As we enter the next decade, local and African merchants should support payment methods that suit their customers, rather than following global trends just for the sake of it. Peter Harvey, MD of payment service provider, DPO SA, looks at five trends we can expect over the next few years.  

  • Cash is here to stay – for now

Despite common perceptions, South Africa still has more than 11 million unbanked individuals and cash remains the preferred payment method for these and many other customers. 

Harvey says: “As we enter 2020, we can expect a host of new digital payment technologies that sound like excellent options – and they may well be for some – but merchants need to carefully monitor their customer behaviour before they rush to try the latest gadget or fad.”

According to Harvey the banks and card companies like Visa and Mastercard will be placing a large focus on enticing consumers to move from cash to card-based payments in the coming years. 

“Overcoming the reliance on cash will take a fair amount of time and effort,” says Harvey. “For merchants trading in a cash-based community, depositing money into a bank that tracks your spending, charges you to store your money, and then charges you again to withdraw it can seem unattractive. At the end of the day consumers will make their decision based on convenience, cost and risk.” 

Card payments are expected to morph over the coming years. In South Africa the tap and pay method is becoming more commonplace. Harvey believes this and other near field communication (NFC) methods of card payments will continue to grow in use as shoppers become more trusting of the technology and retailers see the efficiency benefits of moving customers through their purchase cycle more quickly and easily. 

  • Mobile is still king 

There is no doubt that the means to facilitate most digital payments in Africa will depend on mobile technology. 

According to South African communications regulator, ICASA, South Africa has a smartphone penetration of 80%. In Sub-Saharan Africa meanwhile, the mobile phone penetration is 50% and the GSMA expects smartphone penetration to grow from around 40% to 66% in 2025. 

Harvey says smartphone technology and wearable technology will allow for the growth in some of the newer payment tech, like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, but these payment methods will remain in the hands of the top LSMs and have little effect on the bottom of the pyramid customer base. 

“For the moment USSD technology will still underpin the majority of mobile payment methods. Until smartphones increase in penetration, payments like m-Pesa will continue to dominate. Customers know and trust the solution and its these types of offerings that will need to be beaten by any new entrant over the next two to three years at least.”

  • New decade, new banks 

Harvey is upbeat about the new digital-only bank offerings like Tyme Bank, Bank Zero and Discovery Bank. 

“It appears that 20Twenty was two decades too soon,” says Harvey. “The local markets are now finally ready for a new digital offering without the fuss and cost of the traditional offering. These banks stand a good chance of making an impact and making headway towards financial inclusion in the country.”

Harvey believes, that in order to boost the number of people using digital payments, the banking institutions, merchants and payment service providers need to start incentivising consumers to make the switch. Loyalty and Rewards will start playing an even bigger role in the near future.

  • New services for the payment ecosystem

Based on demand, Harvey believes forward thinking payment service providers will work closely with their banking partners to focus on providing their mutual merchants with a ‘fully managed service’. This service includes: instant sign-up; a full suite of payment products; risk screening; account reconciliation; anti money laundering checks; access to shopping cart plugins; and a variety of other value-added services in the online digital payment space.  

These services will enable digital retailers to quickly and easily start selling their services online, while protecting them from the associated risks.

The service benefits the banks as well as the broader digital ecosystem, as the payment service provider actively monitors and manages merchants and transactions, removing risk from the process and facilitating ‘good’ transactions.

  • Identity technology takes centre stage

Looking at newer technologies, Harvey believes biometrics will continue to be the key focus.  

Harvey says voice and facial recognition are set to take off in South Africa in 2020 and 2021 and he believes the key driver in this regard is the increasing use by the government. 

“Banks and Home Affairs teaming up for the renewal of ID documents and passports is a major win for the average citizen,” Harvey says. “This falls neatly into the ‘convenience’ motivator and as people use and trust the biometrics used by the banks for this service,  they will become less afraid to try it for payments.”

As technology rapidly improves, the payments ecosystem can expect some exciting advancements over the coming decade. Chat commerce and even augmented and virtual reality developments will almost all come with payment features. However, Harvey cautions against over exuberance. 

Harvey says “Make sure you cater for what your customer actually wants, not what you think they should want. If working closely with African merchants, banks and customers has shown us anything, it’s that the fastest way to drive away business, is to dictate how customers pay. Provide the options and let them choose.”

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