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New gadgets – and your voice – prepare for take-off

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week promises to be the runway for the take-off of thousands of new gadgets, as well as the ancient technology called voice, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

They come in their thousands to Las Vegas partake in the annual circus of consumer electronics. And that is just the exhibitors.

This week, more than 20 000 new gadgets, devices, contraptions and applications will be launched across half a dozen convention centres and venues sprawling across the gambling and meetings mecca. Amid the noise and buzz of new ways of doing robots, virtual reality, smart cars and smart homes, one may just be able to discern the shape of the future emerging.

The Consumer Electronics Show, or International CES as the organisers prefer it to be branded, is the runway from which much of the Western World’s new technology takes off, setting the scene for the year in tech. The most glaring exceptions are smartphones, which tend to wait for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, and anything from Apple – which is always conspicuous by its absence from tech expos.

However, the shadow of Apple will be highly visible: it is trying to persuade innovators and manufacturers to build its HomeKit smart-home system into their new products. That technology will be at the heart of the company’s new HomePod smart speaker, but it already faces an uphill battle, which visitors to CES will be able to witness first hand.

It is expected that the world’s two leading voice activated “intelligent agents”, Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, will not only give Apple a run for its innovation, but will in fact point the way. Already at the 2017 edition of CES, Alexa was making its appearance in anything from pool cleaners to washing machines. This year it would like to show it can be even more innovative – and more useful.

Google, for its part, is making its biggest appearance yet at CES. Banners reading “Hey Google!” – the wake-up call for devices like the Google Home smart speakers – are plastered across Las Vegas. Both the Home and the new Home Mini are aggressively targeting the market share of Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot.

This outdoor marketing blitz will be matched in the expo halls by the number of products on display bearing the Google logo and some form of smart functionality.

The war between Amazon and Google will be played out on numerous devices, with each trying to gain market share in categories ranging from headphones to smart TVs. That is ironic, since the TV category itself is one of the biggest battlegrounds of CES. In the last few years, Samsung and LG have slugged it out for boasting owners for biggest, sharpest, brightest, thinnest, smartest and other adjectives that serve as a proxy for technology leadership.

This year they are rejoined in earnest by Panasonic, which is both competing with and collaborating with Samsung, among other. In one of the early announcements of CES, the two companies agreed with 20th Century Fox to update the High Dynamic Range (HDR) platform called HDR10+, which will allow content creators and device manufacturers to offer a premium experience for viewers.

Not least, Panasonic’s own devices will benefit from the new specifications. At a press conference on Monday, it unveiled a 2018 line up of eight new televisions using the OLED format, light-emitting technology that allows for thin, flexible and vivid displays. Four of these – the FZ950 and FZ800 ranges, in 65-inch and 55-inch screen sizes – will be the first OLED screens that support HDR10+.

There is a strategic advantage to what seems an esoteric technology enhancement: Amazon’s Prime Video movie-on-demand service already has a catalogue of several hundred hours of HDR10+ content.

Panasonic also claims line honours for another esoteric area of TV display competitiveness: the quest for a better black. The blacker the blacks in an image or video, the more realistic the colours overall. This year, Panasonic’s OLED screens introduce an Absolute Black Filter, which it says helps ensure the purest, most accurate black levels by absorbing ambient light in order to eliminate reflections. This comes into its own in brightly lit rooms, when the level of reflection often makes big screens more of an irritation than a pleasure.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Panasonic has also teamed up with Amazon in a category that is not normally associated with either company: automotive technology.

Panasonic announced on Monday that it is integrating the Alexa voice service with the next generation of in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems, it will make allow users to interact with the smart assistant finside the vehicle, with some not needing any Internet connectivity.

At Panasonic’s CES press conference, Amazon’s Alexa Onboard technology was demonstrated with the Panasonic Skip Generation IVI technology released last year.  Drivers and passengers can use their voices to control car features like air conditioning, entertainment systems, communication and navigation.

“When drivers have access to familiar Alexa contextual commands and responses from inside the car, it opens up a new world of experiences,” said Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Corporation of North America.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

What you can ask Alexa in your car

Alexa Onboard technology integrated into Panasonic Skip Gen technology allows a range of voice functionality for in-car users. Panasonic suggested the following questions that customers can ask Alexa while on the move:

  • Navigation: Say, “Alexa, find the nearest coffee shop,” and instantly get directions using only your voice.
  • Music: Ask Alexa to play music from your select streaming services
  • Smart home: Control your smart home on the go with Alexa. Just ask Alexa to warm up your home while commuting, check if your front door is locked, turn the lights on and more.
  • News: Say, “Alexa, what’s the news?” to hear your daily flash briefings.
  • Ordering: Order a meal delivered before you even arrive home from meal delivery services.

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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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