Meet my new friend Sophia. She has addressed the United Nations. She has been granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia. But she doesn’t have a single thought of her own. Because Sophia is a robot.
Her star turns on the stages of the world are less about a new form of humanity and more about a massive public relations exercise by the makers of humanoid robots. Sophia is manufactured by Hanson Robotics, which has stated its mission as “developing intelligent, empathetic robots that make a positive impact on humanity and co-create a better future for all”.
Hanson’s real breakthrough, however, is not in artificial intelligence (AI). It is in what it calls the “artistry” of Sophia. She is “endowed with remarkable expressiveness, aesthetics and interactivity, and can simulate a full range of facial expressions”. This elevates her very basic artificial intelligence, such as the ability to track and recognise faces, and hold seemingly natural conversations with people, into the realms of apparent human intelligence.
Aside from 3D sensors, cameras in her eyes and wide-angle lens on her chest, she is programmed with AI algorithms that allow her to adapt her responses and seem – almost – spontaneous.
At the SAP Now expo in Johannesburg last week, Sophia took to the stage to answer pre-prepared questions about issues like the skills robots have to offer, and the potential of humans and robots working together.
The highlight of her appearance, however, was, well, her appearance. She was dressed in a top created by South African fashion designer David Tlale. That gave her appearance a strongly local edge, which made up for the absence of an AI edge.
Nevertheless, Sophia takes AI a few steps further than the other iconic robot that has been doing the rounds, namely Pepper, the talking, gliding customer interface with attitude.
There are probably more than 20 000 Pepper units installed around the world. They are mainly used as order-taking tools in fast food restaurants in Japan, but are increasingly appearing as customer greeters and receptionists in insurance companies, supermarkets, apparel stores and car dealerships. Pepper has been found to boost in-store interest and sales, at least initially.
The novelty is clearly a major factor. At a food and wine store in Scotland, customers and staff were initially delighted. That soon turned to frustration as Pepper was unable to respond to basic questions that went beyond its programming. Pepper was fired.
Nedbank is the first South African business to acquire a Pepper robot, and is using it as a “digital ambassador”, touting the bank’s high-tech capabilities. It picks up expressions, responds in a cute, robotic voice, and takes customers through a range of banking options.
Mostly, it offers a menu of these options on a tablet attached to its chest, meaning that it allows customers some of the functionality of a banking website or app. In other words, a digital interface that appears to engage with customers.
“Client experience is extremely important in building a relationship with customers,” says Fabio Mione, head of projects and strategic execution for integrated channels at Nedbank. “We could never replace the engagement of the human element.
“Pepper is recognition that, if we are going to position Nedbank as a digital bank that will enhance self-service options, we have to embrace technology. We have to explore new technologies to understand what it will mean for clients in future.”
SAP Africa brought Sophia to its Johannesburg conference for similar reasons.
“The theme of the conference is ‘Tomorrow is already here’, and we wanted to bring Sophia to South Africa to showcase how advanced AI has become,” says Ansophie Strydom, head of communications at SAP Africa. “There is a perception in some emerging markets that AI and machine learning is still 10-15 years away, when in reality it is not that far off. Sophia is purely to showcase these advances in a format never before seen on South African shores.”
Alexander Atzberger, global president of Customer Experience at SAP, points to the truism that humans tend to overestimate technological advances in the short term, but underestimate them in the long term.
“We probably overestimate the impact of robots and AI in the next 12 months, but in the next 36 months or more it could be massive. When I think of a customer service department, a lot more customers will be talking to agents that are Pepper or Sophia or software bots.”
For now, he says, one of the main obstacles is lack of customer data to allow for more in depth or personalised service.
“When things get more complicated and one needs to go a level deeper, AI needs to get smarter as well. Companies like SAP are working with partners to build out possible scenarios, but robots can’t be smart or useful if companies don’t have data from enterprise systems available to AI to make it smarter. Whether customer experience or AI is good or bad is based on how much information is available.”
Atzberger believes that one of the keys is connecting experiences with each other, so that the data and knowledge base about customers includes both their interactions and reactions, thus creating a better understanding of what moves the customer.
“This is the whole idea of the intelligent enterprise. In all industries, the incumbents and many companies that have been around for a long time are challenged by the customer revolution, where customers are demanding a different way of being treated, and not just as a record in the system. Large, established companies talk about change, but haven’t really changed, because they haven’t connected customer experience to their supply chains.”
The success of robots and AI as a customer interface, then, depends heavily on how personalised the experience is across all channels. AI that is connected to data and experience can predict customer behaviour, as opposed to only knowing what customers want once they have entered a store.
This ability can, however, be disconcerting, says Atzberger, who brings up one of SAP’s fundamental rules in AI and robotics: “Don’t be creepy”.
It is for this reason that Sophia is designed to look as much like a robot as a human, with its mechanical brain exposed, and no wig in place to humanise her further. As a result, people know they are dealing with a robot, and don’t feel fooled into believing it is human.
In short, Sophia is not really my friend. But once she has enough data, she will make everyone think they are her friends.
Opera launches built-in VPN on Android browser
Opera has released a new version of its mobile browser, which features a built-in virtual private network service.
Opera has released a new version of its mobile browser, Opera for Android 51, which features a built-in VPN (virtual private network) service.
A VPN allows users to create a secure connection to a public network, and is particularly useful if users are unsure of the security levels of the public networks that they use often.
The new VPN in Opera for Android 51 is free, unlimited and easy to use. When enabled, it gives users greater control of their online privacy and improves online security, especially when connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots such as coffee shops, airports and hotels. The VPN will encrypt Internet traffic into and out of their mobile devices, which reduces the risk of malicious third parties collecting sensitive information.
“There are already more than 650 million people using VPN services globally. With Opera, any Android user can now enjoy a free and no-log service that enhances online privacy and improves security,” said Peter Wallman, SVP Opera Browser for Android.
When users enable the VPN included in Opera for Android 51, they create a private and encrypted connection between their mobile device and a remote VPN server, using strong 256-bit encryption algorithms. When enabled, the VPN hides the user’s physical location, making it difficult to track their activities on the internet.
The browser VPN service is also a no-log service, which means that the VPN servers do not log and retain any activity data, all to protect users privacy.
“Users are exposed to so many security risks when they connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots without a VPN,” said Wallman. “Enabling Opera VPN means that users makes it difficult for third parties to steal information, and users can avoid being tracked. Users no longer need to question if or how they can protect their personal information in these situations.”
According to a report by the Global World Index in 2018, the use of VPNs on mobile devices is rising. More than 42 percent of VPN users on mobile devices use VPN on a daily basis, and 35 percent of VPN users on computers use VPN daily.
The report also shows that South African VPN users said that their main reason for using a VPN service is to remain anonymous while they are online.
“Young people in particular are concerned about their online privacy as they increasingly live their lives online,” said Wallman. “Opera for Android 51 makes it easy to benefit from the security and anonymity of VPN , especially for those may not be aware of how to set these up.”
Setting up the Opera VPN is simple. Users just tap on the browser settings, go to VPN and enable the feature according to their preference. They can also select the region of their choice.
The built-in VPN is free, which means that users don’t need to download additional apps on their smartphones or pay additional fees as they would for other private VPN services. With no sign-in process, users don’t need to log in every time they want to use it.
Opera for Android is available for download in Google Play. The rollout of the new version of Opera for Android 51 will be done gradually per region.
Future of the car is here
Three new cars, with vastly different price-tags, reveal the arrival of the future of wheels, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK
Just a few months ago, it was easy to argue that the car of the future was still a long way off, at least in South Africa. But a series of recent car launches have brought the high-tech vehicle to the fore in startling ways.
The Jaguar i-Pace electric vehicle (EV), BMW 330i and the Datsun Go have little in common, aside from representing an almost complete spectrum of car prices on the local market. Their tags start, respectively, at R1.7-million, R650 000 and R150 000.
Such a widely disparate trio of vehicles do not exactly come together to point to the future. Rather, they represent different futures for different segments of the market. But they also reveal what we can expect to become standard in most vehicles produced in the 2020s.
The i-Pace may be out of reach of most South Africans, but it ushers in two advances that will resonate throughout the EV market as it welcomes new and more affordable cars. It is the first electric vehicle in South Africa to beat the bugbear of range anxiety.
Unlike the pioneering “old” Nissan Leaf, which had a range of up to about 150km, and did not lend itself to long distance travel, the i-Pace has a 470km range, bringing it within shouting distance of fuel-powered vehicles. A trip from Johannesburg to Durban, for example, would need just one recharge along the way.
And that brings in the other major advance: the i-Pace is the first EV launched in South Africa together with a rapid public charging network on major routes. It also comes with a home charging kit, which means the end of filling up at petrol stations.
The Jaguar i-Pace dispels one further myth about EVs: that they don’t have much power under the hood. A test drive around Gauteng revealed not only a gutsy engine, but acceleration on a par with anything in its class, and enough horsepower to enhance the safety of almost any overtaking situation.
Specs for the Jaguar i-Pace include:
- All-wheel drive
- Twin motors with a combined 294kW and 696Nm
- 0-100km/h in 4.8s
- 90kWh Lithium-ion battery, delivering up to 470km range
- Eight-year/160 000km battery warranty
- Two-year/34 000km service intervals
Click here to read about BMW’s self-driving technology, and how Datsun makes smart technology affordable.