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Robots not quite ready for intelligence

Fears of robots replacing humans are premature, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.



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”.

Sophia wears a David Tlale creation at the Sandton Convention Centre (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

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.

Sophia’s brain is exposed to remind people she is a robot (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

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.

Pepper greets customers at Nedbank’s Sandton City store (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

“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.”

Sophia on stage at the SAP Now conference in Johannesburg last week. (Pic: Luca Barausse)

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.

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


Here is 2019’s tech

From AI to flexible displays, this is the tech that will shape 2019, writes CY KIM, MD of LG SA



2018 was incredibly exciting for the technology sector which has seen myriad advancements. These include the fundamentals of artificial intelligence (AI) being established, robots helping around the house and consumer electronic innovations such as TVs that are so thin, they might be mistaken for windows, or paintings.

2019 promises to be another significant year as people’s attitudes are changing and technology becomes embedded in our lives. Smart electronics manufacturers will ensure their plans for the future match evolving consumer needs with suitable technology.

We take a look at the biggest innovations for 2019 from AI to lightning-fast internet speeds and flexible viewing surfaces, and we shed some light on how these evolving technologies will impact on how we live and work.

AI will come of age

AI has experienced a marked increase in investments and according to Forbes, 80% of enterprises are investing in AI while 30% are planning to expand their AI investments in the next three years. It’s estimated that during 2017, venture, corporate and seed investors put about $3.6-billion into AI and machine learning companies.

This investment trend has given rise to innovation in deep learning products that have the potential to change the world for the better.

Yes, AI has been around since the 1950s, but its consumer benefits weren’t visible until recently and 2019 will be the year when AI starts to really take off and become a necessity, not just in the home, but in every facet of our lives.

The potential of AI is endless as this technology goes into everything from small watches to cars and even gigantic, connected smart cities. AI is also starting to find its way into TVs, washing machines, refrigerators, speakers, mobile phones and even air cons as products adapt to human behaviour.

Lightning-fast internet speeds

Faster internet speeds enable quicker response times for business tools that we all rely on to get the job done. It will increase the efficiency of workers and will provide reliable communication tools for companies that rely on remote workers.

Given that the so-called gig economy has grown exponentially in recent years, the expectation is that the evolving workforce will contain a higher percentage of employees, or contractors who do not work in a central office.

5G has the potential to change the world the way the internet did a few decades ago. The fifth generation of wireless technology will take internet connectivity to a new level as the internet of things (IoT), will bring about the potential for everything to be connected to everything.

However, 5G is not just about faster internet speeds. It will create new possibilities in numerous sectors, including medicine, transportation and manufacturing.

A smarter world through IoT and AI isn’t possible without 5G’s speed and capacity as the system is able to carry large numbers of connections simultaneously, and is therefore crucial to the development of smart cities, autonomous cars and smart homes.

Life-enriching smart technology

Much like technological innovations, consumer habits and preferences are changing drastically when it comes to home appliances and particularly, home entertainment.

Most consumers believe that advancements in home entertainment tech is life-enriching and that their life is better with the latest tech at their fingertips as it allows them to stay indoors and enjoy quality time with friends and family.

The value of home entertainment tech lies in how it allows loved ones to share experiences, thereby bringing them closer together, particularly during big events such as major sporting events and holiday celebrations.

The potential of flexible viewing surfaces will not only change home entertainment, but also marketing techniques in shopping malls, city centres and shop fronts. With the ability to curve around any environment, this technology creates the perfect platform for signage and consumer engagement that stands out from the crowd.

LG Electronics is an established market leader in innovation and has already started to incorporate these futuristic technologies into its products, which are designed to make consumers lives more convenient. We will continue to release amazing products that utilise smart tech to connect with consumers while staying ahead of the evolutionary curve.

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AI will power IoT

A simple gesture. A world built from accessible assets that drive human convenience and interaction. This is the future that’s powered by the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), two of the planet’s hottest topic trends right now for a very good reason. They work, says PHATHIZWE MALINGA, managing director of SqwidNet.



They are also the fuel driving digital transformation in 2019. These are the technologies revolutionising performance, process and productivity. They are also transforming industry challenges across agriculture, retail, health and the public sector and are set to continue on this path well into 2019.

IoT has become the central nervous system of technology, allowing users to make intelligent decisions without feeling overwhelmed by choice or technology. Its ability to make life easier on every level – business, consumer, public sector – is the next step of the IoT evolution as it improves quality of life using AI and machine learning to analyse past behaviour and the insights it gleans to change the future.

This is the vision of the perfect IoT and AI future. The two technologies so intertwined and connected that they are influencing one another’s growth, development and adoption. IoT provides the ability to generate data from the changing circumstances of an asset and the infrastructure required to transport that data to where it can be accessed and analysed. Considering the sheer volume of data generated, it is impossible for a human being to analyse it at the speed required for real-time decision making. And this is why AI has become so important.

Today, it is possible to write code that can read the data generated by IoT and identify meaningful patterns at the right speed. This code can also be written in such a way that it can learn from the results it found the last time it ran. It is code that can learn, an algorithm that can self-educate. In this way, AI requires the power of IoT to generate the data it needs to learn and IoT needs AI to ensure that this data can be made meaningful, in time.

Over the next six to 12 months, it is very likely that the potential of IoT will see numerous small players emerge across all industries. They will be focused on servicing those who have yet to experience the full benefits of IoT and they will use technology to deliver solutions that are just ‘good enough’. This could potentially see the more established players being disrupted but most will likely be using the same technology to innovate and to create solutions that don’t just meet customer expectations but transcend them.  Of course, there will be some companies that will remain complacent and they will be the ones battling for customer attention out on the IoT playing field with the small, fresh players.

While on the topic of the customer, the next year is likely to introduce a lot more variety and scalability. The consistent drop in the cost of technology will allow for more choice in solution and capability and this will have a knock-on effect with regards to quality of life and the choices customers make when it comes to solution and service provider.

On the business frontier, the growth of IoT and AI offer an interesting bouquet of choices and opportunities. They allow for investment into solutions that generate better insights that, in turn, generate better products and services. Organisations that ignore this potential or think they can sidle on past what IoT and AI bring to the business are likely to be the ones that are left behind. It’s a cliché for a reason. A single look back at the companies that have emerged as big players in industries previously perceived as impenetrable proves the point. Innovation isn’t optional, it’s an essential part of business DNA and both IoT and AI are critical parts of the ability to innovate at speed, with relevance, and on time.

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