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SA gets Clean Lab

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South African scientists are now on par with their international peers with the completion of the first ‚’Trace and Experimental Biogeochemistry Clean Lab’ on the African continent at Stellenbosch University (SU).

The R2.2 million laboratory was funded by Stellenbosch University and the Department of Science and Technology through the CSIR’s Southern Ocean Carbon-Climate Observatory (SOCCO) programme and took three years to complete.

Up until now South Africa did not have the facilities or capabilities to develop and set up methods to measure bioactive trace elements in seawater. Scientists had to send their samples to labs in the United States and Europe for analysis a very costly and time-consuming exercise.

With this world-class facility now up and running, scientists are able to participate in long term international observational programmes such as GEOTRACES, which aims to improve the understanding of biogeochemical cycles and large-scale distribution of trace elements and their isotopes in all the major ocean basins over the next decade.

This facility is part of an integrated research infrastructure development strategy, which also includes new analytical equipment and ultra-clean container labs for ocean sampling in the new research ship SA Agulhas II, managed by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

This kind of research is important to understand how the chemistry of the oceans is changing in response to changing environmental conditions.

Prof Alakendra Roychoudhury, head of the Department of Earth Sciences at SU and responsible for the new clean lab, explains: ‚”Our understanding of trace elements like iron and how it interacts with life in the oceans is surprisingly incomplete. We all know that iron is essential for phytoplankton growth and productivity, but we still need to understand how and in what form iron becomes available to phytoplankton.‚”

Having access to this kind of facility also offers the university the opportunity to train and develop the next generation of scientists, he adds.

According to CSIR oceanographer and head of the SOCCO-programme, Dr Pedro Monteiro, recent estimates indicate that approximately 50% of all CO2 emitted by human activity is stored in the Southern Ocean: ‚”The future trajectory of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and thus the constraints on the minimum emissions reduction rates thus depends critically on how the Southern Ocean carbon cycle will adjust to climate change, and iron biogeochemistry is a key part of this response,‚” he says.

What is a clean lab?

A ‚’clean lab’ is a sterile environment and the air is virtually free from any form of contamination only ten thousand (>=0.1 ¬µm) particles per 1 cubic metre of air floating around enabling scientists to measure minute quantities of iron and other metals in seawater samples.

Prof Roychoudhury says he had to project-manage the construction of the lab to the tiniest detail. For example, they could not use any nails in the construction of the lab and all plugs had to be covered, all to prevent any form of metal contamination of the samples.

The 20 square metre lab consists of three separate rooms with the air pressure from high to low to ensure that contaminated air does not enter the third (and cleanest) room. In other words, when you open a door to open the lab, air will flow out of the room and not the other way round.

Scientists also have to wear protective clothing, foot covers and gloves when they enter the lab.

Future research will focus on the development and setup of methods to measure bioactive trace constituents in seawater: the speciation, distribution and uptake of iron by phytoplankton: and global and regional scale numerical modeling of bioactive trace metals.

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Prepare for deepfake impact

Is the world as we know it ready for the real impact of deepfake? CAREY VAN VLAANDEREN, CEO at ESET SA, digs deeper

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Deepfake technology is rapidly becoming easier and quicker to create and it’s opening a door into a new form of cybercrime. Although it’s still mostly seen as relatively harmful or even humorous, this craze could take a more sinister turn in the future and be at the heart of political scandals, cybercrime, or even unimaginable concepts involving fake videos. And it won’t be just public figures that bear the brunt. 

deepfake is the technique of human-image synthesis based on artificial intelligence to create fake content either from scratch or using existing video designed to replicate the look and sound of a real human. Such videos can look incredibly real and currently many of these videos involve celebrities or public figures saying something outrageous or untrue.

New research shows a huge increase in the creation of deepfake videos, with the number online almost doubling in the last nine months alone. Deepfakes are increasing in quality at a swift rate, too. This video showing Bill Hader morphing effortlessly between Tom Cruise and Seth Rogan is just one example of how authentic these videos are looking, as well as sounding. If you search YouTube for the term ‘deepfake’ it will make you realise we are viewing the tip of the iceberg as to what is to come.

In fact, we have already seen deepfake technology used for fraud, where a deepfaked voice was reportedly used to scam a CEO out of a large sum of cash. It is believed the CEO of an unnamed UK firm thought he was on the phone to his boss and followed the orders to immediately transfer €220,000 (roughly US$244,000) to a Hungarian supplier’s bank account. If it was this easy to influence someone by just asking them to do it over the phone, then surely we will need better security in place to mitigate this threat.

Fooling the naked eye

We have also seen apps making DeepNudes where apps were able to turn any clothed person into a topless photo in seconds. Although, luckily, this particular app has now been taken offline, what if this comes back in another form with a vengeance and is able to create convincingly authentic-looking video?

There is also evidence that the production of these videos is becoming a lucrative business especially in the pornography industry. The BBC says “96% of these videos are of female celebrities having their likenesses swapped into sexually explicit videos – without their knowledge or consent”.

recent Californian bill has taken a leap of faith and made it illegal to create a pornographic deepfake of someone without their consent with a penalty of up to $150,000. But chances are that no legislation will be enough to deter some people from fabricating the videos.

To be sure, an article from The Economist discusses that in order to make a convincing enough deepfake you would need a serious amount of video footage and/or voice recordings in order to make even a short deepfake clip.

Having said that, In the not-too-distant future, it may be entirely possible to take just a few short Instagram stories to create a deepfake that is believed by the majority of their followers online or by anyone else who knows them. We may see some unimaginable videos appearing of people closer to home – the boss, our colleagues, our peers, our family. Additionally, deepfakes may also be used for bullying in schools, the office or even further afield.

Furthermore, cybercriminals will definitely use such technology to spearphish victims. Deepfakes keep getting cheaper to create and become near-impossible to detect with the human eye alone. As a result, alt that fakery could very easily muddy the water between fact and fiction, which in turn could force us to not trust anything – even when presented with what our senses are telling us to believe.

Heading off the very real threat

So, what can be done to prepare us for this threat? First, we need to better educate people that deepfakes exist, how they work and the potential damage they can cause. We will all need to learn to treat even the most realistic videos we see that they could be a total fabrication.

Secondly, technology desperately needs to develop better detection of deepfakes. There is already research going into it, but it’s nowhere near where it should be yet. Although machine learning is at the heart of creating them in the first place, there needs to be something in place that acts as the antidote being able to detect them without relying on human eyes alone.

Finally, social media platforms need to realize there is a huge potential threat with the impact of deepfakes because when you mix a shocking video with social media, the outcome tends to spread very rapidly and potentially could have a detrimental impact on society.

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A career in data science – or your money back

The Explore Data Science Academy is offering high demand skills courses – and guarantees employment for trainees

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The Explore Data Science Academy (EDSA) has announced several new courses in 2020 that it says will radically change the shape of data science education in South Africa. 

Comprising Data Science, Data Engineering, Data Analytics and Machine Learning, each six-month course provides vital digital skills that are in high demand in the market place.  The full time, fully immersive courses each cost R60 000 including VAT. 

The courses are differentiated from any other available by the fact that EDSA has introduced a money back promise if it cannot place the candidate in a job within six months of graduation and at a minimum annual starting salary of R240 000.

“For South Africans with drive and aptitude, this is the perfect opportunity to launch a career in what has been called the sexiest career of the 21stcentury,” says Explore founder Shaun Dippnall.

Dippnall and his team are betting on the explosive demand for data science skills locally and globally.

 “There is a massive supply-demand gap in the area of data science and our universities and colleges are struggling to keep up with the rapid growth and changing nature of specific digital skills being demanded by companies.  

“We are offering specifically a work ready opportunity in a highly skills deficient sector, and one which guarantees employment thereafter.”

The latter is particularly pertinent to young South Africans – a segment which currently faces a 30 percent unemployment rate. 

“If you have skills in either Data Science, Data Engineering, Data Analytics or Machine Learning, you will find work locally, even globally. We’re confident of that,” says Dippnall.

EDSA is part of the larger Explore organisation and has for the past two years offered young people an opportunity to be trained as data scientists and embark on careers in a fast-growing sector of the economy.  

In its first year of operation, EDSA trained 100 learners as data scientists in a fully sponsored, full-time 12-month course.  In year two, this number increased to 400.  

“Because we are connected with hundreds of employers and have an excellent understanding of the skills they need, our current placement rate is over 90 percent of the students we’ve taught,” Dippnall says. “These learners can earn an average of R360 000 annually, hence our offer of your money back if there is no employment at a minimum annual salary of R240k within six months.

“With one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world – recently announced as a national emergency by the President – it is important that institutions teach skills that are in demand and where learners can earn a healthy living afterwards.”

There are qualifying criteria, however. Candidates need to live in close proximity (within one hour commuting distance), or be prepared to live, in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, and need to be between the ages of 18 and 55. 

“Our application process is very tough. We’ll test for aptitude and attitude using the qualifying framework we’ve built over the years. If you’re smart enough, you’ll be accepted,” says Dippnall.

To find out more, visit  http://www.explore-datascience.net.

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