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Tech can be our conscience

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Technology is great, but is it making us lazy, or is it transforming us into better people? JURIE SCHOEMAN, an executive at BSG explores the issue further.

It’s a busy Friday night in October 2000. A time before budget airlines, mobile apps, smartphones and the Gautrain. I’m rushing to Johannesburg International Airport (JIA) for a flight to Cape Town. With no GPS or real-time traffic information to rely on, and a chunky Nokia 5520 as my only travel companion, I’m cutting it fine – and I still have to check in.

After 15 minutes of dodging construction hazards in my innocuous white Ford Escort, I finally find an open parking bay and race to the counter with minutes to spare. Upon returning to Johannesburg two days later, I realised I had no idea where I had parked my car and was forced to commit the next hour to finding it.

When travelling again a month later, I add a calendar entry on my Nokia reminding future me of the floor and pillar closest to my car. Suddenly my mobile companion was adding value beyond merely being a phone. Years later, having upgraded to a Sony Ericsson with a full colour camera, I simply snapped a photo of the parking bay number stencilled on the ground behind my car – progress!

Fast forward to today when technology has continued to reduce the pain points associated with travelling. Thanks to the Gautrain and services like Über, I no longer have to drive to the airport, but if I do, GPS and real-time traffic information will work out the fastest route, and will even tell me when to leave the house without me ever adding a calendar invite. Best of all, I can drop a GPS pin at my parking location so I never lose my car again.

We’ve come a long way. My mobile companion went from just being a phone, to also being a calendar, camera and photo journal, and then a navigation device, and now a fully integrated mobile assistant. It’s gone from being able to use a few simple functions to do what I tell it to do, to proactively anticipating my needs and using a vast range of information to find better ways for me to achieve my goals.

I see two diverging paths, separated by how comfortable we are giving the external world access to who we are and what we do, and the potential benefit is directly proportional to that level of access.

High-tech road

The first path, the high-tech road, is an increasingly digitised, predictive and integrated one. Down this path, my mobile companion will be more knowledgeable about the world than I am – it may even know more about me than I do. Through the wonder of the connected world and data analytics, it is going to understand my goals and needs, and help make me a better version of myself. This could mean on-selling / cross-selling promotions based on what I’ve just done, or even what I’m thinking of doing, collaborating with as many as 28 billion other devices in the world by 2020, including my fridge, car and online retailers, to ensure that I never run out of milk or miss a car service.

There are a few risks associated with this path: the physical ‘text neck’, which is what two to four hours a day of hunching over a phone will do to you, and the mental risk of abdicating accountability to the device. As we become more reliant on our devices, we’ll begin regressing as our brains become lazier. A recent study shows more than 50% of Europeans can’t recall their children’s phone numbers without the help of their mobile phones. Ironically, many of us have resorted to using those same mobile devices to do brain training, using apps that probably don’t work.

There is also a risk to our relationships, with 61% of people admitting they regularly sleep with their smartphone turned on under their pillow or next to their bed, with more than 50% feeling uncomfortable when they don’t have access to their phones. The fact that there’s an app designed to switch off notifications to allow two adults to engage with one another without being disturbed is disturbing in itself!

Low-trust road

The second path, the low-trust road, is one where we rely more on ourselves to be successful, without assistance from the digital world. It’s a path that values privacy over prediction and control over coercion. While it’s certainly more old-fashioned, it’s one where people may manage to be engaged for more than six minutes at a time, or spend more time sleeping than online each day. That said, it’s only a matter of time before the march of progress makes it impossible to live off the digital grid and the laggards on the low-trust road will have to embrace the digital world or become social hermits.

I have high hopes for a world where the mobile device goes from being a second brain to being a second conscience, where your mobile device is the angel on your shoulder, urging you to do what’s best. Helping you to save instead of incurring more debt, or obey traffic laws instead of taking reckless short-cuts. If this can be realised, our mobile devices can help to make us better people, in a better world.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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