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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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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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