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The next big change

The world is about to change, yet again, and in ways few can imagine. South Africa won’t be immune, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Self-driving cars, text by thinking, and sensors in your body warning you of medical issues before they happen are some of the bewildering advances in technology expected over the next ten years. 

Even countries that are not linked by umbilical cord to the innovation hubs of Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and Shanghai will feel the impact. But many are woefully unprepared. 

In South Africa, banks, insurance companies and marketers are investing heavily in both their own innovations and in buying up start-ups that can help them catch up. Beyond those industries, however, it tends to be business as usual.

This is one of the reasons that an organisation called the Mobility Centre for Africa (MCA) has convened a conference this week to advance discussions around disruptive technologies affecting the transport industry, with the aim of predicting future scenarios for African cities.

Described as a platform for the research, testing and deployment of future smart mobility solutions, the MCA brings together the public sector, industry and academia. It seeks an integrated approach to the research and development of electric and autonomous vehicles. But, more importantly, it wants to prepare South Africa and Africa’s road and related infrastructure for legislative changes and infrastructure standards.

The MCA has held similar events in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town over the past six months. Its 4th Future Mobility Roundtable is being hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni, one of the few metros in Africa that has developed a truly long-term vision – stretching out all the way to 2055. The event focuses on predicting future scenarios in line with this vision. Drones, artificial intelligence, smart cities, electric vehicles and cloud computing will be among the areas where industry leaders will share their predictions and recommend a course for the future of the country.

What can be expected?

The shape of the future is already being outlined at major technology events the world over. Starting with January’s Las Vegas-based CES (Consumer Electronics Show), the world’s biggest launchpad for new technology, it became clear that one of the key changes we can expect is a move away from touch screens as interfaces and towards voice.

Signs everywhere exhorted visitors to say “Alexa” or “Hey Google”, to activate devices fitted with Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. The latter was to be found in smart TVs, cars and even coffee machines.

Kitchen appliance maker Gourmia was marketing not its latest appliances, but the fact that its air fryers and pressure cookers were now voice enabled.

The integration of voice with vehicle infotainment and navigation systems saw the trend speed into the automotive arena. Panasonic announced a partnership with Amazon to create Alexa Onboard, to integrate Alexa’s voice control features with cars. Panasonic’s Skip Generation IVI – for In-Vehicle Infotainment – has also been upgraded to the latest version of Android, allowing it all the functionality of Google Assistant.

Smart speakers to control smart homes will become commonplace this year. Headphones, heaters and fridges will respond to our voices.

Other new technologies that leaped out from CES were:

  • Smart TVs using HDR10+, a new standard that allows every single frame of a video or TV broadcast to be mastered individually, meaning that they will adapt the colour and brightness of the display to the needs of every single scene;
  • Nissan’s Brain-to-Vehicle, or B2V, a technology that allows the driver’s brain waves to be synchornised with the vehicle so that, for example, the driver’s intention to brake will be signalled to the car up to one second before the brakes are activated, allowing the car to optimise power to the brakes at just the right moment,
  • The advent of 5G, the next generation of mobile connectivity, with Intel demonstrating a 1.6Gigabyte per second connection that could stream a 4K – or ultra high-definition – video along with a virtual reality movie, at the same time, on a single connection, leaving bandwidth to spare.
  • Innovative ways of launching new models of cars: Kia for the first time chose CES over the Detroit Motor Show to launch a new car, with the Kia Niro EV Concept hybrid car unveiled in Las Vegas. BMW used CES to launch the new X2 in virtual reality – the first car ever formally unveiled in VR. As a result of such activity, CES entered the top 10 of American automobile shows, and we can expect even more automotive focus at tech shows in future.

At the beginning of February, the Cisco Live! Conference in Barcelona saw forecasts, previously covered in this column, going all the way to 2055, coincidentally sharing a time frame with Ekurhuleni.

Among other, according to Rowan Trollope, senior vice president at Cisco, we can expect the following:

2022: Dubai will launch the worlds first driverless hover taxi. 

2027: The first commercial launch of a technology called text-by-thinking. 

2030s: New job tiles on LinkedIn will include positions like Avatar Manager, Body Part Maker, Vertical Farmer, Nano Medic, Climate Change Reversal Specialist, and Waste Data Handler. 

2036:  As a result of reverse engineering the human brain, Alzheimer’s will finally be cured. 

2040: The average home PC will have the computing power of 1-billion human brains. 

2050: Virtual telepathy will dominate personal communications. 

2055: The first permanent human presence on Mars. 

Later in February, global consulting firm Accenture unveiled Technology Vision 2018, an annual report that identifies technological trends most likely to disrupt business in the coming years.

More than 6 000 businesses across 19 industries in 25 countries, including South Africa, were surveyed. The key finding was that the technology revolution is arriving.

 “South African businesses and IT executives are increasingly embracing the power of technology, with 80% of those surveyed agreeing that it can help companies weave themselves seamlessly into the fabric of daily life,” said Willie Schoeman, managing director of Accenture Technology in Africa. 

“Many people may not even realise that they are interacting with new innovations like AI. If you’ve received an automated telemarketing call or interacted with a chatbot online, then AI has already influenced your life.”

Clearly, the changes have only just begun.

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

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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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