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The next big change

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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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UN calls for electronics overhaul to beat e-waste

Seven UN entities have come together at the World Economic Forum to tackle the escalating scourge of electronic waste.

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Seven UN entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system, with the aim of supporting international efforts to address e-waste challenges. 

The report calls for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries. 

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are discarded — the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth 62.5 billion dollars– more than the GDP of most countries.  

Less than 20% of this is recycled formally. Informally, millions of people worldwide (over 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment. 

The report, “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” launched in Davos 24 January, says technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), support gradual “dematerialization” of the electronics industry.  

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacturer or retailer take-back programs.  

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential for future production.  

And if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. 

The joint report calls for collaboration with multinationals, SMEs, entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations to create a circular economy for electronics where waste is designed out, the environmental impact is reduced and decent work is created for millions. 

The new report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes: 

  • International Labour Organization (ILO); 
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU); 
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment); 
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); 
  • United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); 
  • United Nations University (UNU), and 
  • Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions (BRS). 

The Coalition is supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Economic Forum and coordinated by the Secretariat of the Environment Management Group (EMG).  

Considerable work is being done on the ground. For example, in order to grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian Government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment announce a 2 million dollar investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. The new investment will leverage over 13 million dollars in additional financing from the private sector.   

According to the International Labour Organization, in Nigeria up 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector. This investment will help to create a system which formalizes these workers, giving them safe and decent employment while capturing the latent value in Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste. 

UNIDO collaborates with a large number of organizations on e-waste projects, including UNU, ILO, ITU, and WHO, as well as various other partners, such as Dell and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). In the Latin American and Caribbean region, a UNIDO e-waste project, co-funded by GEF, seeks to support sustainable economic and social growth in 13 countries. From upgrading e-waste recycling facilities, to helping to establish national e-waste management strategies, the initiative adopts a circular economy approach, whilst enhancing regional cooperation. 

Another Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) report launched today by the World Economic Forum, with support from Accenture Strategy, outlines a future in which Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies provide a tool to achieve a circular economy efficiently and effectively, and where all physical materials are accompanied by a digital dataset (like a passport or fingerprint for materials), creating an ‘internet of materials.’ PACE is a collaboration mechanism and project accelerator hosted by the World Economic Forum which brings together 50 leaders from business, government and international organizations to collaborate in moving towards the circular economy. 

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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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