Big telescopes are no longer the primary aspiration for budding astronomers. Welcome to the era of big data in astronomy.
By “mining” the huge amount of astronomical data online, astronomers can now do cutting edge science without ever setting foot in an actual telescope observatory. This is not just huge for the astronomy field, but the principles developed within astronomy can be applied in just about any industry that deals with big .
The Virtual Observatory (VO) provides tools and protocols that facilitate access to online collections of astronomical data. These enable astronomers to work just as well in a small rural university, or even at home, as in an international observatory or large research university – provided they have access to the Internet and a good scientific education. It also adds value to expensive infrastructure by allowing data to be used and reused many times.
The first meeting of the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA) to take place on the African Continent is currently under way at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study (STIAS). It presents an opportunity to showcase developments surrounding astronomy in this country.
The meeting was preceded by an educator workshop on Virtual Observatory tools and applications, hosted by the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) last week. Following the meeting, a workshop will be held at the University of Zululand in Kwa-Zulu Natal for university students and lecturers.
The objective of the IVOA meeting is to provide a semi-annual venue for discussion and development of virtual observatory standards and VO-based applications. It also provides a formal opportunity for face-to-face meetings of the IVOA Executive and the various working groups.
The meeting was opened by the CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF), Dr Molapo Qhobela, who in his introductory remarks expressed his delight that South Africa is hosting the first IVOA Interoperability meeting in Africa. This meeting is attended by over 90 registered participants from different astronomy institutes and observatories across the globe.
Kevin Govender, from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), is among the plenary speakers in the education session on Friday, and will explore the role of virtual observatory tools in education and development. Christophe Arviset (European Space Agency) is the Chair of IVOA Executive. Local organization of the meeting is by Prof Patricia Whitelock from the South African Astro-informatics Alliance (SA3) and colleagues.
The Virtual Observatory (VO) is an international astronomical community-based initiative. It aims to allow global electronic access to astronomical data archives from space and ground-based observatories. It is a collection of tools for accessing and visualizing multi-wavelength data that collectively provide a scientific environment, rather than a physical observatory.
A vast array of astronomical data-sets are already available at all wavelengths and many more are on the way. Amongst the largest will be SKA at radio wavelengths and the Large Scale Synoptic Survey Telescope at optical wavelengths. These very large databases will be archived and, through the VO, made accessible in a systematic and uniform manner to realise the full potential of the existing and future observing facilities.
Smart home arrives in SA
The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
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.
Matrics must prepare for AI
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.