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Voice changes the game

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Using voice is powerful way to interact with an interface because it’s spontaneous, intuitive, and enables one to interact with technology in the most natural way possible, which is why Amazon is investing heavily in its voice services, writes WERNER VOGELS, CTO at Amazon.com.

At Amazon, we are heavily invested in machine learning (ML), and are developing new tools to help developers quickly and easily build, train, and deploy ML models. The power of ML is in its ability to unlock a new set of capabilities that create value for consumers and businesses. A great example of this is the way we are using ML to deal with one of the world’s biggest and most tangled datasets: human speech.

Voice-driven conversation has always been the most natural way for us to communicate. Conversations are personal and they convey context, which helps us to understand each other. Conversations continue over time, and develop history, which in turn builds richer context. The challenge was that technology wasn’t capable of processing real human conversation.

The interfaces to our digital system have been dictated by the capabilities of our computer systems—keyboards, mice, graphical interfaces, remotes, and touch screens. Touch made things easier; it let us tap on screens to get the app that we wanted. But what if touch isn’t possible or practical? Even when it is, the proliferation of apps has created a sort of “app fatigue”. This essentially forces us to hunt for the app that we need, and often results in us not using many of the apps that we already have. None of these approaches are particularly natural. As a result, they fail to deliver a truly seamless and customer-centric experience that integrates our digital systems into our analog lives.

Voice becomes a game changer

Using your voice is powerful because it’s spontaneous, intuitive, and enables you to interact with technology in the most natural way possible. It may well be considered the universal user interface. When you use your voice, you don’t need to adapt and learn a new user interface. Voice interfaces don’t need to be application-centric, so you don’t have to find an app to accomplish the task that you want. All of these benefits make voice a game changer for interacting with all kinds of digital systems.

Until 2-3 years ago we did not have the capabilities to process voice at scale and in real time. The availability of large scale voice training data, the advances made in software with processing engines such as Caffe, MXNet and Tensflow, and the rise of massively parallel compute engines with low-latency memory access, such as the Amazon EC2 P3 instances have made voice processing at scale a reality.

Today, the power of voice is most commonly used in the home or in cars to do things like play music, shop, control smart home features, and get directions. A variety of digital assistants are playing a big role here. When we released Amazon Alexa, our intelligent, cloud-based voice service, we built its voice technology on the AWS Natural Language Processing platform powered by ML algorithms. Alexa is constantly learning, and she has tens of thousands of skills that extend beyond the consumer space. But by using the stickiness of voice, we think there are even more scenarios that can be unlocked at work.

Helping more people and organizations use voice

People interact with many different applications and systems at work. So why aren’t voice interfaces being used to enable these scenarios? One impediment is the ability to manage voice-controlled interactions and devices at scale, and we are working to address this with Alexa for Business. Alexa for Business helps companies voice-enable their spaces, corporate applications, people, and customers.

To use voice in the workplace, you really need three things. The first is a management layer, which is where Alexa for Business plays. Second, you need a set of APIs to integrate with your IT apps and infrastructure, and third is having voice-enabled devices everywhere.

Voice interfaces are a paradigm shift, and we’ve worked to remove the heavy lifting associated with integrating Alexa voice capabilities into more devices. For example, Alexa Voice Service (AVS), a cloud-based service that provides APIs to interface with Alexa, enables products built using AVS to have access to Alexa capabilities and skills.

We’re also making it easy to build skills for the things you want to do. This is where the Alexa Skills Kit and the Alexa Skills Store can help both companies and developers. Some organizations may want to control who has access to the skills that they build. In those cases, Alexa for Business allows people to create a private skill that can only be accessed by employees in your organization. In just a few months, our customers have built hundreds of private skills that help voice-enabled employees do everything from getting internal news briefings to asking what time their help desk closes.

Voice-enabled spaces

Just like Alexa is making smart homes easier, the same is possible in the workplace. Alexa can control the environment, help you find directions, book a room, report an issue, or find transportation. One of the biggest applications of voice in the enterprise is conference rooms and we’ve built some special skills in this area to allow people to be more productive.

For example, many meetings fail to start on time. It’s usually a struggle to find the dial-in information, punch in the numbers, and enter a passcode every time a meeting starts. With Alexa for Business, the administrator can configure the conference rooms and integrate calendars to the devices. When you walk into a meeting, all you have to say is “Alexa, start my meeting”. Alexa for Business automatically knows what the meeting is from the integrated calendar, mines the dial-in information, dials into the conference provider, and starts the meeting. Furthermore, you can also configure Alexa for Business to automatically lower the projector screen, dim the lights, and more. People who work from home can also take advantage of these capabilities. By using Amazon Echo in their home office and asking Alexa to start the meeting, employees who have Alexa for Business in their workplace are automatically connected to the meeting on their calendar.

Voice-enabled applications

Voice interfaces will really hit their stride when we begin to see more voice-enabled applications. Today, Alexa can interact with many corporate applications including Salesforce, Concur, ServiceNow, and more. IT developers who want to take advantage of voice interfaces can enable their custom apps using the Alexa Skills Kit, and make their skills available just for their organization. There are a number of agencies and SIs that can help with this, and there are code repositories with code examples for AWS services.

We’re seeing a lot of interesting use cases with Alexa for Business from a wide range of companies. Take WeWork, a provider of shared workspaces and services. WeWork has adopted Alexa, managed by Alexa for Business, in their everyday workflow. They have built private skills for Alexa that employees can use to reserve conference rooms, file help tickets for their community management team, and get important information on the status of meeting rooms. Alexa for Business makes it easy for WeWork to configure and deploy Alexa-enabled devices, and the Alexa skills that they need to improve their employees’ productivity.

The next generation of corporate systems and applications will be built using conversational interfaces, and we’re beginning to see this happen with customers using Alexa for Business in their workplace. Want to learn more? If you are attending Enterprise Connect in Orlando next week, I encourage you to attend the AWS keynote on March 13 given by Collin Davis. Collin’s team has focused on helping customers use voice to manage everyday tasks. He’ll have more to share about the advances we’re seeing in this space, and what we’re doing to help our customers be successful in a voice-enabled era.

When it comes to enabling voice capabilities at home and in the workplace, we’re here to help you build.

 

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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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