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Where next for humans?

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With many worried about their jobs being taken over by artificial intelligence and machines, SIMON CARPENTER, Chief Technology Adviser at SAP Africa, asks what the future has in stall for humankind.

Perhaps it’s because I have less runway ahead of me than behind me or perhaps it’s because of being in the IT industry for three and half decades but I find myself marvelling at and sometimes bewildered by, the exponentially accelerating pace and scope of advances in science and technology. Recently, in response to alarming headlines about job destruction and Artificial Intelligence (AI) getting away from us, I’ve been wondering where it’s all heading for the apex primate – humankind.

A brief history of mankind

When you look at the mammal that is Homo sapiens in the context of geological time, the 200,000 years we have been around is a tiny, tiny amount of time – a mere 0.00004% of Earth’s existence. And yet here we are, living in the Anthropocene epoch (recently named for us by climatologists and geologists). This epoch is so named because for the first time in the 4.1-billion-year history of life on Earth we humans, as a species, are changing what happens to and on the planet, rather than simply being the observers and subjects of natural forces.

In that 200,000 years since Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa and spread across the planet we have evolved to become a “reasonably smart” apex primate at the top of the food chain in a closed system called planet Earth (although we have already made our presence felt in other parts of the solar system).

You could argue that we’re only “reasonably smart” because whilst we are sentient, have consciousness, self-awareness, intellectual capacity, language, moral reasoning, and the ability to create, we haven’t yet figured out how to live without degrading our own environment through pollution, over-population, over-exploitation of natural resources and species extinction. Only “reasonably smart” because whilst we create great art, music, literature, food, science and technologies and new industries we haven’t yet figured out how to stop warring with each other, to transcend tribalism and racism, or to curb the greed and corruption whereby the few predate upon the many. Only “reasonably smart” because although we’ve made great strides in medicine and healthcare we have not yet figured out how to cure dread diseases, prevent obesity, build equitable, inclusive economies or provide universal healthcare.

The greatest show in the universe

These “reasonable smarts” come to us courtesy of arguably the most amazingly complex “thing” in the universe – the human brain. With its estimated 86,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000 neurons and 3,440,000,000,000,000 to 4,000,000,000,000,000 synapses it accounts for roughly 2% of our body mass yet consumes around 20% of the oxygen and energy we take in. It is this human brain and its astonishing capacities that keeps us alive on daily basis, that enables us to dominate other animals and that accounts for all human progress and the massive impact we have had on the planet despite having been here for only 0.00004% of the earth’s history. And, it is this amazing brain that has helped us to develop and master the various technologies that have brought us this far; from fire to fission and everything in between.

Yet, despite this awesomeness, the human brain may not be sufficient to ensure our survival as a species. Whilst there is still much to discover about how the brain works we do know that it suffers from the fact that it is trapped in a physically constrained space – the skull – and is subject to metabolic limitations. The prefrontal cortex, where we do most of our reasoning, appears to be able process no more than five to seven discrete pieces of information at any one time, and the myth of multitasking is just that – a complete myth. Our individual brains, in other words, are ill-equipped to deal with either the size or dynamism of some of the challenges we now face. That’s one of the reasons we find it so hard to execute the dictum that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” (commonly attributed to Einstein) – it’s hard to change consciousness when its seat doesn’t change. The world in which our current brains evolved no longer exists and, per evolutionary science, it will take somewhere in the region of one million years for any significant changes in our human capabilities. So, we will need to look elsewhere for solutions to the many pressing problems such as how to feed an additional two billion people on shrinking amounts of arable land and how to manage traffic congestion and safety in rapidly urbanising societies, how to provide sufficient energy for economic development or manage epidemics or maximise corporate profits without harming society and so on.

The digital brain

Help is at hand.  We now stand at the dawn of a Digital Revolution, one which promises socio-economic upheaval as profound as that which followed previous agricultural and industrial revolutions. Whereas the plough, the steam-engine and the production technologies of yesteryear augmented our physical capabilities this new Digital Revolution, with its data generation, information processing and communication technologies is about augmenting our mental capabilities. Pre-eminent among the multi-faceted technologies that underpin the Digital Revolution is Artificial Intelligence.

As we embed sensors in more and more things in the world (including ourselves) and this cyber-physical world creates unprecedented volumes and velocities of data we must use AI to make sense of it as our brains are simply not up to the task of dealing with the velocity and volumes of data.

Unlike our brains, and courtesy of Moore’s law, we can scale up silicon-based capabilities in a largely unrestricted fashion – it’s not bound by the physical limitations of the human skull or by the metabolic need for sleep – and this is enabling us to deliver AI capabilities that were the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago. There is much debate as to when (and whether) AI will exceed human intelligence with futurists such a Ray Kurzweil (who claims an 86% accuracy rate for the 147 predictions he has made since the 1990s) positing 2045 as the year when the Singularity will occur. The Singularity being the point in time at which AI leads to machines that are smarter than human beings.

But, you may say, AI is not new and for every success there have been many failures and it’s nowhere close to matching human general intelligence. So, what is different this time? Well, your assertions would be right on all counts but the answer to your question is “plenty”.

Advances in technology

The last few years have seen spectacular improvements in capability and affordability on several fronts that feed into Artificial Intelligence. The pace of this Digital Revolution has no historical precedent we can refer to; advances in science and technology are combinatorial and exponential in nature, intersecting in ways we battle to anticipate and because of which jobs, industries and societies are being disrupted.

There have been improvements in computing technologies, especially Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) to the point where super-computing and massive memory is affordable and therefore widely available, significant improvements in algorithms (not least of which is Deep Learning) and massive sets of data on which to train new AI models using techniques like Machine and Deep Learning. And all of this is set to accelerate as the Internet of Things (IoT) takes hold allowing us to create and “feed” real-time data into Digital Twins that will represent all sorts of artefacts from the real world (including humans). The possibilities are endless and limited only by our imaginations and ethical considerations, the ramifications can be scary, and the process is unstoppable.

It is now up to us as individuals, workers, parents, managers, leaders, companies, governments and societies to understand and evaluate these trends and technologies and to ask how can we ensure this new technology serves us? How will we apply it to help make the world run better and improve people’s lives?

The (narrow) usefulness of AI

The answer lies in understanding that today’s AIs are very narrow – they can do certain specific tasks, but only those tasks, astonishingly well. So, it’s about picking the most valuable use cases, understanding that for certain tasks, where efficiency, repeatability, neutrality, speed and big sets of data are the norm the narrow intelligence of today’s AI is often superior to humans when it comes to getting a job done. It’s also about having a mindset of embedding these new tools into both existing or new business processes and models in such a way that we can take the “work out of work” and free our people up to do the things that only humans can do; imagining, empathising, relating, creating and solving complex problems. This last point is worth emphasising; AI cannot envision, it cannot innovate, it doesn’t empathise, it cannot synthesise new solutions to complex problems. What it can do is tackle the routine, mundane, dangerous activities that make work a less than stellar experience for millions of people – so that those people can bring their talents to bear on the world’s challenges in a more engaging fashion.

It is about taking tools such as machine learning and applying them to the data you already have (or will generate through new capabilities such as social listening, IoT or visual processing) to generate new insights, to make life and work safer, easier and more productive, and to design innovative competitive capabilities.

As we stand at the beginning of a new age for humanity, one where we can use Artificial Intelligence for good, it is up to us to explore ways to make sure technology serves us well. We don’t yet know where it will take us but we do know that we must get started.

Have you asked yourself how your organisation is using Artificial Intelligence today?

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YouTube Music announces Smart Downloads, SA playlists

The service has introduced Smart Downloads which takes allowing users to store and play hundreds of tunes offline, automatically.

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The latest updates from YouTube Music, for subscribers of its Music Premium and Premium services, include a new feature that allows users to switch seamlessly between a song and its music video for an uninterrupted experience.

It has also introduced Smart Downloads which takes the work out of downloading music, allowing users to store and play hundreds of tunes offline, automatically. YouTube Music has also announced new playlists for South Africa. 

The updates all reflect features that are popular on the global leader in music streaming, Spotify, and that have been key to its growth.

YouTube said in a statement on Friday: “Imagine listening to a new track by your favourite artist in the YouTube Music app and having the ability to seamlessly switch over to watch the music video – no pauses, no interruptions, just a simple tap that keeps the music flowing. This standout new feature from YouTube Music allows YouTube Premium and YouTube Music Premium subscribers to make a seamless transition between a song and its music video for uninterrupted listening and/or watching. Whether you’re in the mood for listening or watching (or a little of both)… it’s all here – no app switching required.”

With Smart Downloads, YouTube Music automatically saves music at night, when connected to Wi-Fi, helping subscribers to use less mobile data, enjoy a smoother updating experience and save up to 500 songs offline using Liked Songs playlist as well as other playlists and albums. 


Previously, music lovers could use the Offline Mixtape feature to download up to 100 songs, specifically chosen for them based on what they listened to most on the platform. Now, with Smart Downloads, they select the number of songs they would like automatically downloaded by toggling their YouTube Music Settings. This means YouTube Music Premium subscribers with Smart Downloads enabled on their mobile devices can now access hundreds of tracks regardless of connectivity. 

This feature is currently available on Android, with plans to bring it to iOS in the future.

Click here to read more about YouTube Music playlists, and find out what is inside them.

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Make cars, not waste

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Jaguar Land Rover is trialling an innovative recycling process which converts plastic waste into a new premium grade material that could feature on future vehicles. 

It’s estimated that the amount of waste plastic is predicted to exceed 12 million tonnes globally by 2050*. Today, not all of this plastic can be recycled for use in automotive applications – especially in vehicle parts that are required to meet the most exacting safety and quality standards.

Working in conjunction with chemical company, BASF, Jaguar Land Rover is part of a pilot project called ChemCycling that upcycles domestic waste plastic, otherwise destined for landfill or incinerators, into a new high-quality material. 

The waste plastic is transformed to pyrolysis oil using a thermochemical process. This secondary raw material is then fed into BASF’s production chain as a replacement for fossil resources; ultimately producing a new premium grade that replicates the high quality and performance of ‘virgin’ plastics. Importantly, it can be tempered and coloured making it the ideal sustainable solution for designing the next-generation dashboards and exterior-surfaces in Jaguar and Land Rover models.

Jaguar Land Rover and BASF are currently testing the pilot phase material in a Jaguar I-PACE prototype front-end carrier overmoulding to verify it meets the same stringent safety requirements of the existing original part.

Pending the outcome of the trials and progression in taking chemical recycling to market readiness, adoption of the new premium material would mean Jaguar Land Rover could use domestically derived recycled plastic content throughout its cars without any compromise to quality or safety performance**. 

Chris Brown, Senior Sustainability Manager at Jaguar Land Rover, said: “Plastics are vital to car manufacturing and have proven benefits during their use phase, however, plastic waste remains a major global challenge. Solving this issue requires innovation and joined-up thinking between regulators, manufacturers and suppliers.

“At Jaguar Land Rover, we are proactively increasing recycled content in our products, removing single-use plastics across our operations and reducing excess waste across the product lifecycle. The collaboration with BASF is just one way in which we are advancing our commitment to operating in a circular economy.”

This is the latest example of Jaguar Land Rover’s commitment to addressing the challenge of waste plastic. The company has collaborated with Kvadrat to offer customers alternative seat options that are both luxurious and sustainable. The high-quality material, available initially on the Range Rover Velar and Range Rover Evoque, combines a durable wool blend with a technical suedecloth that is made from 53 recycled plastic bottles per vehicle. 

Jaguar Land Rover has already met its 2020 target for Zero Waste to Landfill for UK operations. This includes the removal of 1.3 million m2 – equal to 187 football pitches – of plastic from its manufacturing lineside and replacing 14 million single use plastic items in business operations. 

Together, these efforts are driving towards Jaguar Land Rover’s vision for Destination Zero; an ambition to make societies safer and healthier, and the environment cleaner. Delivered through relentless innovation to adapt its products and services to the rapidly-changing world, the company’s focus is on achieving a future of zero emissions, zero accidents and zero congestion.

Editor’s notes:

https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.full

** All Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles tested have achieved a Euro NCAP 5* rating.

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