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Why we don’t need Sophia the Robot for 4IR in SA

A robot headlined a government tech conference in South Africa this week, highlighting SA’s disconnect with the 4th industrial revolution, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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In the same week that the deputy president stumbled his way through an attempt to define the fourth industrial revolution, it was announced that a robot would headline the annual government technology conference called GovTech. 

Hosted by the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), the event, which was held in Durban this week, explored how technology and ICT infrastructure development will digitally transform and uplift various sectors. Its official theme was “Digital transformation: gearing towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and beyond”.

However, using Sophia the Robot as the symbol of 4IR is probably as big a faux pas as our leaders not being able to explain the first three industrial revolutions, or define the fourth. “She” is really a public relations exercise by  artificial intelligence firm Hanson Robotics to show off its engineering brilliance. Able to display more than 50 facial expressions, it is as close  to mimicking human gesture and expression as a robot has ever come.

Its creators pulled off a masterstroke of marketing two years ago when they persuaded the Saudi Arabian government to grant citizenship to Sophia. It was a bitter irony: it gave a robot woman almost more rights than real female citizens of that country.

When Sophia visited South Africa for the first time last year, I was invited to put questions to her. However, sample questions were provided in advance. When I submitted my own questions instead, the interview was cancelled. That could well have been a result of logistics, but it did not help dispel the notion that Sophia’s artificial intelligence was really just a matter of building a chatbot into a machine with a face. In other words, Sophia’s brain is no more advanced than the voice assistant on a standard iPhone or Android smartphone. The difference is that we only get to hear Sophia talk from a stage, whereas we can talk to Apple Siri or Google Assistant any time, anywhere.

Why is this a problem? GovTech itself stated the issue quite eloquently: “She personifies our dreams for the future of AI. As a unique combination of science, engineering, and artistry, Sophia is simultaneously a human-crafted science fiction character depicting the future of AI and robotics, and a platform for advanced robotics and AI research.”

No, it’s not. Casting Sophia in this light puts the government’s 4IR strategy in perspective: it reveals it to be more of a public relations exercise than a truly transformative strategy. It explains why we hear much cheerleading from government for 4IR, but little of substance.

The work being done by the Urology Hospital in Pretoria in using robotic assistants for surgery, or by Mitchell Designs in Bloemfontein to manufacture low-cost prosthetics with 3D printers, is far more relevant to 4IR than any of this hype. The pioneering work being done by Cape Town’s Aerobotics in using drones and imaging analysis software for agriculture is far more transformative than Sophia the robot. Johannesburg-based Naked Insurance is using more artificial intelligence to generate instant quotes and payments than we will see in action during all of Govtech.

The real fourth industrial revolution is already happening, despite our leaders, rather than thanks to them.

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

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Car buyers to start abandoning fuel-power by 2025

Car buyers in the United States and Europe expect electric vehicles to become a viable alternative to fuel-powered cars in the next five years.

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A new report outlining consumer expectations of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and their viability as replacements for traditional fuel-powered cars or internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles suggests a massive shift beginning in 2025.

The conclusion emerges from a report by human behaviour and analytics firm Escalent, entitled The Future of BEV: How to Capture the Hearts and Minds of Consumers. It reveals the intent of many consumers in the United States and Europe to abandon ICE vehicles altogether, citing the improved infrastructure and range of BEVs.

The Future of BEV gives auto and mobility manufacturers a strategic view of the benefits of their products in the eyes of consumers and highlights the areas of opportunity for automakers to push the innovation boundaries of BEVs to spur broad adoption of the technology.

“While most buyers don’t plan to choose BEVs over gasoline-powered cars within the next five years, consumers have told us there is a clear intention to take BEVs seriously in the five years that follow,” says Mark Carpenter, joint managing director of Escalent’s UK office. “However, manufacturers will need to tap into the emotional value of BEVs rather than just the rational and functional aspects to seize on that intent and inspire broader consumer adoption.”

The study demonstrates a significant shift in consumers’ expectations that BEVs will become viable alternatives to—and competitors with—ICE vehicles over the coming decade. Though 70% of Americans plan to buy a gasoline-powered car within the next year, just 37% expect to make that same purchase in five to ten years. Similarly, while 50% of European consumers favour buying vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel in the near-term, that figure drops to just 23% in five to ten years.

At the same time, consumers on both sides of the Atlantic see BEV adoption rising to 36% in Europe and 16% in the US, with respondents also indicating intent to purchase hybrids and hydrogen-powered cars.

Infrastructure clearly continues to be one of the biggest barriers to adoption. While some work is being done in Europe as well as in the US, the data show there is a significant need for some players to take ownership if manufacturers want to move the needle on BEV adoption.

US and European consumers have stark differences in opinion as to which entities they believe are primarily responsible for providing BEV charging stations. American consumers consider carmakers (45%) the primary party responsible, followed by fuel companies, local government/transport authorities, and the national government in fourth. On the other hand, European consumers view the national government (29%) as the primary party responsible for providing BEV infrastructure, followed by carmakers, local government/transport authorities and fuel companies.

For a full copy of the report, visit https://landing.escalent.co/download-the-future-of-bev.

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New cell phone to help with dementia and memory loss

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A new cell phone that takes simplicity to the extreme is designed to address the unique needs of people with dementia and other forms of memory loss. The RAZ Memory Cell Phone, developed by RAZ Mobility, a provider of mobile assistive technology, was launched this week. The handset is also well-suited for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s dementia, with one in ten people over the age of 65 diagnosed with the disease. The number of people with dementia is expected to increase rapidly as the proportion of the population 65 and older increases. The American Psychiatric Association reports that approximately one percent of the population has an intellectual disability.

The RAZ Memory Cell Phone consists of one primary screen, and one screen only. It is always on and includes pictures and names of up to six contacts and a button to call 911. That’s it! There are no applications or settings to cause confusion. No notifications or operating system updates. No distractions. Users can simply tap and hold the picture of the person they wish to call.

Caregivers manage the RAZ Memory Cell Phone through a simple online portal. The portal is used to create and edit the contacts, track the location of the phone/user and select certain options, such as the option to restrict incoming calls to people in the user’s contacts, thereby avoiding unwanted calls such as predatory robocalls.

The RAZ Memory Cell Phone can now be ordered at https://www.razmobility.com/solutions/memory-cellphone/.

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