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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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Meet the accountant of the future

The accountant of the future will need a new set of skills, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, as he meets both the local users and the global creators of Xero accounting software

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Buchule and Sivenathi Sibaca get a highrise view of London. Pic by Arthur Goldstuck

Meet Buchule and Sivenathi Sibaca. They are not only partners in marriage, but also in a thriving accounting business. Buchule and Sivenathi are, respectively, chief executive officer and chief financial officer of SMTAX, which focuses on tax and accounting services for small businesses in the Western Cape, but includes the likes of Absa and Old Mutual among its clients. It employs 18 people and has 4,500 individual and business customers.

That’s not what makes the outfit remarkable. The startling feature of this business is that it has been structured to be a model accounting firm of the next decade. Even more remarkable is the fact that the couple both hail from rural areas where thoughts of the future tend to be about survival rather than blazing new trails.

Last week, they made their first trip out of the country, to attend Xerocon London 2019. This 2-day conference, hosted by the world’s fastest growing accounting software maker, Xero, attracted more than 3,000 delegates from the United Kingdom, Europe Middle East and Africa. A total of 57 Xero partners and users, mostly from accounting practices or suppliers to accountants, made the trek from South Africa.

“It was really about seeing how other accountants on other continents operate in terms of how they think and where their headspace is at,” Buchule told us during Xerocon. “Also, being our first time out of the country, it was to see the culture of other small businesses outside of South Africa. 

“London’s quite different in that regard, but it’s been a really a great learning curve, and we were pleasantly surprised to find elements that look like South Africa, where we can say, at least you’re doing something right. The banking environment is quite unique, as it’s been a really good learning curve in terms of where banking might go to in the future of South Africa if they follow the same trend.”

Buchule comes from the “dusty streets” of Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, while Sivenathi grew up on a farm in a deep rural area near Mthatha.

“I had no idea about technology or the rest of the world or how it could impact the economy in general,” she said. The two met at the University of Cape Town, where she was studying to be an actuary, and he completed a Masters degree in tax. She decided to put actuarial science behind her, however, when the opportunity arose to join Buchule’s business. But her skills helped transform the business.

Said Buchule: “When Sivenathi came on board we did the modeling of the business, and we said that in order to in order to automate the whole bookkeeping journey, we would need to turn closer and closer towards ‘x’, meaning fully automated bookkeeping. We looked at the journey of how long it will it take for us to get to time ‘x’. And then we said, OK, once we get there, what then?

“It was a big realization that when we do get to time ‘x’, the most important thing will be the human touch. That will be the differentiator. So we then spent our time developing that.”

Visit the next page to read more about the Xerocon 2019 event.

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Takealot reveals startling numbers for Black Friday

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Takealot has revealed startling numbers for expected bumper sales this holiday season, beginning next week, and peaking with Black Friday.

South Africa’s leading ecommerce group expects to ship at least one order every second, with roughly 10,000 boxes leaving their warehouses every hour, this shopping season. 

Black Friday was first introduced to South Africa by Takealot in 2012, and has since become an important day in South Africa’s annual retail calendar. It has been a record-breaker for both retailers in the Takealot Group: Takealot and Superbalist. Takealot’s Black Friday gross merchandise value (GMV) grew 125% from 2017 to 2018, with orders up 127%. Superbalist’s Black Friday GMV has grown on average around 50%. This year, CEO Kim Reid is anticipating the biggest Black Friday yet, a culmination of months of tech and operational business-wide focus to prepare for increased predicted traffic and shopper volumes.

ABSA bank estimates that two out of three South Africans participated in Black Friday sales in 2018. And FNB reports in 2018, Black Friday transaction volumes grew by 16% compared with 2017 and anticipates a 15% increase in transactions over the sales period in 2019. 

Successfully meeting this massive growth in orders has been a key focus for the Takealot Group. CEO Kim Reid says throughout the year they have been working to scale operations across multiple areas within the business. “After expanding our Johannesburg distribution centre (DC), our warehouse storage space now stands at 75 000m2. We house over 3.7 million items at any given time, and have opened 47 Takealot Pickup Points in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Limpopo, Free State and Mpumalanga for order collections and returns, with more to open in the coming months.” 

Takealot Delivery Team delivers to more South African homes than any other courier company in the country. On a monthly basis, they carry out over 1.6-million deliveries,  with this number expected to increase to over 2-million during the shopping season. More than 4,500 drivers currently deliver for the Takealot Delivery Team; a number that is growing every month. The Takealot group anticipates they’ll travel over 4,000 000km from Black Friday until 24 December. “To put that in context, it is the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe over 100 times” says Reid.

Takealot.com’s Blue Dot Sale is a five day sale period which starts on Black Friday (29 November) and sees a range of new deals throughout the weekend as well as on Cyber Monday (2 December) and Takealot Tuesday (3 December), with up to 60% off thousands of items. For the first time, takealot.com will also be giving their shoppers early access to some of its Black Friday deals, starting on 24 November. Fresh new app-only deals will be added daily. 

The Superbalist Showdown will run from 29 November to 3 December, with up to 70% off more than 15 000+ items. Superbalist shoppers will also have early access to Black Friday deals on selected days throughout November, with Superbalist’s Black Friday Spoilers – 24 hours to shop deals that they say won’t be beaten on Black Friday. 

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