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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



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 Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee


SA’s Internet goes down again

South Africa is about to experience a small repeat of the lower speeds and loss of Internet connectivity suffered in January, thanks to a new undersea cable break, writes BRYAN TURNER



Internet service provider Afrihost has notified customers that there are major outages across all South African Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as a result of a break in the WACS undersea cable between Portugal and England 

The cause of the cable break along the cable is unclear. it marks the second major breakage event along the West African Internet sea cables this year, and comes at the worst possible time: as South Africans grow heavily dependent on their Internet connections during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

As a result of the break, the use of international websites and services, which include VPNs (virtual private networks), may result in latency – decreased speeds and response times.  

WACS runs from Yzerfontein in the Western Cape, up the West Coast of Africa, and terminates in the United Kingdom. It makes a stop in Portugal before it reaches the UK, and the breakage is reportedly somewhere between these two countries. 

The cable is owned in portions by several companies, and the portion where the breakage has occurred belongs to Tata Communications. 

The alternate routes are:  

  • SAT3, which runs from Melkbosstrand also in the Western Cape, up the West Coast and terminates in Portugal and Spain. This cable runs nearly parallel to WACS and has less Internet capacity than WACS. 
  • ACE (Africa Coast to Europe), which also runs up the West Coast.  
  • The SEACOM cable runs from South Africa, up the East Coast of Africa, terminating in both London and Dubai.  
  • The EASSy cable also runs from South Africa, up the East Coast, terminating in Sudan, from where it connects to other cables. 

The routes most ISPs in South Africa use are WACS and SAT3, due to cost reasons. 

The impact will not be as severe as in January, though. All international traffic is being redirected via alternative cable routes. This may be a viable method for connecting users to the Internet but might not be suitable for latency-sensitive applications like International video conferencing. 

Read more about the first Internet connectivity breakage which happened on the same cable, earlier this year. 

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SA cellphones to be tracked to fight coronavirus

Several countries are tracking cellphones to understand who may have been exposed to coronavirus-infected people. South Africa is about to follow suit, writes BRYAN TURNER



From Israel to South Korea, governments and cell networks have been implementing measures to trace the cellphones of coronavirus-infected citizens, and who they’ve been around. The mechanisms countries have used have varied.  

In Iran, citizens were encouraged to download an app that claimed to diagnose COVID-19 with a series of yes or no questions. The app also tracked real-time location with a very high level of accuracy, provided by the GPS sensor. 

In Germany, all cellphones on Deutsche Telekom are being tracked through cell tower connections, providing a much coarser location, but a less invasive method of tracking. The data is being handled by the Robert Koch Institute, the German version of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In Taiwan, those quarantined at home are tracked via an “electronic fence”, which determines if users leave their homes.  

In South Africa, preparations have started to track cellphones based on cell tower connections. The choice of this method is understandable, as many South Africans may either feel an app is too intrusive to have installed, or may not have the data to install the app. This method also allows more cellphones, including basic feature phones, to be tracked. 

This means that users can be tracked on a fairly anonymised basis, because these locations can be accurate to about 2 square kilometers. Clearly, this method of tracking is not meant to monitor individual movements, but rather gain a sense of who’s been around which general area.  

This data could be used to find lockdown violators, if one considers that a phone connecting in Hillbrow for the first 11 days of lockdown, and then connecting in Morningside for the next 5, likely indicates a person has moved for an extended period of time. 

The distance between Hillbrow and Morningside is 17km. One would pass through several zones covered by different towers.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said that South African network providers have agreed to provide government with location data to help fight COVID-19. 

Details on how the data will be used, and what it will used to determine, are still unclear. 

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