Why robots are needed now more than ever

BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

The entry of robots into the mainstream has been resisted for valid reasons such as its impact on jobs. Current health circumstances however should inspire a review of that perception. The risk exposure by some professionals should be the main driving force behind the adoption of tools that can still carry out critical work while protecting human beings from exposure. Health professionals are high on this list of exposed professionals.

In view of this risk by health professionals, Professor Coenie Koegelenberg saw a need for robots at Tygerberg hospital and led the process of developing the robot for the Tygerberg Hospital. 

The robot, called Quintin, has been instrumental in protecting health professionals from being exposed to patients who infect patients with a life threatening disease. The challenge however is that this robot, due to costs and other factors, is only operating in a single hospital and only saving the lives of only a  few health professionals. 

Considering the number of health professionals that are contracting the Covid-19 disease, there should be more efforts towards deploying more robots in Covid-19 designated health institutions. Surely, health professionals can be assigned to less risky environments while robots are taking care of areas that are more risky. 

There’s a huge need for robots in healthcare institutions. This need spreads beyond nursing to intensive care units and surgeries. Robots could also take on tasks such as cleaning and disinfecting contaminated environments.  Some of these health-care professionals can still sit behind a screen and guide the robots or use the robots as means of interaction whilst they are located far from the patient with a potential to infect the healthcare worker.

There’s a need to build more robots such as Quintin before we loose more healthcare professionals. Another group of workers who are at risk are now known as essential workers. While it’s important to protect their jobs it is also important to protect their lives. In the process of protecting the lives of essential workers, robots should be considered as tools that can complement workers to protect them from harm.

The current health situation facing mankind requires a mindshift from the thinking of protecting jobs at all costs while exposing people to danger. Technology should be seen as an important tool in carrying out risky work. People should be reassigned to environments that allow them to be the brains behind a technology tool that is in the frontlines. There was a time when the adoption of robots into the mainstream society was seen as a futuristic tool and a threat. Current conditions should expedite the adoption of technologies that were seen as futuristic to solve present challenges.


Vodacom ordered to handover documents to determine Please Call Me Idea value

BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

The long awaited judgement by Judge Kollapen on the Please Call Me idea matter is finally out. The judge has ordered Vodacom to handover within 21 days contractual documents that can assist with the process of determining the true value of the idea. This comes after Vodacom through its CEO determined that the idea was worth R47 million. This offer was not accepted by Makate on the basis that his attorneys had no access to documentation upon which such value was determined. Makate challenged this decision in court. Makate filed court papers in the North Gauteng high court and asked the court to issue an order to force the Vodacom CEO, Shameel Joosub to disclose all documents he relied upon to conclude that the idea was worth R47 million. Makate believes he is owed more.

This judgement by Judge Kollapen is significant for several reasons. It enables both parties for the very first time to have access to the same set of documents (contractual and financial) to determine the value of the idea. In the past Vodacom was the only party that had access to such documents.

The judge has also ordered that the KPMG report should also be handed over to Makate. The inventor of the Please Call Me idea has been waiting for more than 10 years for the KPMG report. The report was compiled after Vodacom shareholders had requested an investigation into intellectual property matters within the company.

It has been reported that paragraphs within the KPMG report will assist current negotiations process between Makate and Vodacome to achieve a genuine settlement process. 

In the past Vodacom had argued that the document was irrelevant in determining whether it owed Makate any money. The Judge Kollapen judgement however has highlighted  that this report is critical to provide more information about Vodacom practices.

More on this via Fast Company Digital magazine: digimag.fastcompany.co.za

2 key habits from people who are especially productive while working from home

BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

Before many office workers transitioned to remote arrangements, the thought of working from home sounded like a dream. Who doesn’t love the idea of ditching the commute and staying in your sweats? But those of us who have been working from home for years know the reality, and it isn’t always as stress-free as it sounds.

At Fast Company (SA) we reached out to two executives from Headset Solutions, Tony Brown and Rodney Wearing, who have been enabling organisations to use tools that  improve productivity. They shared insights that will still enable us to remain productive while working from home. Here are some of the habits they suggest you adopt:

Professional equipment shows who takes their professional duties the most seriously. A home-worker with decent quality equipment, who can be seen clearly, heard crisply, shows they’re taking their duties as seriously as ever.

Quality Camera: Your built-in web-cam, on your computer or lap-top, is okay to start with, but it’s not a proper business solution to work from home.

Quality Headset: On the subject of “sound”, there are two essentials: “noise cancellation” and “active noise cancellation”. The first one cancels out all the background noise, when I am speaking to you. Like my neighbor’s dog barking! The minimum standard here is called “wide band”.

The second one cancels out the background around you, when I am listening online. So, this blocks out all the noise around me. This is essential to allow me to focus, and not be interrupted by distractions.

Your home is now your place of employment. And your partner’s workplace. And your kids’ classroom. And your student child’s virtual university. This requires a fundamental new look at the space available to you, your family and/or housemates.

So it’s important to reevaluate what the optimal use of all your space is, to ensure everyone at home can now manage this full range of activities effectively – giving everyone the space, they need, to each fulfill their most important tasks.

Is there a ‘team home office’ you can all share, together? To keep up a sense of companionship and camaraderie? Yes, it may be a shame to give up that big lounge, for example. But perhaps it’s worth it.

Or do you need private office or quiet space – like a professional-looking corner in a bedroom, so you can close the door and work uninterrupted?

Think about this all carefully and re-arrange your home and furniture to what works best for those for those 30, 40 or 50 hours a week of work at home. Only you can know what’ll work best for you all, in your home.

Then, in your new workspace: Create your best view of yourself, online. Raise your laptop, so others don’t see you squinting down at them. Set the scene you want others to see.

Think about light. Is the window behind you too bright, turning you into a silhouette? Does it change – depending on the time of day?

 All these elements play a role in how you are perceived online – but most importantly, they impact they way in which you are able to perform in this new, uncertain world of work. Having the best equipment and surroundings to suit your needs will only give you a positive push in the right direction and allow you to live up to your professional potential – from the comfort of your own home. 


Diversity lessons for SA tech companies from Google

BY Wesley Diphoko 3 MINUTE READ

No one knows how technology would function or look if black technologists were part of development teams of most technologies that we use today. The technology industry has by design excluded black technologists. The George Floyd murder has inspired the global tech giant, Alphabet (Google parent company) to finally do something more meaningful about this challenge to ensure that the technology we use is developed by everyone. Efforts by Google will probably inspire other technology companies to do the same. 

Google has committed itself towards improving black representation at senior levels and committing to a goal of  improving leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30 percent by 2025. To  achieve this goal, Google aims to post senior leadership roles externally as well as internally. These changes according to a statement by the Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, will be implemented beyond the US. Country-specific plans will be implemented to recruit and hire more people from communities that are less represented at Google.

As part of this process Google will establish a new talent liaison within each product and functional area to mentor and advocate for the progression and retention of Googlers from black communities. A task force will also be convened  including senior members of the Black+ community at Google, to develop concrete recommendations and proposals for accountability across all of the areas that affect the Black+ Googler experience, from recruiting and hiring, to performance management, to career progression and retention.The CEO has asked the task force to come back with specific proposals (including measurable goals) within 90 days.

Google will also establish a range of anti-racism educational programs that are global in view and able to scale to all Googlers. According to the Google CEO,  the technology company will be welcoming external experts to share their expertise on racial history and structural inequities, and start conversations on education and self-reflection. This week the company has begun piloting a new, multi-series training for Googlers of all levels that explores systemic racism and racial consciousness, to help develop stronger awareness and capacity for creating spaces where everyone feels they belong. The technology giant plans to roll out this training globally by early next year. At Google diversity, equity, and inclusion  will be integrated into  mandatory manager training.

Pichai ended his statement on what the company will do about diversity by saying:

“creating products for everyone is a core principle at Google, so our product teams will work to ensure that all users, and particularly Black users, see themselves reflected in our products”

This step by Google is commendable when we consider how little such issues receive attention within technology companies. It will be interesting to see the impact of such a move when it comes to products output by Google. 

What is however lacking from this step by Google is the extent to which they will invest in technology startups founded by black founders. Alphabet (Google parent company) plays a major role in funding technology companies across the globe. These companies end up in the Google eco-system which has products that are used across the globe.

If Google were to have the same commitment on diversity when it comes to investing in technology companies founded by black founders the impact would be wider. It would probably enhance the range of technology products that we enjoy today.

Google will probably work towards improving in this area. In the meanwhile, their move towards doing something about the diversity challenge in the technology sector is something that South African technology companies should emulate.

Diversity has become a business imperative. Tech companies that fail to embrace diversity will be left behind by those that will unlock innovations from  untapped innovative minds.


This is how George Floyd inspired a major tech decision

BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

The brutal murder of George Floyd has inspired an important decision in the development of facial recognition technology.

IBM took a very significant decision aimed at preventing abuse of technology in the hands of the police. In a letter to the US Congress, the IBM CEO- Arvind Krishna, wrote: 

“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency”

This decision is important for a couple of reasons that includes the fact that the future of security systems will likely depend on facial recognition. It is therefore important to get it right now and unfortunately there’s a lot wrong with facial recognition in its current form.

The technology has been blamed for racial bias. Researchers have found on numerous occasions that systems scrutinizing our facial features are significantly less accurate for people with dark skin. The companies’ algorithms proved near perfect at identifying the gender of men with lighter skin, but frequently erred when analyzing images of women with dark skin.

The skewed accuracy appears to be due to underrepresentation of darker skin tones in the training data used to create the face-analysis algorithms.

If this technology is used in its current form, we are likely to see wrongful arrests and further violations by the police. Although the decision to stop this technology by the big blue firm will not itself stop the development of this technology by some tech companies, it is still a step in the right direction. Amazon has also followed suit, and chances are that more tech companies will follow.

A more important reason why this decision is critical has little to do with technology but more to do with the fact that, the development of technology should be aligned with ethical values of society. Technologies that violate human rights and values should not be allowed to exist. 

Human beings should not be held hostage by the very technology that they create. 

Ethics should be a key consideration as we develop technologies of the future. 

This is true of many other technologies that are now being developed to shape the future.

It is up to human beings to develop technologies that do not trample on the rights of individuals.

In addition, to address the potential of developing technologies that turn against human beings, the education of technologists should include ethics aswell as humanities and not only focus on computing and commerce.

Now that IBM has acknowledged the real danger of using some of these technologies, focus should now shift to others that may negatively impact human lives. IBM is not alone in developing technologies that are now considered harmful. As long as there’s still more technology companies that continue to use technologies that are known to be harmful, the impact of IBMs decision will be minimal.

For a very long time technology companies have managed to get away with murder in the name of innovation. The recent announcement by IBM is a clear indication that innovation projects should undergo strict scrutiny before they are deployed.

Researchers have for years warned about the problems with facial recognition.

As society reflects about the use of technology by the police, there’s an opportunity to correct harmful features and maintain features that can advance humanity.


Here’s the problem with using Zoom services for ‘free’

BY Wesley Diphoko 3 MINUTE READ

If you use the free version of Zoom, you will not enjoy the end-to-end encryption which is designed to ensure privacy of your calls. This is what Zoom CEO, Eric Yuan, recently revealed during the earnings call with analysts.

“Free users for sure we don’t want to give that because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement, in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose,” said Eric Yuan on the call.

He went on to explain the rationale of this statement by admitting that Zoom had enjoyed an “unprecedented number of free participants.” Then he explained the greater motivation. “If you can merely scare — I’m sorry, I mean convert — a fraction of these unprecedented free people to pay a little for encryption, your profits might reach, well, unprecedented levels.”

In admitting that free users of Zoom will not receive the same protection as paying users, Yuan has revealed the true cost of using free services online.

The reality is that Zoom is not alone in implementing this abusive freemium model. 

Other major technology companies also follow the same model. Most of the services that we use online are offered for free for most users. The assumption by most users is that when they use a free service they are not paying. The truth, if you follow the Zoom logic and approach, is that the free users of internet products pay with their privacy and data. Free is not always as good as it sounds, free can actually cost you.One British art critic and pundit John Ruskin once said, “It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money, that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.”

This is true for some internet products that compromise user privacy and data. Whilst every individual has a responsibility to be discerning in choosing internet products, it’s important that free reign is not allowed for free internet products.

We should take into account that not every internet user is digitally literate to distinguish what is good and bad. Our understanding of this fact should therefore lead to a creation of safeguards on the internet to prevent the abuse of user privacy and data. Companies that abuse user privacy and data in the pursuit of profit should not be allowed to continue with their abusive behaviour.

Apple is leading the privacy game through encryption of its products. Tim Cook and his leadership team should be commended for respecting user privacy in this way. 

It should however be noted that Apple can afford to encrypt their products partly because they don’t make money with advertising which tends to be the driving force behind the abuse of free internet services. 

WhatsApp is another encrypted internet product, thanks to the leadership of its original founders before the company was handed over to the user-data-abuser-in-chief, Mark Zuckerberg. This protection however may be short lived as this messaging (free) service may soon be paid for with user data as WhatsApp may introduce advertising on the platform in the near future.

Having said all of these things about free internet products. It has to be said that  free has been good for the internet. Where would we be without free. Google search and Gmail would have been impossible without free. Lockdown would have been a nightmare without free Zoom. We therefore cannot afford to throw away the freemium model in its entirety. It is however one thing to give up something to get something for free. It is something else altogether  to give up your privacy for getting something for free. It is that part of free that should not be allowed. Giving up our data for getting a free service should be clearly explained to users and not hidden in long and confusing legal jargon.

Every user should be in the position to grant permission with easy to understand options if they are to give away their data. At the same time it should not be assumed by internet giants that user data is free for the taking. At some point internet giants need to pay users for their data. Internet global organisations need to figure out data pricing models to determine the true value of user data. Whilst this is still being determined, users of internet products should not be given an impossible choice of compromising their privacy for free usage of internet products.


Zoom warning: The parliamentary Zoom hack should be a wake up call

BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

For the first time in decades, the South African Parliament took an “unprecedented step” by allowing MPs to take part in some parliamentary proceedings via Zoom. This move has now resulted in a security breach in parliament. Yesterday while MPs were about to start a parliamentary session they were greeted by nudity and swear words.

It was a matter of time before a security breach of this kind could hit an important institution such as the parliament. The South African parliament is not alone in experiencing this kind of interruption in a virtual meeting. A legal academic meeting in the UK was also disrupted  a few weeks ago by hackers with child pornography.

Technology experts have been highlighting security concerns about Zoom and therefore a security breach of this nature comes with little surprise in the tech community. As more and more people conduct their work duties from home, more security breaches can be expected.

This should be more of a concern for institutions that deal with important and sensitive information or discussions. The type of work conducted in parliament is a natural attraction for hackers .

The recent parliamentary hack should inspire an improvement in online security culture in institutions such as a parliament and other governance institutions. When everyone was working within the parliament building, the Information Technology department could pick up on security holes. The current challenge is that some Members of Parliament (MPs) are working from home and to some extent, are responsible for their own online security.

To correct this situation and prevent future similar cases there will be a need to improve on online security awareness and training programmes.

IT departments have a  role right now that consists of making sure the technology architecture of their organisation enables employees and the community to keep working productively, even from their homes. In the current context, this  means setting up entire systems for remote working.

Leeds City Council for instance in the UK got 11,500 office-based employees ready to work from home in the course of a weekend. The organisation’s digital services team had to get 7,000 laptops ready-to-go in just three days, before the full impact of the spread of COVID-19 began to hit home.

Their IT department  had to allocate more budget spending to VPNs, end-point security or multi-factor authentication to support secure access.

It is not too late to ensure that whilst people are working from home, security protocols are observed. Technology departments need to be innovative with assisting employees and users to ensure that they don’t compromise security systems of their own institutions.

There’s  a need to overhaul how online security is approached now that there’s more work from the home economy emerging. This process will also need to  include being very selective and careful about technology products that are used to enable communication. Institutions have to be careful of just using the cheapest and easy to use technology solution. Security has to be the key deciding factor in choosing a technology solution.

MPs and other public officials can not be blamed for being victims of online security breaches.

They need better online security guidance by leaders of technology within parliament and public institutions. Zoombombing is probably less of a security threat compared with access to confidential documents via a compromised laptop of a public official. This recent incident in parliament should truly serve as a wake up call about online security in public institutions.



Coronomics: The pandemic will create work (for robots), workers should own them

BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

COVID-19 has brought to us a crisis that is sort of a catalyst. All of a sudden companies large and small are exploring  how they can use robots to increase social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work. Robots are also being used to perform roles workers cannot do at home.

Some retailers are considering using robots to scrub its floors. In other parts of the world robots have been used to measure temperatures and distribute hand sanitisers. With health experts warning some social distancing measures may need to be in place through 2021, robots as workers may be in greater demand.

Some hospitals around the world are using robots to perform tasks like securely delivering medications, transporting linens and meals, and disposing of trash and biohazardous waste. Major retailers are accelerating the installation of kiosk ordering systems that can easily be layered on.

Major corporations are realising faster that adding automation to operations will not only make them more resilient to disruption, but can also cut costs. Although jobs are  not likely to be replaced by automation overnight when the economy comes back online it is only reasonable to expect a major shift to employment. The replacement of human beings by robots at work is now a matter of when. The reaction towards this unavoidable reality however can no longer be just a fight about jobs. Workers should now consider ownership of robots.

The main thing to fear today is not joblessness, but a future in which the earnings of workers are stagnant or falling (as robots take a greater share of high-productivity jobs), and the share of income going to the owners of the machines increases.

The challenge posed by automation is not just how to provide new jobs as others are taken over by machines, but also how to democratize an economy in which power is increasingly concentrated into the hands of a small group of private owners.

What should concern society today is the power disparity between those who own the highly productive capital of the automation age and those who do not.

The concentration of ownership carries with it the monopolization of economic control. The ownership of robots will become the prime determinant of how they affect most workers. Understanding this should be the prime focus of protecting workers today. Workers should now consider owning shares of robotic firms, hold stock options, or be paid in part from the profits. Workers should have a substantial ownership stake in the robot machines that will compete with them for their jobs and be the vehicle for capital’s share of production. Organisations that fight for worker rights should shift their focus towards a worker robotic ownership legal right. Common ownership of robots should become enshrined either in law or in cultural values. The ownership of robots should not be left to technology giants. Laws that govern how society will adopt robots at work should be crafted now to safeguard workers from the unavoidable.

Market forces should not be the only determinant of the future of work. Law makers should be proactive and design laws that will safeguard worker rights in a world that will be driven mainly by robots. We are headed towards a future where an income will increasingly come from ownership of robots or other forms of capital and the stream of income they produce, rather than from human labor. COVID-19 crisis should not be wasted, there’s now a need to focus on what really matters, the ownership of robots.



WANTED: Cure for South African internet quality

BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

The Internet, born as a Pentagon project during the chillier years of the Cold War, has taken a central role in 21st Century civilian society, culture and business that few pause any longer to appreciate. However, COVID-19 is now forcing us to appreciate it and recognise the integral role it plays in our everyday lives. 

Many facets of human life — work, school, banking, shopping, flirting, live music, government services, chats with friends, calls to aging parents — have moved online in this era of social distancing.

The resilience of the internet is currently being tested. Demand for online voice, video and VPN connections — all staples of remote work — have surged, and peak usage hours have shifted from evenings, when people typically stream video for entertainment, to daytime work hours. Internet service providers have seen double-digit increases in broadband usage, with BT claiming traffic on its fixed network climbed as much as 60% compared to normal weekdays, while Vodafone says it’s seen mobile data traffic increase by 50% in some markets. We are currently witnessing an increase that is normally expected in a year. Globally, this is now being seen in a matter of days and weeks.

In response, streaming services such as Netflix have taken steps to reduce their bandwidth utilization and cut picture quality in an effort to prevent network congestion. In Europe, streaming platforms have been urged to cut their video quality in order to prevent an overload.

During the lockdown period, South Africa has had its share of internet problems that were worsened by the West Africa Cable System (WACS) submarine cable which broke down and therefore affected SEACOM (the internet provider that South Africa relies on for its internet connectivity). This was later resolved earlier in April. The internet quality however is still an issue for many South Africans in lockdown.

As South Africa prepares to gradually lift the lockdown, the internet will continue to play a major role.

The post lockdown economy, if it is to succeed, will have to rely heavily on the internet.

The internet will be required for more than just watching Netflix videos. Instead, it will become the engine that drives the economy.  The current state of the economy will force the dreams about the 4th Industrial Revolution to become a reality.

The value of the internet in the economy and its current pressure has prompted ICASA to assign a temporary spectrum during the COVID-19 lockdown. The same thinking will be required for a post lockdown economy. The future economy is likely to be an internet economy and the current network infrastructure may not cope with the demand. There may be a need to treat some online platforms as more important than others. Education and health platforms may need to be prioritised without compromising the net neutrality principle. Society depends on this network infrastructure and it should therefore receive the necessary attention.

South Africa was never ready for the 4th Industrial Revolution. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving South Africa the necessary kick towards the 4th Industrial Revolution. Robots will have to fill our hospitals to safeguard health professionals as Tygerberg hospital is currently experimenting with Quintin – the robot. To implement social distancing effectively, some operations may need to be automated. 

All of these tasks will require high quality internet.  And if South Africa’s internet quality is not improved, the economy will without a doubt suffer.


SA’s first ‘essential goods’ e-commerce lockdown store launched

BY Wesley Diphoko < 1 MINUTE READ

One of South Africa’s leading e-commerce platforms, LOOT, has responded to a call for essentials-only-sales during the current lockdown period with a nifty e-commerce solution. 

Loot.co.za has launched the Essentials Shop, which will deliver essential items to customers across South Africa. 

According to LOOT, the Essentials Shop is stocked with pantry staples such as non-alcoholic beverages, household cleaning materials, personal care items, baby and toddler essentials, stationery and other basic necessities. The e-commerce retailer will also stock protective equipment such as face masks and gloves.

The retailer highlighted that all of its delivery partners are practising contactless delivery and strict hygiene and sanitary practices as recommended by the WHO. LOOT is also ensuring that all staff and partners who are helping during this time are following strict hygiene protocol.

This comes at a time when some retailers are battling to maintain order and social distancing in their stores to avoid exposure to COVID-19 by shoppers. 

LOOT’s systems are able to differentiate between essential and non-essential goods. This means that if a customer wants to purchase non-essential items during this period, they would still be able to place the order but delivery will only take place after lockdown. 

Customers who try to purchase a combination of essential and non-essential goods during the lockdown period will receive a prompt at checkout to warn them that an order with non-essential goods cannot be shipped /delivered at present. From there, customers will be encouraged to remove the non-essential items and place a separate order once they have completed their shopping in the Essentials Shop. 

The retailer indicated that as the government expands the list of essential items, they will let any previous order deemed non-essential out of the warehouse. 

The usual LOOT delivery threshold still applies and all orders over R350 will receive free delivery.