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African Start-Ups Boosted By Google Launchpad Accelerator

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Google Launchpad Accelerator is a six-month acceleration program designed to rapidly accelerate the best start-ups from emerging markets. The program starts with a two-week all-expense-paid program in the Launchpad space in San Francisco.

The start-ups face an unrelenting barrage of mentorship sessions, presentations from Googlers and mentors, and topics spanning from goal-setting to artificial intelligence.

I had the chance to be one of the mentors for these start-ups, being in daily contact and observing their progress. The air in the Launchpad space is filled with the wanting to learn new things. The start-ups are picked as the best from their region and immediately subject to questioning everything about their business. The first two days are the most brutal; as a mentor I could see some of the start-ups being deconstructed and having to start again from the beginning.

The one thing that separates all the start-ups in Launchpad from all the others is their drive to solve problems and learn new things. By the third and fourth day of the first week, the teams are already adjusting their strategies and measurable improvements can be seen.

What’s clear from the whole experience is that start-ups, around the whole world, face similar challenges. The camaraderie and connection you see among the start-ups stems from the entrepreneurs being very similar people.

Launchpad is primarily a two-week onsite activity in San Francisco and the following half year support. Launchpad is not asking for any equity in the start-ups. Other accelerator programs, such as Y Combinator and 500 Startups, are longer-term programs which focus on getting investment after going through the acceleration process and connects the start-ups with more external partners. Launchpad picks the best start-ups from emerging markets with existing traction and functioning product and tries to expose them to the Silicon Valley approach as well as the access to Google directly.

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For African start-ups, this is invaluable.

“The biggest struggle for our business is in getting the resources needed for business success – people, finances, and enabling infrastructure,” says Lanre Oyedotun, Co-Founder and CEO of Delivery Science, the start-up that developed FieldInsight, an app that helps organizations obtain data, visibility, and control over everything going on in the field.

“It’s a big struggle to build the right partnerships needed to start and grow the business. When you’re small, it’s quite difficult to partner with bigger organizations,” says Shola Akinlade, Co-Founder and CEO of Paystack, which helps businesses accept payments, from all channels, from their customers.

Organizations don’t get much bigger than Google.

“Google is an iconic company and it has managed to build a reputation for solid technology tools and infrastructure, while maintaining world-class people operations. No organization in the world epitomizes scale more than Google. We want to learn how Google did that, how they managed rapid scaling and how we can apply those lessons to our organization,” says Iyinioluwa Aboyeji, the Managing Director and CEO of Flutterwave, a technology and infrastructure platform for processing payments across Africa.

A large proportion of Africa’s recent economic growth comes from investment in technology. Tech start-ups are important for the development of the continent.

“By 2025 Africa will have 800 million people below the age of 25. Humanity is faced with a potential catastrophe of epic proportions unless they receive adequate capacity development,” says Adetunji Adegbesan, the Founder and CEO of Gidi Mobile, a start-up that uses mastery learning to connect Africans to economic opportunity at scale.

How Tech Can Close The Gap In Africa

To help Africans make the most of this economic opportunity is JUMO, the largest scale, lowest cost financial services platform for emerging markets.

“In the emerging markets, the vast majority of people have no access to good financial choices. We are creating access at an unprecedented rate. We help people to borrow and save at the lowest price and with products that help them improve their lives. JUMO is a multi-bank marketplace where banks compete to give customer the best deal on their phone using only behavioral data,” says Andrew Watkins-Ball, the CEO and Founder of JUMO.

“Launchpad is an incredible opportunity to work with hugely experienced people from a broad array of disciplines, helping us to solve the big challenges that we are experiencing as we scale our company. We are being given incredible access to the Valley eco-system of investors, large businesses and potential mentors. It is great to connect with start-ups from all over the world that are solving really big problems,” says Watkins-Ball.

Africa has many problems to solve and, with the help of Launchpad, these start-ups are doing their bit to provide some of the solutions. – Written by Jan Beránek, Google Launchpad mentor 

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5 Ways Tech Can Revolutionize Education

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Professor Sally Smith, Dean of School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University, was in South Africa to share how tech can revolutionize education and what Africa can learn.


With the Fourth  Industrial Revolution gaining speed, the nature of work and economic activity is set to dramatically change. One woman is on a mission to prepare the education system for such changes.

Professor Sally Smith, the Dean of School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University, traveled from Scotland to South Africa to share her know-how, as one of the speakers at the Future of the Education Summit in Johannesburg.

Hosted by Africa Business News, the summit brought together thought-leaders and professors from all over the world. Smith met FORBES AFRICA a day before the summit to speak about her experiences in the education industry for 26 years:

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1.What trends have you picked up in the sector over the years?

In terms of technology, it has been very fast-moving so the big challenge for universities is conducting research and translating that into useful programs for students when they graduate.

In terms of the kind of trends and developments, we have seen huge growth in areas such as creative computing. There have been developments around designing meaningful interactions with computers, and that’s no longer just [limited to] a desktop computer; that will be your mobile phone, it’ll be augmented reality systems, virtual reality systems and other recent trends like cyber security.

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With more of our lives being conducted online, there’s a need to make sure we secure our data security, our identity is secure and businesses as well need to protect themselves. Those have been really interesting ways in which I have seen a big change in recent years.

And the other thing that has changed is there has been a lot of growth in AI. Some of those kinds of machine learning tools are now being put to wider use than ever before by things like self-driving cars. So that’s an area of great interest now to our students and when they graduate to apply these algorithms.

2.What do you think are the challenges in this sector?

One of the things we’ve been disappointed with in much of the western world is how few women are interested in studying computer science and it has been fairly constant at sub-20% of our undergraduate program since I have been in academia. And we have really been unable to make any great inroads into changing that.

3.What differences have you picked up between education in Scotland and South Africa?

Making sure graduates have the right skills to go to work, and part of that is getting work experience and it’s a challenge for all of us to make the case for businesses to take on a student so they can take on relevant work experience before they graduate. Some of the challenges I have seen around are about trying to get those partnerships.

4.How do you see collaborations of universities around the world with the 4th Industrial Revolution?

Yes, I think there are fantastic ways we collaborate over research and a lot of the big funds now are only interested in collaborations where we can draw on the strengths of universities from different countries and I think that the same will be true about teaching.

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At the moment, we are competing with each other but if we can put great programs together that draw on the strength of different universities, there’s a future for more collaborative work.

5.How can the private sector help upskill young people?

We’ve introduced a new way in which people can get degree level qualifications in the UK and degree level apprenticeships. Industry will employ someone and they attend university 20% of the time and work towards their degree while they are in work.

So that is a new way to make sure the degree is appropriate for employers and these programs are employer-led so employers are part of designing the program. The other project we have is a digital skills partnership which is where we try and get industry and lecturers to work more closely together on things like developing curriculum.

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Banks Are Promoting ‘Female’ Chatbots To Help Customers, Raising Concerns Of Stereotyping

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Meet Amy. And also Debbie, Inga, Mia, Erica, Eva and Cora.

These aren’t the members of a new, all-female rock group, but names that several large banks have been giving to their automated digital assistants.

So-called chatbots have become a useful cost-cutting tools for companies with large subscriber bases (think banks, insurance firms and mobile phone operators). As they replace human call-center workers, such bots will help save banks an estimated $7.3 billion in operational costs by 2023, Juniper Research predicts.

But the proliferation of bots with female names raises questions about whether they might also perpetuate gender stereotypes, particularly around the notion of women in the role of assistants. That criticism has already been levelled at Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

Now a Forbes analysis of Europe’s 10 biggest banks ranked by assets shows that at least three have deployed chatbots with female names on their websites and apps. HSBC has a chatbot named Amy; Deutsche Bank’s Debbie helps market traders; ING of the Netherlands has Inga, a chatbot that will “respond with empathy” to customer problems such as losing a card.

ING’s other chatbot Marie, available to retail customers on Facebook Messenger, was given the name “because it conjures up an image of someone who is helpful and friendly,” Tim Daniels, a programme manager for ING was quoted as saying on the bank’s website. (ING has a male chatbot named Bill, aimed at dealing with corporate customers.)

Among the other lenders, Santander, Barclays and Societe Generale appear to have unnamed chatbot assistants. Credit Agricole has an internal chatbot with a male name: Hector.

Female chatbots abound in other regions and industries. Bank of America recently deployed a digital assistant called Erica, while Mia, the chatbot released by Australian digital bank UBank, was described by the company earlier this month as “empathetic,” “fun” and “a little bit cheeky.”

IPSoft, a New York-based software company that sells chatbot technology to banks like Sweden’s SEB as well as mobile network giant Vodafone, has its own white-label version of a customer-facing chatbot, named Amelia.

IPSoft’s CEO Chetan Dube denied that the chatbot’s name perpetuated stereotypes, when asked by Forbes during an interview in December, and said it instead highlights “the thought leadership that is represented in females.”

“She was the first female aviator that tried to go around the world,” Dube added, referring to the 1930’s aviator Amelia Earhart.

Forbes revealed earlier this month that Vodafone was measuring the success of its chatbots on how many staff could be replaced by the software. While that may be an uncomfortable metric, the more worrying consequence of chatbots, according to four industry experts questioned by Forbes, is the risk that they could reinforce certain stereotypes.

“Gender bias is an increasingly serious issue in chatbot design, especially for voice-based chatbots,” says John Taylor, CEO of action.ai, a British startup that makes chatbot software for banks and travel companies. “These assistants often perform tasks that many view as menial.”

Vitor Shereiber, a language specialist at the German language-learning app Babbel, says that focus-group testing might lead companies to assign a gender to a chatbot on the notion that it makes customer feel more comfortable.

But, he adds, bots could spread unrealistic expectations of how women should present themselves professionally, just as photoshopped pictures have done for women’s perceptions of their bodies.

Part of the challenge for companies is finding a balance between automating customer service without putting customers off. PwC recently described chatbots as being able to “massively enhance customer delight and loyalty” because of their “personal touch.”

Taylor suggests software designers should try creating more chatbots with male names and male voices.

On the sidelines of a technology conference in London on Wednesday, Seth Juarez, an artificial-intelligence engineer based in Redmond, Washington takes it a step further. He calls Siri up on is iPhone to ask the time, and a male voice responds.

“I make it a guy specifically because I find it morally reprehensible that all of the service-based bots are female, and all the intelligence based bots [like IBM’s Watson] are named after dudes.”

He added that artificial intelligence generally shouldn’t be anthropomorphised. Chatbots should be used to manage “cheap thoughts,” or “stuff that a human would do robotically” rather than on more complex issues. “I would leave those problems to humans.”

-Parmy Olson;Forbes Staff

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BMW And Daimler Pool Resources On Automated Driving Technology

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Daimler and BMW deepened their alliance on Thursday to share spiraling development costs for highly automated driving technologies, even as each carmaker pursues separate efforts to develop fully self-driving cars.


The enormous cost of designing and building computer-powered vehicles has already prompted Honda to pool its efforts with General Motors, while Volkswagen is pursuing talks with Ford about an alliance on autonomous cars.

BMW and Daimler deepened their alliance for similar reasons, said Michael Hafner, head of automated driving at Mercedes-Benz research and development said in a blog post which accompanied a joint press release by the companies on Thursday.

“We have learned that the development of these systems is a bit like climbing a mountain,” he said.

“Taking the first few meters from the base station to the summit seems easy. But the closer you come to the goal, the thinner the air around you becomes, the more strength is required for each further step, and the more complex become the challenges you have to resolve.”

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It made sense to distribute the technological and financial challenges of automated driving, Hafner said, so BMW and Daimler will jointly develop technology to enable automated driving on highways.

“Initially, the focus will be on advancing the development of next-generation technologies for driver assistance systems, automated driving on highways and parking features,” the companies said in the statement.

“In addition, the two partners plan to discuss the possibility of extending their collaboration to cover higher levels of automation, both on highways and in urban areas.”

BMW and Daimler’s move comes as even deep pocketed technology companies struggle to gain traction in autonomous driving. Apple Inc said on Wednesday it planned to lay off 190 employees in its self-driving car program, Project Titan.

READ MORE |Apple Dismisses Over 200 Staff From Autonomous Vehicle Group

The market for advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles is expected to grow to $96 billion in 2025 and $290 billion in 2035 from about $3 billion in 2015, according to Goldman Sachs.

BMW and Daimler already cooperate in high-definition mapping with HERE and in the area of procurement, and earlier this month unveiled a joint ride-hailing, parking and electric car charging business.

They said on Thursday their new partnership will center on so-called level 3 and level 4 automated driving technologies, including cars that still require steering wheels and drivers.

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Daimler will pursue a separate development alliance for level 5 robotaxis between its luxury brand Mercedes-Benz and supplier Robert Bosch. Level 5 cars require no driver.

BMW, for its part, continues its development alliance for robotaxis with Israeli autonomous vehicle tech company Mobileye and chip maker Intel, with the aim of putting autonomous cars on the road by 2021. -Reuters

-Edward Taylor

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