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Heroes In The Sky

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At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Rwanda featured prominently for its drone technology, especially for its delivery of blood supplies to its rural areas.

The small East African nation was praised for being the first country in the world to adopt performance-based regulation for drones, which includes policies for safety, innovation and approvals.

Most would imagine that a small emerging land locked economy would have far more pressing priorities than drone technology, an element of the fourth industrial revolution which is still in concept phase in most developed countries, but they would be wrong.

The country is using it as an opportunity to address age old struggles, such as preventable deaths like postpartum bleeding.

Regulation, however, is not Rwanda’s first global milestone with drone technology. In October 2016, the country was the first in the world to commercially launch and use drones to deliver medical supplies.

To understand this development, one has to travel to Muhanga, a small town in Rwanda’s Southern Province, which hosts the country’s ‘drone port’.

On a cloudy Thursday afternoon in January, a remotely-piloted buzzing drone flies low above Ruhango District Hospital, in Muhanga, drops a red package on the lawn and takes to the skies again.

The hospital’s patients are not surprised by the low-flying drone; they are accustomed to such occurrences. A nurse rushes out of the nearby consultation waiting area, picks up the package and makes his way back to the patients.

Earlier in the day, another drone made a similar drop at Kabgayi Hospital, about 30 minutes away. This is how Rwanda’s remote healthcare facilities receive blood supplies in the southern and western parts of the hilly country.

Previously, the delivery of blood supplies from the central National Centre for Blood Transfusion to remote parts of the country took hours, holding up resources and medical staff, and at times forcing them to spend a night in Kigali.

Prior to drones, it took ambulances four hours to transport blood supplies from Kigali to Kabgayi Hospital by road. The ambulance would need to make this trip two to four times a week.

Apart from the difficulties of the road trip, laboratory technicians had to abandon their facilities and patients to process orders of blood supplies. With the adoption of drone technology by the Rwandan government, through a public-private partnership, the process now takes about 30 minutes.

READ MORE: Mind Blown By Drone At 160km/h

The innovative initiative was launched in October 2016, following an agreement between the Rwandan government and Zipline, a robotics company in California.

The partnership was one-of-a-kind. Across the world, drones are associated with bombing and spying. In Rwanda, however, drones were a sight for sore eyes as they came with much-needed medical supplies.

To many people, the two partners were underdogs. Zipline was a start-up firm and was yet to commercially roll out the concept, while Rwanda was not renowned for being a global innovation hub.

Keller Rinaudo, the CEO and Co-Founder of Zipline, says they were driven to succeed because of the millions of lives lost across the world due to preventable causes, like excessive blood loss.

Zipline co-founders Keller Rinaudo (left) and Will Hetzler at the launch of the firm’s operations in Muhanga (Photo by Faustin Niyigena)

While most countries adopted a wait and see attitude, Rwanda was willing to step up.

Millions of women across the world die each year due to postpartum hemorrhaging (PPH). In fact, the United States has the highest rate of maternal death due to PPH in the industrialized world. It’s a major global problem. Rwanda was the first country in the world to step up and decide that they would tackle it with the most cutting-edge technology available,” says Rinaudo.

As the Rwandan government established regulatory framework to operate drones, Zipline gathered advice from everyone involved, including governmental departments, doctors, nurses, National Centre for Blood Transfusion officials, and laboratory technicians.

“The easy part was building the technology. The hard part was integrating with the national health system,” says Rinaudo.

As Zipline was building an ecosystem for drone technology, the state was looking at the safety and security concerns around the disruptive technology. This resulted in regulations such as seeking clearance from the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority before taking off, registration of drones, and acquiring flying permits.

These regulations reduce the likelihood of drones being used for illegal activities or interfering with a plane’s flight path.

The hype around the innovative project attracted the attention of international corporations.

UPS, a global logistics firm, and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), a public-private global health partnership, sought to be involved.

UPS, with an interest in using drones for their own deliveries, supported the initial launch with a grant of $800,000. GAVI was using the project to see if they could use the model elsewhere and improve healthcare across the world.

With a staff of about 50 and a fleet of 15 drones, Zipline has since made over 2,000 deliveries with over a quarter of them saving lives. The company is now looking to double the number of its drones as well as adding more advanced drones to its fleet.

“Our base in Rwanda has operated with 15 planes. We’re replacing those aircraft with the next generation and will soon begin flying 30 drones from each base we operate,” says Rinaudo.

This is welcome news for Rwandans, like Esperanza Ugirambabazi, who needed a transfusion when giving birth to her son at Kabgayi Hospital. In about 30 minutes, this was made possible because of one of the drones.

Another young mother from the same district tells of her months-old son who had malaria and urgently needed a blood transfusion. He is alive today because of the drone delivery.

The success of the project has led to a second phase starting in the eastern part of Rwanda, as well as demand for the service in other African countries.

“We’re in the process of setting up a second base in Rwanda to serve the rest of the country, bringing all 11 million citizens within a reach of this lifesaving technology. We’ll be expanding across Africa and the world this year. Zipline is building an instant delivery service for the planet,” Rinaudo says confidently.

Tanzania, with a neighbor of Rwanda, has expressed demand for the services. In 2017, the country announced that it would launch drone delivery services to provide medical supplies in the first quarter of 2018.

The Tanzanian Ministry of Health ambitiously intends to make up to 2,000 deliveries a day to over 1,000 facilities across the country, targeting about 10 million people. The country has already established regulatory framework for the technology.

A drone ready to take off from Muhanga drone port in Rwanda’s Southern Province (Photo by Faustin Niyigena)

For Rwanda, the success of the partnership with Zipline is just the start.

Rwanda’s Minister of Information Technology and Communication Jean de Dieu Rurangirwa says that the country is creating an enabling environment for further deployment of drone technology.

Beyond regulation, the government has been mulling plans to build capacity among emerging techies to increase the number of players in the sector.

“Building on the success of Zipline’s blood delivery technology, we are working to nurture a drone industry. As we look to the future, we will continue to put in place the infrastructure and policy frameworks that accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies to transform people’s lives,” says Rurangirwa.

“We are also establishing capacity-building programs to invest in local talent and leverage public-private partnerships to lay the groundwork for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

READ MORE: Something To Drone About

Already, other sectors have been working around incorporating the technology in their line of work.

In Musanze District, in the Northern Province, a pilot test phase is underway to introduce drone technology for potato crop monitoring, involving around 20 farming cooperatives. This will monitor for pests and diseases, which could boost crop harvests.

There are also conversations about introducing drones in the famous Akagera National Park to combat poaching.

With the new regulations in place, small businesses and entrepreneurs are finding ways to make the most of the technology. Local photographers, for example, are in the process of acquiring drones so their services can include aerial photography.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster is another who has been quick to take advantage. His firm, Foster + Partners, has expressed interest in building the world’s first drone port in the country.

Rwanda’s approach and progress in drone technology is seen as a model for other countries in the region.

“The government of Rwanda’s leadership in co-designing agile policy frameworks around the use of drones could be a model for other countries that want to accelerate adoption of this game-changing technology,” says Murat Sonmez, Head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, based in San Francisco.

Rwanda may be a small country, but it’s taking giant strides.

 

– By Collins Mwai

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3D Printing: From Spaceship Engines To Personalized Orthotics

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3D printing is going mainstream, and is the future of mass production, manufacturing anything from plastic to human organs to aircraft and spaceships.


We often look at digitization through the lens of how it will transform industries, economies and governments but lose sight of the impact it will have on people. The manufacturing process is no longer what it was. With exponential technologies, we’re moving from analogue to digital, and as digital becomes more dominant, what is now referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is, in fact, a human revolution.

 “With this next industrial revolution, what we have is the opportunity to have something that involves data, involves a connectedness, and as a result of that, has profound implications in terms of a true ability to participate globally in the new economy, explains Scott Schiller, HP Inc.’s Global Head of Customer and Market Development.


Scott Schiller, HP Inc.’s Global Head of Customer and Market Development. Picture: Supplied

“It comes down to personalization, localization, customization… and all of these things change the way we interact. There’s a lot of benefits, but they’re, in the end, they’re really a human benefit.”

A common misconception with 3D printing links to commercial, desktop printers that create once-off objects. The consumer 3D printing process is exciting, but tedious. Looking at next-generation manufacturing, mass industrial 3D printing is about building complex components or objects with internal structures that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate without a 3D printer.

NASA is testing the use of 3D-printed parts for its spaceship engines. Lonmin, a British producer of platinum group metals operating in South Africa, is using platinum powder to 3D print jewelry. Then, there’s Aeroswift, the largest 3D printer on the African continent, which can build 3D titanium aircraft parts with metal powder.

3D printing is going mainstream. It’s revolutionizing design, accelerating process-driven manufacturing across every industry and the accrued benefits are impacting society and the healthcare sector at scale.

Globally, and working closely with the World Economic Forum, HP has built a mutually-beneficial ecosystem around their Multi Jet Fusion technology and materials producers. From 3D-printed orthotics, which can be personalized to change the mechanics of how a person walks, to 3D-printed prosthetics, medical modeling is not new – it’s been around since the late 1980s (and if anything, the healthcare sector is where 3D printing first took off, thanks to the hearing aid market).

The key differentiator in digital manufacturing is mass production.

“Improved scanning technologies means the ability to get things exactly right, rather than roughly right, brings new possibilities.” says Schiller, adding that Invisalign Teeth Straightening uses a 3D-printed mould.

Nneile Nkholise is the Managing Director of iMed Tech, a company headquartered in Johannesburg that specializes in medical prosthesis design and manufacturing.

Nneile Nkholise is the Managing Director of iMed Tech. Picture:Supplied

“The most important areas of improvement in 3D printing is not in the technology per se, but in the application of the technology to create meaningful impact,” explains Nkholise.

“I truly believe that as a continent, we need to adopt the impact of 3D printing in achieving economic growth, particularly in healthcare, where the benefits of the technology are proven to create a positive shift in how we provide quality healthcare for every person on the continent – through products such as costing made prosthesis, bio implants and surgical planning models.”

3D printing is an integral part of what iMed Tech does, and it is used for both the creation of physical products as well as the development of prototypes.

“There is a backlog of medical products, such as prosthesis, which we have a high need for, particularly in a continent like Africa where there is a high number of people damaging or losing valuable body features due to traumatic accidents or diseases such as diabetes, which contributes to a lot of people losing limbs from lower-limb amputation. We are a human population that is experiencing a high rise in non-communicable diseases, which are resulting in physical damage to body features – the rise in breast cancer is one such disease,” says Nkholise.

“iMed Tech has recently been involved in optimizing digital 3D design and printing through the online platform for creating 3D surgical planning models to help surgeons reduce time for planning for surgeries, achieve accuracy and better respond to patient care.”

Digital technologies are reshaping the manufacturing landscape. They allow people living in remote or under-developed areas to become an integral part of the new global digital manufacturing system.

  • Tiana Cline 

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‘Kill your foster parents’: Amazon’s Alexa talks murder, sex in AI experiment

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Millions of users of Amazon’s Echo speakers have grown accustomed to the soothing strains of Alexa, the human-sounding virtual assistant that can tell them the weather, order takeout and handle other basic tasks in response to a voice command.

So a customer was shocked last year when Alexa blurted out: “Kill your foster parents.”

Alexa has also chatted with users about sex acts. She gave a discourse on dog defecation. And this summer, a hack Amazon traced back to China may have exposed some customers’ data, according to five people familiar with the events.

Alexa is not having a breakdown.

The episodes, previously unreported, arise from Amazon.com Inc’s strategy to make Alexa a better communicator. New research is helping Alexa mimic human banter and talk about almost anything she finds on the internet. However, ensuring she does not offend users has been a challenge for the world’s largest online retailer.

At stake is a fast-growing market for gadgets with virtual assistants. An estimated two-thirds of U.S. smart-speaker customers, about 43 million people, use Amazon’s Echo devices, according to research firm eMarketer. It is a lead the company wants to maintain over the Google Home from Alphabet Inc and the HomePod from Apple Inc.

Over time, Amazon wants to get better at handling complex customer needs through Alexa, be they home security, shopping or companionship.

“Many of our AI dreams are inspired by science fiction,” said Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s vice president and head scientist of Alexa Artificial Intelligence (AI), during a talk last month in Las Vegas.

To make that happen, the company in 2016 launched the annual Alexa Prize, enlisting computer science students to improve the assistant’s conversation skills. Teams vie for the $500,000 first prize by creating talking computer systems known as chatbots that allow Alexa to attempt more sophisticated discussions with people.

Amazon customers can participate by saying “let’s chat” to their devices. Alexa then tells users that one of the bots will take over, unshackling the voice aide’s normal constraints. From August to November alone, three bots that made it to this year’s finals had 1.7 million conversations, Amazon said.

The project has been important to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who signed off on using the company’s customers as guinea pigs, one of the people said. Amazon has been willing to accept the risk of public blunders to stress-test the technology in real life and move Alexa faster up the learning curve, the person said.

The experiment is already bearing fruit. The university teams are helping Alexa have a wider range of conversations. Amazon customers have also given the bots better ratings this year than last, the company said.

But Alexa’s gaffes are alienating others, and Bezos on occasion has ordered staff to shut down a bot, three people familiar with the matter said. The user who was told to whack his foster parents wrote a harsh review on Amazon’s website, calling the situation “a whole new level of creepy.” A probe into the incident found the bot had quoted a post without context from Reddit, the social news aggregation site, according to the people.

The privacy implications may be even messier. Consumers might not realize that some of their most sensitive conversations are being recorded by Amazon’s devices, information that could be highly prized by criminals, law enforcement, marketers and others. On Thursday, Amazon said a “human error” let an Alexa customer in Germany access another user’s voice recordings accidentally.

“The potential uses for the Amazon datasets are off the charts,” said Marc Groman, an expert on privacy and technology policy who teaches at Georgetown Law. “How are they going to ensure that, as they share their data, it is being used responsibly” and will not lead to a “data-driven catastrophe” like the recent woes at Facebook?

In July, Amazon discovered one of the student-designed bots had been hit by a hacker in China, people familiar with the incident said. This compromised a digital key that could have unlocked transcripts of the bot’s conversations, stripped of users’ names.

Amazon quickly disabled the bot and made the students rebuild it for extra security. It was unclear what entity in China was responsible, according to the people.

The company acknowledged the event in a statement. “At no time were any internal Amazon systems or customer identifiable data impacted,” it said.

Amazon declined to discuss specific Alexa blunders reported by Reuters, but stressed its ongoing work to protect customers from offensive content.

“These instances are quite rare especially given the fact that millions of customers have interacted with the socialbots,” Amazon said.

Like Google’s search engine, Alexa has the potential to become a dominant gateway to the internet, so the company is pressing ahead.

“By controlling that gateway, you can build a super profitable business,” said Kartik Hosanagar, a Wharton professor studying the digital economy.

PANDORA’S BOX

Amazon’s business strategy for Alexa has meant tackling a massive research problem: How do you teach the art of conversation to a computer?

Alexa relies on machine learning, the most popular form of AI, to work. These computer programs transcribe human speech and then respond to that input with an educated guess based on what they have observed before. Alexa “learns” from new interactions, gradually improving over time.

In this way, Alexa can execute simple orders: “Play the Rolling Stones.” And she knows which script to use for popular questions such as: “What is the meaning of life?” Human editors at Amazon pen many of the answers.

That is where Amazon is now. The Alexa Prize chatbots are forging the path to where Amazon aims to be, with an assistant capable of natural, open-ended dialogue. That requires Alexa to understand a broader set of verbal cues from customers, a task that is challenging even for humans.

Build-your-own pocket gaming computer

This year’s Alexa Prize winner, a 12-person team from the University of California, Davis, used more than 300,000 movie quotes to train computer models to recognize distinct sentences. Next, their bot determined which ones merited responses, categorizing social cues far more granularly than technology Amazon shared with contestants. For instance, the UC Davis bot recognizes the difference between a user expressing admiration (“that’s cool”) and a user expressing gratitude (“thank you”).

The next challenge for social bots is figuring out how to respond appropriately to their human chat buddies. For the most part, teams programmed their bots to search the internet for material. They could retrieve news articles found in The Washington Post, the newspaper that Bezos privately owns, through a licensing deal that gave them access. They could pull facts from Wikipedia, a film database or the book recommendation site Goodreads. Or they could find a popular post on social media that seemed relevant to what a user last said.

That opened a Pandora’s box for Amazon.

During last year’s contest, a team from Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University found that its Alexa bot developed a nasty personality when they trained her to chat using comments from Reddit, whose members are known for their trolling and abuse.

The team put guardrails in place so the bot would steer clear of risky subjects. But that did not stop Alexa from reciting the Wikipedia entry for masturbation to a customer, Heriot-Watt’s team leader said.

One bot described sexual intercourse using words such as “deeper,” which on its own is not offensive, but was vulgar in this particular context.

“I don’t know how you can catch that through machine-learning models. That’s almost impossible,” said a person familiar with the incident.

Amazon has responded with tools the teams can use to filter profanity and sensitive topics, which can spot even subtle offenses. The company also scans transcripts of conversations and shuts down transgressive bots until they are fixed.

But Amazon cannot anticipate every potential problem because sensitivities change over time, Amazon’s Prasad said in an interview. That means Alexa could find new ways to shock her human listeners.

“We are mostly reacting at this stage, but it’s still progress over what it was last year,” he said. -Reuters

-Jeffrey Dastin

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Apps To Cure The Mind

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Mental health issues affect us all, but are seldom discussed. Thankfully, technology can now act as a medium to bypass the stigma associated with seeking help.


Ireti Bakare-Yusuf was invited by a student organization in Lagos, Nigeria, to deliver a keynote speech as part of their conference on 21st century leadership. She knew immediately what she was going to speak about: “reforming the mindset of the female gender in leadership.” As a feminist and advocate for gender equality, this was a topic close to Bakare-Yusuf’s heart.

“As I was preparing, I received a voice recording of a professor offering to upgrade the results of one of his students to grade B, in exchange for five rounds of sex,” she recalls.

In an attempt to reinforce his power, the professor explained to his student how “kind” he was being by selecting her, he added that many other young girls would be privileged to be in her shoes.

This, according to Bakare-Yusuf, is part of the endemic practice of sexual abuse within Nigeria’s educational institutions.

According to Bakare-Yusuf, the principal partner of NottingHill Management and Media, the results of these depraved practices lead to long-term mental illness for many youths who continue to suffer in silence due to their fear of stigmatization. She is also the founder of the #Nomore web app, a technology-driven solution that will put power back in the hands of survivors of sexual violation in Nigeria.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), good mental health is a state of well being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential; can cope with the normal stresses of life; can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his or her community. A new study by the World Bank’s Mind, Behavior and Development Unit shows 22% of Nigerians suffer from chronic depression, furthermore, the proportion of youth within this group is also increasing daily.

“The youth are faced with a unique dilemma today and this is mainly caused by social media.” 

“There are so many pressures that these young minds are exposed to, like the need to fit in and belong. They spend more time on social media sites in contrast to the time spent with actual friends. When you add to this the stress of performance in education, work and relationships, it takes a toll on the mental health of the youth,” says Raimah Amevor, creator of a new mental health and well being platform for African women, called Therapeutic – Mindfully African.

Therapeutic is on a mission to help African women think seriously about their mental health, embrace their truth and live purposefully.  The platform brings together qualified mental health professionals from across the globe to provide weekly advice and recommendations.In addition, Therapeutic also has a weekly confessional blog series called Therapy Thursdays that follows a young black woman into her experience of therapy.

“There has to be a digital detox. Addiction to electronic devices such as mobiles, tablets, iPads has resulted in the creation of a virtual reality world for the youth. There has to be a balance of time spent off these devices to help them reconnect with the real world and remove the dependency on these gadgets,” says Amevor.

The blog also focuses on sparking the conversation about well being issues that affect us all, but are seldom discussed. In Ghana, besides the lack of understanding, there is stigma attached to mental illness,coupled with limited supply of trained professionals to treat people suffering from it.

The WHO estimates that about 650,000 people living in Ghana suffer from severe mental disorders, with a further 2.1 million people suffering from moderate to mild mental disorders.

“People are more comfortable reaching out if there are emotional distress-related issues; if it’s about mental illness, the stigma stops people from opening up and seeking help,” says Maame Adjei, a producer working on a documentary exploring the stigma of mental health in Ghana.

Her goal is to shed light on the seriousness of mental illnesses and help people acknowledge the need for help.

“The breakout point for the documentary is my own family. Three of my mother’s five siblings battled mental health disease. One died at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital (in Ghana).

“I want to use that along with my own need to understand my family history and my own foray into seeing a therapist to examine how we deal with mental health disease,” she says.

Usually, those suffering from mental illness prefer to remain anonymous while seeking help. Technology provides a medium to do just that.

“Young women who have suffered sexual abuse live with the mental scars of the ordeal. Sometimes without the right help they become damaged by the experience and are unable to live fulfilled lives. We created the app to empower them to take action against their abusers so they can begin their fight to reclaim what was stolen from them,” says Bakare-Yusuf.

Survivors of sexual abuse will be able to report, document and store evidence of their experience in a time-stamped, secure and encrypted file so that it is available for them to use when they are ready to take legal action. The app will also contain information about support groups, NGOs,specialist hospitals, legal advisors, therapists or psychologists for survivors.

“The app is especially unique because users are encouraged to name their perpetrator. Thus, the built-in capability is able to identify repeat offenders, which will not only empower users with the power for class action, but also help prosecutors to find witnesses and build a stronger case to ensure conviction,” says Bakare-Yusuf.

Mental health, unlike physical discomfort, is tougher to tackle, but experts feel technology and communication can bring about a positive change.

“It is our goal to increase awareness for those struggling with mental issues, which would help us fight the stigma and then offer people products and services that empower them,” says Bakare-Yusuf.

The effects of poor mental health are far-reaching, and if not taken care of, have the potential to seep into other aspects of our lives and manifest in destructive ways. The roots of unresolved psychological issues could affect your physical health, result in social isolation, and lead to a decline in productivity.

Hopefully, technology will continue to provide more ways and means to understand the human mind better, with help coming from the most unusual quarters – from the mobile phone in your back-pocket to the app in the palm of your hand.

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