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The Fight of a Bot Named Madiba

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For one of the biggest robotics competitions on earth, a team of Generation Z-ers from South Africa made their way to Mexico accompanied by a robot with the fists and fury to fight.

You have heard of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks.

But these are the Springbots, the team of Generation Z-ers that represented the country at the Olympics of robotics, in Mexico in August, and came home placed sixth, also winning a gold medal from Walt Disney for their creativity and inspiring story.

We meet them a month before their trip, as they prepare for the battle, armed with their weapons – an iPad and a controller – and a robot no more than a meter tall made up of aluminium, wires, motors and gears.

In anticipation of the FIRST Global Challenge (FGC) 2018, one of the biggest bot fights on earth, 18-year-old Mikhaeel Reddy demonstrates how with the press of a button, he is able to get the robot to lift and drop things.

Also 18, Barbara Moagi, another team member, connects and programs the robot via an app.

Reddy and Moagi are part of a group of four including Tshenollo Mokwana and Masana Mashapa, and say they are the only team from South Africa at FGC this year, competing with 175 other teams from across the world and with students aged 14 to 18.

The robot they have built features an image of former South African president Nelson Mandela raising his fist in triumph (as he famously did on the day of his release from prison). It’s the team’s tribute to the late leader on his centenary year.

READ MORE: The Tech Disruptor On The Move

“We have decided to call this robot Madiba,” say Reddy and Moagi to FORBES AFRICA, a name they decide on in the midst of the interview.

With jolts and jerks, and in rotating motions, Madiba, the robot, deftly moves around. Reddy works some magic on his pedals, and in an instant, Madiba grows to two meters tall.

“We don’t know if we can build a better world for our kids but we can build better kids for the future,” says Jason English, the CEO of CG Holdings and the team’s sponsor.

Madiba is only a small step in the quest for greater victories.

From left: Jason English, Roxanne Reddy, Mikhaeel Reddy, Wernich Van Staden, Barbara Moagi. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla

The Springbots are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) enthusiasts hoping to be the next generation of scientific leaders working together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems such as food security, energy shortage and access to clean water.

With the FGC’s theme this year being energy impact, the robots assist to fuel power plants, initiate renewable energy plants, and build a resilient transmission network.

“It’s like playing Lego, just a little bit more difficult,” says the team’s mentor Wernich Van Staden.

“A lot of children don’t have the means to say ‘I went to school that enabled me to do this’.”

The skills equip the students to be able to assemble solar panels and hydroponic systems that water crops.

“The robot’s key focus is to be able to pick up energy cubes to deposit into combustion plants, solar panels, and be able turn the wind turbine within the game-playing field,” says team captain Reddy.

The Springbots are participating at FCG for the second time. Last year, they came 77th out of the 175 teams that participated in Washington in the United States (US). They lost their final match to Poland.

“The purpose is not to win, the purpose is to build alliances with people and network…and create a positive impact in the world,” says Reddy, who wants to become an engineer.

He says the networking skills have also helped him understand the world better.

Some of the other African teams that participated this year were Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, Gambia and Ghana.

Ghana had an all-girls team. Last year, the FGC made headlines when Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team were denied visas to participate in the competition. It took an intervention from President Donald Trump’s administration to grant them admission to the US.

For the Springbots, one of the biggest challenges was receiving sponsorship.

The four students are from public schools, therefore acquiring funding was not easy.

“Corporates are not willing to sponsor robotics because they are not aware of what it is. It is something new so they are afraid of it,” the team’s manager Roxanne Reddy says.

At the moment, robotics is not part of the curriculum in South African schools, but the team hope their efforts will be a step in the right direction to influence policy-makers to include it as a subject to prepare the youth for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“It’s not just about robots, it’s also about the coding, and programming of these robots,” says English.

The happy outcome has been the launch since last year of a robotics club in their school and they have already received over 200 applications. The team are now back and Madiba has returned too with more insights on changing the world.

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How Virtual Therapy Apps Are Trying To Disrupt The Mental Health Industry

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Millions of Americans deal with mental illness each year, and more than half of them go untreated. As the mental health industry has grown in recent years, so has the number of tech startups offering virtual therapy, which range from online and app-based chatbots to video therapy sessions and messaging. 

Still a nascent industry, with most startups in the early seed-stage funding round, these companies say they aim to increase access to qualified mental health care providers and reduce the social stigma that comes with seeking help. 

While the efficacy of virtual therapy, compared with traditional in-person therapy, is still being hotly debated, its popularity is undeniable. Its most recognizable pioneers, BetterHelp and TalkSpace, have enrolled nearly 700,000 and more than 1 million users respectively. And investors are taking notice.

Funding for mental health tech startups has boomed in the past few years, jumping from roughly $100 million in 2014 to more than $500 million in 2018, according to Pitchbook. In May of this year, the subscription-based online therapy platform Talkspace raised an additional $50 million, bringing its total funding to just under $110 million since its 2012 inception.

The ubiquity of smartphones, coupled with the lessening of the stigma associated with mental health treatment have played a large role in the growing demand for virtual therapy. Of the various services offered on the Talkspace platform, “clients by far want asynchronous text messaging,” says Neil Leibowitz, the company’s chief medical officer.

Users seem to prefer back-and-forth messaging that isn’t restricted to a narrow window of time over face-to-face interactions. At BetterHelp, founder Alon Matas notes that older users are more likely to go for phone and video therapy sessions, whereas younger users favor text messaging.

“Each generation is getting progressively more mobile-native,” says John Prendergass, an associate director at Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ healthcare investment group, “so I think we’re going to see people become increasingly more accustomed, or predisposed, to a higher level of comfort in seeking care online.”

The ease and convenience of virtual therapy is another draw, particularly for busy people or those who live in rural areas with limited access to therapy and a range of care options.

Alison Darcy, founder and CEO of Woebot, a free automated chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to provide therapeutic services without the direct involvement of humans, says that with Woebot and other similar services, there is no need to schedule appointments weeks in advance and users can receive real-time coaching at the moment they need it, unlike traditional therapy. The sense of anonymity online can also lead to more openness and transparency and attracts people who normally wouldn’t seek therapy.

Along with stigma, the cost of therapy has historically acted as a barrier to accessing quality mental-health care. Health insurance is often unlikely to cover therapy sessions. In most cities, sessions run about $75 to $150 each, and can go as high as $200 or more in places like New York City. Web therapists don’t have to bear the expense of brick-and-mortar offices, filing paperwork or marketing their services, and these savings can be passed on to clients. 

BetterHelp offers a $200-a-month membership that includes weekly live sessions with a therapist and unlimited messaging in between, while Talkspace’s cheapest monthly subscription at $260-a-month, offers unlimited text, video and audio messaging.

But virtual therapy, particularly text-based therapy, is not suitable for everyone. Nor is it likely to make traditional therapy obsolete. “Online therapy isn’t good for people who have severe mental and relational health issues, or any kind of psychosis, deep depression or violence,” says Christiana Awosan, a licensed marriage and family therapist. 

At her New York and New Jersey offices, she works predominantly with black clients, a population that she says prefers face-to-face meetings. “This community is wary of mental health in general because of structural discrimination,” Awosan says. “They pay attention to nonverbal cues and so they need to first build trust in-person.”  

Virtual therapy apps can still be beneficial for people with low-level anxiety, stress or insomnia, and they can also help users become aware of harmful behaviors and obtain a higher sense of well-being. 

Sean Luo, a psychiatrist whose consultancy work focuses on machine learning techniques in mental health technology, says: “This why some of these companies are getting very high valuations. There are a lot of commercialization possibilities.” He adds that from a mental health treatment perspective, a virtual therapy app “isn’t going to solve your problems, because people who are truly ill will by definition require a lot more.”

Relying on digital therapy platforms might also provide a false sense of security for users who actually need more serious mental-health care, and many of these apps are ill-equipped to deal with emergencies like suicide, drug overdoses or the medical consequences of psychiatric illness. “The level of intervention simply isn’t strong enough,” says Luo, “and so these aspects still need to be evaluated by a trained professional.

Ruth Umoh, Diversity and Inclusion Writer, Forbes Staff.

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AI 50 Founders Say This Is What People Get Wrong About Artificial Intelligence

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Forbes’ new list of promising artificial intelligence companies highlights how the technology is creating real value across industries like transportation, healthcare, HR, insurance and finance.

Naturally, the founders of the honoree companies are excited about the technology’s benefits and, in their roles, spend a lot of time thinking and talking about its strengths and limitations. Here’s what they think people get wrong about artificial intelligence.

Affectiva CEO Rana el Kaliouby says she’s too often encountered the idea that AI is “evil.”

“AI—like any technology in history—is neutral,” she says. “It’s what we do with it that counts, so it’s our responsibility, as an AI ecosystem, to drive it in the right direction.” 

Companies need to be aware of how AI could widen bounds of inequality, she adds: “Any AI that is designed to interact with humans—Affectiva’s included—must be evaluated with regards to the ethical and privacy implications of these technologies.”

Sarjoun Skaff, CTO and cofounder of Bossa Nova Robotics, says that the biggest misconception he encounters is that artificial intelligence is actually, well, intelligent. 

“The truth is much more mundane,” he says. “AI is a very good pattern-matching tool. To make it work well, though, scientists need to understand the details of how it internally works and not treat it as an ‘intelligent’ black box. At the end of the day, making good use of great pattern matching still belongs to humans.”

Similarly, Aira cofounder Suman Kanuganti says that the public has “over-inflated expectations” for artificial intelligence.

“Garry Kasparov sums it up nicely: ‘We are in the beginning of MS-DOS and people think we are Windows 10,’” Kanuganti says. “AI realistically is still like a 3-year-old child at this stage. When it works, it feels magical. It does some things well, but there’s still a long way to go.”

So, no, we are nowhere close to “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI, where machines are actually as smart as humans.

“We’re still a long way from AI having the general intelligence of even a flea,” says David Gausebeck.

Despite the tendency to overestimate what artificial intelligence can do, the difficulty of building an effective system is often underestimated, some founders say.

“The systems you need to implement and manage machine learning in production are often much more complex than the algorithms themselves,” says Algorithmia CEO Diego Oppenheimer. “You can’t throw models at a complex business problem and expect returned value. You need to build an ecosystem to manage those models and connect their intelligence to your applications.” 

Put another way, you can’t just “sprinkle on some artificial intelligence like a magic sauce,” says Feedzai CEO Nuno Sebastiao.

One of the most common tropes that a handful of founders brought up was the idea that artificial intelligence is primarily a job killer.

People.ai founder Oleg Rogynskyy says that AI should be seen as a creator of new opportunities instead of a destroyer of jobs.

“In a nutshell, AI does two things: It automates repetitive low-value-add work for humans (which will indeed take low-complexity jobs away), which we think of as ‘Autopilot,’  and it guides people on how to do their work or other activities better (which makes humans more effective at what they do), which we call ‘Copilot,’” he says. “While Autopilot can take simple, repetitive and boring jobs away, Copilot is absolutely the best way to guide, train and educate humans on how to do new things.”

– By Jillian D’Onfro, Forbes

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‘AI Is A Powerful Tool’

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Research forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans. Murat Sonmez, member of the managing board, and Head of the Centre for the WEF Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, expands on the role humans might play.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is at the center of the current economic frontier. In reality, is Africa prepared for such changes?

Moving quickly and being agile are key principles of success in the 4IR. Any country can succeed if they take on this mindset. A few years ago, Rwanda saw the opportunities drones, a 4IR technology, brought to their country.

They helped save over 800 lives by delivering blood to remote villages. To scale this, the government worked with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) drones’ team to create the world’s first agile airspace regulation. Now, we see countries in Africa and around the world looking to the Rwandan model.

READ MORE | 5 Ways Tech Can Revolutionize Education

What feasible solutions can  artificial intelligence (AI) offer in terms of forecasting natural disasters, droughts food security on the African continent?

AI can help predict diseases, increase agriculture yields and help first responders. It is a powerful tool for governments and businesses, but it needs a lot of data to be effective.

For AI to be all that it can be, countries and companies need to work together to build frameworks for better management and protection of our data and ensure that it is shared and not stored in silos. Data is the oxygen of the (4IR). If countries do not leverage data and have their policies in place, they will be left behind.

There is a growing concern that the 4IR will strip people of jobs, of which there is already a shortage. How true is this?

The world is going through a workplace revolution that will bring a seismic shift in the way humans work alongside machines and algorithms.

Latest research from the WEF forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans, compared to 71% being performed by humans today.

READ MORE | Roadmap For African Startups

The rapid evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles in place of 75 million that will be displaced between now and 2022.

Consumers have real concerns around the potential harm technology can cause in areas such as privacy, misinformation, surveillance, job loss, environmental damage and increased inequality. What ethical precautions are being considered in the robotics space?

Now more than ever, it is important to incorporate ethics into the design, deployment and use of emerging technology. Innovating in the 4IR requires addressing concerns around privacy and data ownership, while attracting the skills and forward-looking thinkers of the future.

There are big challenges and bigger opportunities ahead. We have seen many companies and countries create ethical and human rights-based frameworks. What’s important is they are co-designed with members of both communities along with academia, civil society and start-ups.

A multi-stakeholder approach will result in a more holistic set of guidelines and principles that can be adopted in many different industries and geographies.

READ MORE | It’s Time For Africa’s Gazelles To Shine

What changes need to take place for the African continent to be on par with global developments, and are there tangible goals set?

The 4IR provides governments the opportunity to be global leaders in shaping the next 20 to 30 years of science and technology. It is important they create an environment where companies can innovate.

The other tenet is to be open to working across borders and learning from each other. The global health industry has access to mountains of data on rare diseases, but it is trapped within countries and sometimes even within the hospital walls.

If we can build trust and find innovative ways to share the data while protecting privacy, we can employ tools like AI to help us cure disease faster. Countries and companies need to have the right governance frameworks and mechanisms in place for these breakthroughs to happen. It is possible to do these things now, but we need to work together to make it happen.

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