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How Liquefied Natural Gas Could Change South Africa’s Fortunes

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The development of liquefied natural gas (LNG) could help transform the South African economy, spur re-industrialisation, reduce the country’s over-reliance on coal-fired power stations, and contribute to increased regional trade.

South Africa has in recent years run into electricity shortages, forcing the country’s utility to burn expensive diesel to keep the lights on. A major polluter, the country also relies on coal to generate almost 90% of electricity.

On top of this, South Africa has lost its manufacturing competitive edge, which was built on relatively cheap electricity and behind protective trade walls. Electricity prices have increased substantially over the past decade to pay for the power utility Eskom’s two new coal-fired power stations.

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Liquefied natural gas could change South Africa’s fortunes. And government recognises this. Policy developments in recent years have factored in an increasingly greater role for liquefied natural gas in the country’s energy mix and the overall economy, both as a clean alternative energy source and as a spur to industrial development.

The southern African region, specifically Mozambique which already has a pipeline to South Africa, could be the major supplier of gas to South Africa.

In my recent research I argue that to develop a liquefied natural gas sector South Africa could re-purpose existing institutions, namely those relating to the country’s established liquid fuels industry.

The research traced the evolution of gas developments in the country from 1998 to 2018. It found a close interaction between the electric and the liquid fuels sectors. At present gas contributes about 3% to the country’s primary energy mix, but there are indications that it will feature more prominently over the next decade.

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There are number of reasons for pursuing gas. They include:

  • energy diversification and security to reduce the country’s dependence on coal for electricity;
  • reduction of Green House Gas emissions;
  • provision of flexibility to the introduction of renewable generation into the electricity grid; and
  • facilitating the development of provincial industrial hubs and regional trade within the Southern African Development Community.

Three phases of gas development

South Africa’s history with gas can be delineated into three periods. Firstly, from 1998-2005, South Africa significantly reformed its energy sector. This included the 1998 white paper on energy, which recognised natural gas as an option to diversify the country’s energy mix. In 2001 the Gas Act was implemented, facilitating the development of gas infrastructure in the country through pipelines and the regulatory framework.

Significantly, in 2004, a pipeline between Mozambique and South Africa began pumping gas. Sasol, a dominant player in the country’s liquid fuels industry, was behind the 865 km gas pipeline. While the majority of gas transported through the pipeline goes to Sasol, the pipeline has nonetheless created demand to around 370 industrial and commercial customers via 530 off-take points.

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The second phase covers 2006 – 2012. This is when gas started to feature more strongly in South Africa’s energy policy. A few turning points occurred. One was the substantial shale gas potential reported by the United States energy information agency. This encouraged policy makers to include gas into the energy mix. Second, natural gas discoveries in Mozambique and Tanzania raised the potential for regional trade.

Thirdly, South Africa experienced an electricity crisis, culminating in blackouts in 2008. In response, the state power utility Eskom turned to the costly diesel Open Cycle Gas Turbines. But this was hugely expensive and Eskom burnt through its operating budgets to ensure a steady supply of electricity.

Global trends: the main driver

During the third phase, from 2013 to 2018, gas development started to gain momentum driven by major global trends. These include the trend toward liquefaction of gas which enabled transportation of gas to places where pipelines weren’t possible.

Secondly, gas prices began changing from long-term to short-term contracts. This opened up the trading of gas to a competitive, spot market. As a result, new buyers have been attracted into the sector.

Thus, by 2015, the Department of Energy had announced the Gas Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (Gas I4P) with a procurement of 3.7 GW electricity generation.

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By August 2018 the country’s draft integrated resources plan had gas playing a significant role in future electricity generation. The indications were that gas would contribute as much as 15% of the installed capacity mix by 2030. This seems to suggest that energy policy makers believe gas to power has the necessary fit, form and compatibility with the electricity system.

Another factor that’s driven interest in gas is the belief that it could be the country’s next commodity resource, as the country’s mining future is in decline. Some actors in the oil and gas community are pushing for the country’s mining skills to be used in the gas sector. This is informed by the view that the exploration and drilling skills used in the gas fields are similar to those used in mining.

The future

South Africa’s existing institutional infrastructure can be used to develop the liquefied natural gas industry. That won’t be an easy task. There are major efforts required to amend the Gas Act, the Ports Act, Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, and the Electricity Regulations Act, in order to accommodate the LNG initiative.

Gas can also play an important role in the restructuring of the electricity system. As there are trend towards transactive energy, where utilities moves towards customer centric demand, in that grids become less passive and deterministic, and more active and stochastic. Here gas could play a crucial role, as it has features which are flexible and modular enabling a decentralised system. Lastly, there are opportunities for gas as potential feed-stock in industrial processes, which requires strategic reassessment of existing industries.

-Marie Blanche Ting; Doctoral researcher, University of Sussex

-The Conversation

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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