Connect with us

Technology

Is This Technology the Answer to World Hunger?

Published

on

Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and has the potential to become an agricultural hub by applying agri-tech and futurist thinking. Lessons from a Canadian food economy.


“Our food system is broken.” And Africa is no exception.“Just consider that 30 percent of all food produced doesn’t make it to the plate. Much of it ends up in landfills where it creates methane, a greenhouse gas.”

These were the words by Barbara Swartzentruber, the Executive Director of Strategy, Innovation and Intergovernmental Relations at the City of Guelph, west of downtown Toronto in Canada, to a range of journalists in a bid to encourage foreign direct investment for the city’s visionary smart city plan.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes)”.

To address these challenges, the entire design and food production system needs to be rethought and reimagined.

Thought needs to be given to what we put on our plates, to how we produce it and to how we dispose of it etc., reckons Swartzentruber.

Failure to do so will have dire consequences for the nine billion people expected to live on this planet by 2050, she adds. In response, Guelph-Wellington, the city in Canada I am visiting, which has a long history of agricultural excellence, is re-imagining its food system.

Many of the discoveries and solutions it is applying could be adopted and repurposed in Africa, which has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and the potential to become a burgeoning agricultural hub of the future.

Circular food economies

Guelph-Wellington has started work to be among the world’s first circular food economies by 2025. Its ambitious plan will see a system where everyone has access to nutritious food, nothing is wasted and the impact on its own environment is minimal, reveals Swartzentruber.

It is proposing a 50x50x50 model, in which access to affordable, nutritious food is increased by 50%, 50 new circular businesses and collaboration opportunities are created and economic revenues are increased by 50% by reducing and recognizing food waste,she adds.

To achieve this, food experts, academics, social innovators, farmers, community partners and entrepreneurs will collaborate to tackle Guelph-Wellington’s most complex food challenges using big data and the latest technologies.

Biomaterials

One of these academics is Professor Amar Mohanty, Director of the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC) and Premier’s Research Chair in Biomaterials & Transportation at the University of Guelph. Mohanty, who comes from India, is working with plant biologists,chemists and engineers to reuse waste, investigate and commercialize biomaterial. His passion stems from a desire to save the environment, the ebullient scientist tells FORBES AFRICA.

His zeal to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases, which he calls ‘slow poison’, is already bearing fruit.

Together with Toronto-based coffee roaster Club Coffee, the BDDC created the world’s first fully-compostable coffee pods, which became available in Canada in 2016.

To address the scourge plastic straws are having on rivers and oceans, Mohanty says his department is currently testing a 100% compostable straw made with biodegradable plastics.

The BDDC is also working with the likes of Volkswagen, Ford and Tesla to turn plant materials such as wheat, soy and corn into alternatives to petroleum-based sources for car parts. In December, together with one of the car manufacturers, it is launching these products.

Controlled environment systems

A few blocks away on the same campus, Professor Mike Dixon of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) and his team are hard at work creating controlled environment plant production.

The technology will be used to feed people living in harsh environments, astronauts traveling to Mars, to growing plants on the moon, to improving the medicinal components of plants such as cannabis, to developing new cancer therapies, says Dixon.


Mike Dixon of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility. Picture: Supplied

With confidence, Dixon reckons, provided he gets funding,that he will send the first plants to the moon in 2019. True to his Scottish blood and love for single malt whiskey, the plants will be barley.

The laboratory where Dixon and his team of researchers work uses new attributes of light-emitting diode (LED) lights to promote production of various plant commodities. For example, says Dixon, “researchers have learned that exposing lettuce to different LED light changes metabolic compounds that influence the color and taste of lettuce and even the medicinal properties of other plants”.

DNA barcoding

Professor Paul Hebert from the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph was the first scientist to propose that a short DNA sequence be used to identify species. According to the university, he called the system ‘DNA barcoding’, analogous to how retail products are tagged to allow for quick identification.

“With DNA barcoding, scientists may identify species within hours – and, ultimately, minutes – using all life stages and even fragments of organisms.”

The technology can also be used to eliminate food fraud and ensure that you get what you order and pay for at shops and restaurants.

On its journey to becoming the food basket of the world, Africa has a treasure trove of new ideas to use. The future is in her hands.  

Technology

3D Printing: From Spaceship Engines To Personalized Orthotics

mm

Published

on

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 

Continue Reading

Technology

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

Published

on

By

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

Continue Reading

Technology

Apps To Cure The Mind

mm

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Trending