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

5 Ways Tech Can Revolutionize Education

Published

on

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


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

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

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

READ MORE | OPINION | Technology Is Useful, But Drones Alone Won’t Save Africa’s Elephants

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

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

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

READ MORE |4 Ways To Develop Employment-Ready Graduates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ MORE |Is This Technology the Answer to World Hunger?

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Technology

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

Published

on

By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Parmy Olson;Forbes Staff

Continue Reading

Technology

BMW And Daimler Pool Resources On Automated Driving Technology

Published

on

By

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


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

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

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

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

READ MORE | Tesla CFO Leaves as Automaker Promises Profits and Cheaper Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ MORE | Is Automation All Doom And Gloom?

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

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

-Edward Taylor

Continue Reading

Trending