Start main page content

Africa app'tly rising

- Deborah Minors

There are over 300 tech hubs in Africa and maybe 52 or more in South Africa, one of which is the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein.

Here South Africa’s digerati develop radical tech to advance the continent.

Tshimologong incorporates the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) and the Learning Information Networking Knowledge (LINK) Centre, an academic research and training body that focuses on digital innovation, digital transformation, and information and communications technology (ICT) policy and regulation.

Techknowledgy factory 

A partnership between Wits University, the JCSE, the LINK Centre, the City of Joburg and others, Tshimologong is an e-skills, software innovation and digital knowledge hub.  It provides a venue in which it is possible to research and nurture tech hubs – those “digital incubators that design futures for people”.

“In this way, tech hubs perfectly demonstrate the integration of tech and people. They are the veritable iHuman,” says Dr Lucienne Abrahams, Director and Senior Lecturer at LINK and Corresponding Editor of The African Journal of Information and Communications, LINK’s peer-reviewed journal.

“The people who inhabit Tshimologong are tech developers and tech entrepreneurs. The precinct offers facilities and training in coding and app design, mentorship, facilitating tech start-ups, a tech accelerator programme, and postgraduate degree programmes,” she says.

Game on!

Abrahams conducts research on institutions and economic sectors in the digital knowledge economy. Her doctorate explored the positioning of universities in the 21st Century knowledge economy. Her thesis describes the evolution of Tshimologong and its research and development mission as:

“A quantum innovation game, with multiple players playing multiple games of significant levels of difficulty at the same time, in ways that constantly interweave with each other. The probability of losing … appears to be low, but the win occurs over the very long term. The probability of winning the objective over a quantum set of games appears to be high.”

Neo Hutiri, a tech entrepreneur with a Master’s in industrial engineering from Wits, knows this game well. Hutiri won the 2016 #Hack.Jozi Challenge, an annual competition that Tshimologong hosts to find digital solutions to challenges faced by Joburg citizens. Hutiri’s Technovera innovation enables people with chronic conditions to collect their repeat medication quickly and efficiently.

"Africa has really interesting challenges and this makes it fertile for impactful social entrepreneurship. In my case, I was a patient who realised people lose time when collecting medication. My passion for the impact of technology keeps me hungry for innovation. An unmet need is the holy grail that entrepreneurs chase. It is that resolute belief in a problem that gets me out of bed every day – even when things are not going so well and the bank account is close to empty,” says Hutiri.

Disruption through innovation

Another player is Lehlonolo Ramongalo, MD of Figtory, a tech start-up incubated in Tshimologong. Figtory designs and builds intuitive business applications and business models that solve specific problems using creative approaches. 

“Johannesburg and Africa are problem-ridden, providing an environment where problem-solvers can create value for themselves and their clients,” says Ramongalo, who describes his entrepreneurial experience in Johannesburg as “a painful and rewarding process”.

Figtory’s business philosophy is disruption through innovation. “We do this through a process of empathy where we become the user or client. Through empathy we understand user pains and can start a process of taking the pain away,” he says.

Such an analgesic is Figtory’s innovation in agriculture. eGooma is a facilities management solution that enables any real estate asset type – an orchard of crops on a farm or a building – to be able to see, learn, measure different variables, and help its custodians make decisions using the web, mobile, cognitive computing and smart sensory technologies.

“One problem we are trying to address at scale with eGooma is to have real-time reporting of the amount of water and energy real estate asset types are using at runtime so that inefficiencies are identified quickly at the point of waste,” says Ramongalo.

Crafters, hackers, tinkerers and makerspaces

Aside from incubating start-ups, Tshimologong is a makerspace. This refers to an environment where ‘makers’, including crafters, hackers and tinkerers, congregate to innovate.

Makers are “digitally sophisticated hobbyists…building all kinds of custom objects” according to a paper by Dr Chris Armstrong, who has a PhD in media studies from Wits and is a Visiting Fellow at LINK.

His paper, The Maker Movement in Gauteng Province, South Africa, co-published for Open African Innovation Research (a collaborative research network of 15 African countries and Canada) argues that:

“Makers who gather to tinker and hack in the maker collectives of SA display a wide range of innovation practices. Our study revealed innovation modes in tinkering, hacking, DIY and organic innovation; innovation from poverty/necessity; process, incremental, and repurposing innovation. We found that the default position among Gauteng makers who gather to tinker and hack in the maker collectives of SA display a wide range of innovation practices.”

The rub of the tech hub

Tshimologong clearly now hosts a makerspace for crafters, hackers, and tinkerers while it simultaneously incubates innovation and continually investigates: ‘What’s next?’ But it wasn’t always so. This is Tshimologong today, but its evolution from a training centre in 2004 to an integrated research and development entity over a decade later proved as stimulating, yet as confounding, as tech itself. Those involved frequently locked horns as institutional agendas and resource priorities collided. 

“The evolution of the vision of the JCSE, which was set up to promote the growth and development of the local software engineering sector, to the Tshimologong Precinct, has been an incredible journey. We have seen a great deal of success over the past 12 years, and are now working to increase the size of the impact that we will make,” says Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE and founder of the Tshimologong Precinct.

Research entanglement

In her PhD, Abrahams advances the theory of research entanglement. This is a metaphor for how researchers at universities engage in research activeness and transition towards research intensiveness, and how this transition influences the position of the University in an emerging knowledge economy.

“The theory of positioning universities for research activeness and research intensiveness is a theory that gives substance to the broad notions of complexity and adversity in building university research,” says Abrahams, who argued that such adversity may have briefly inhibited those pushing for a new research direction in the digital knowledge sphere, now taking shape in the form of Tshimologong. However, research actors tend to push through these challenges as they are driven by “the attraction of complexity and adversity”.

Abrahams suggests that there needs to be a balance between research activeness and research intensiveness so that research endeavour is sustained and research volume and quality increases. However, the absence or discouragement of research entanglement at universities limit the opportunities for moving from research activeness to intensiveness. 

“Positioning universities for research activeness or research intensiveness requires active research entanglement of the actors and institutions in the games of adversity that are played out with respect to access to and competition for research resources; to contestation over research-oriented values; and to the possible trade-offs among academic, social or economic value created as outcomes of research,” says Abrahams.

Hutiri is a case in point: 

“Academia trained me to think critically about solving problems whilst my technical background helped me turn ideas into product. I continuously apply lessons from concepts I was exposed to at university. Your academic career is sometimes used to measure your ability to start and complete something. The networks one builds at University become so important when you start your business. These relationships open doors,” he says.

Africa rising?

Ramongalo offers a caveat:  “Africa is rising because there are so many problems to solve. There have been interesting developments out of Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria but limited impact in my view. If African tech companies do not rise and engage problems head on, we will have companies from other parts of the world coming here to solve the problems.”

Having incubated start-ups like Technovera and Figtory, Tshimologong is poised to research and nurture tech innovation that enhances and advances Africa – and Wits University – in the 21st Century digital knowledge economy.

Read more about digital innovation and the interface between humanity and tech in Wits' new research magazine, CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.

Interpreting brainwaves to give amputees a hand

- Deborah Minors

Biomedical engineers at Wits are researching how brainwaves can be used to control a robotic prosthetic hand.

Such a brain computer interface (BCI) will enable amputees and people with motor impairments to regain some hand mobility.

BCIs can use electroencephalograms (EEGs - brainwaves - to interpret human intentions from electrical signals in the brain and use these to control an external device such as a prosthetic hand, computer, or speech synthesizer.

The prosthetic robotic hand relies on EEGs extracted via electrodes on the skull, or electromyography (EMG) obtained from electrodes recording muscle signals, for information. A BCI will interpret these signals and translate them to instruct the movements of the artificial hand.

“I envisage a BCI capable of controlling a robotic prosthetic hand that will enable people with motor disabilities to write, hold a glass or shake hands,” says Abdul-Khaaliq Mohamed, Lecturer and PhD candidate in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits.

Mohamed coordinates a research group of six students studying different aspects of potentially controlling a robotic hand. Most BCI experiments to date have centered on basic hand movements such as finger taps, button presses or simple finger grasps.

Mohamed’s research group focuses uniquely on a combination of hand movements including wrist extension, wrist flexion, finger flexion, finger extension and the tripod pinch.

“In South Africa, stroke victims may benefit significantly from this technology,” says Mohamed. “Stroke afflicts an estimated 132 000 South Africans per year.”

Currently, a prosthetic hand costs around US$100 000 (about R1,35 million), an investment out of reach for most South Africans.

Thumbs-up for this research that will use 3D-printing to create a prosthetic hand for US$78 (R1 053), thereby increasing access to healthcare for many.

Talking tech and African languages

- Buhle Zuma

Is tech killing indigenous African languages? Prof. Leketi Makalela, head of Languages, Literacies and Literatures in the Wits School of Education talks back.

Discussions on the status of African languages portray a dim view. For centuries, African languages have been under threat as one conqueror after another has imposed their preferred language on various nations on the continent. Subsequently, African languages have low status in our institutions and continue to be marginalised in all spheres of power, including government quarters.

In South Africa, English continues as the lingua franca, despite government policies that protect and promote vernacular languages.

There have been warnings about the death of these languages. However, indigenous languages are far from extinct says Professor Leketi Makalela, Head of Languages, Literacies and Literatures in the Wits School of Education.

Professor Leketi Makalela

“Where government has failed, technology is bringing hope to the people,” says Makalela. “African languages were probably going to die, were it not for technology, social media and popular culture. Technology is going to take African languages forward and these languages are going to evolve to fit into the digital age and any future world shift.”

Ironically, this change is one of the major criticisms levelled against technology, and especially social media, where variations of spelling abound, and where the platforms are also implicated for contributing to the decline in literacy and writing standards.

“People are concerned about change and this has been an ongoing major debate in human language development. The great divide is about whether the change results in decay or progress. A conservative will say it is decay because there is nostalgia for the past and everything is being disorganised by modernity. This has to do with aging as well – the older you are, the more you want to keep things the same,” says Makalela, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Journal and Chairperson of Umalusi Council’s Qualifications Standards Committee.

To put things into perspective, Makalela says the primary question that needs to be asked in such debates is: “What is the purpose of language?”

“We need to question what language is and why we have language as human beings before we look at the structure (syntax and spelling). People obsess about the aesthetics of the language and yet language is here for meaning-making. The ‘net speak’ and contraction of words are a natural evolution of language and a reflection of the time. The structure of language keeps changing because people are changing.”

One of the significant, laudable changes brought about by social media is that they break down linguistic barriers. Makalela believes we should celebrate that communication technology is contributing to the decolonisation of languages.

“The Balkanisation of African states in 1884 in Berlin was attached to the languages. The Bantustan policy of apartheid architect H.F. Verwoerd was based on supposed linguistic differences,” says Makalela. “African languages were separated intentionally, not because they were or are different, but because the strategy was to divide and conquer. Technology has now made it easy for linguistic groups to realise how similar they are than they were previously told.”

Communities such as #BlackTwitter, mother-tongue appreciation groups on Facebook and blogs where young creatives share works in their languages and culture are defying institutions and moving languages into the 21st Century. Local television programmes are also playing their part in promoting multilingualism with many creative works moving between three and more languages, recreating and reinforcing the South African linguistic reality.

“We cannot talk about economic development and social cohesion without taking into account the issues of language because languages are central to social cohesion. You can’t expect a Zulu and a Tswana person to socially cohere if there is no crossover of language,” he adds. “One of the barriers that must be removed to drive this growth is for linguistic groups to be open to the influence of non-mother tongue speakers,” explains Makalela.

Is technology killing African indigenous languages?

“There seems to be a sacredness and unwillingness to allow others to learn African languages, which often makes it closed to outsiders. If we really want our languages to flourish, we have to open the doors to non-mother tongue speakers so that there is nothing like KZN isiZulu vs Gauteng isiZulu (which is seen as weak isiZulu). In fact, it’s a time to redefine what we call standards.

English became a dominant language because it opened its doors to non-mother tongue users. The type of English used today is heavily multi-lingual with 80% of the words in the language not original English. In addition, 80% of users are not traditional mother tongue speakers. English thrives and lives on donations from other languages.”

Another area where Makalela would like to see transformation is the use of technology in the classroom to promote multilingualism. “While technology is often seen as eroding African values, accelerating moral degeneration and the loss of ubuntu, practice is suggesting that it is having an opposite effect on languages. Let us focus on creating shared meaning and understanding through opening up our languages and using technology to contribute towards fostering social cohesion in our diverse society.”

Can you read my mind?

- Deborah Minors

In research thought to be a world first, biomedical engineers at Wits are connecting a human brain to the internet in real time.

The "Brainternet" project streams brainwaves onto the internet. Essentially, it turns the brain into an Internet of Things (IoT) node on the World Wide Web. IoT refers to connecting any device with an on and off switch to the internet.

Brainternet works by converting electroencephalogram (EEG) signals (brain waves) in an open source brain live stream. A person wears a powered, mobile, internet accessible Emotiv EEG device for an extended period. During this time, the Emotiv transmits the EEG signals to a Raspberry Pi – a credit card sized little computer - live streams the signals to an application programming interface (code that allows software programmes to communicate), and displays data on a website that acts as a portal. This is currently an open website where the public can observe the individual’s brain activity.

Brainternet is the brainchild of Adam Pantanowitz, a lecturer in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering, who supervised fourth-years Jemma-Faye Chait and Danielle Winter in its development.

“Brainternet is a new frontier in brain-computer interface systems. There is a lack of easily understood data about how a human brain works and processes information. Brainternet seeks to simplify a person’s understanding of their own brain and the brains of others. It does this through continuous monitoring of brain activity as well as enabling some interactivity,” explains Pantanowitz.

Adam Pantanowitz is a lecturer in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits

“Ultimately, we’re aiming to enable interactivity between the user and their brain so that the user can provide a stimulus and see the response. Brainternet can be further improved to classify recordings through a smart phone app that will provide data for a machine-learning algorithm. In future, there could be information transferred in both directions – inputs and outputs to the brain,” says Pantanowitz.

Improving the accuracy of TB testing

- Wits University

Wits scientists have developed technology that ensures the efficacy of equipment that tests for tuberculosis (TB).

Tuberculosis (TB) affects some 35-million people globally. The introduction of technology that tests for TB using molecular diagnostics was a game changer for national TB programmes.

The technology increased access to TB testing, which then improved diagnosis and treatment and ultimately inhibited further infection. However, when the World Health Organization endorsed this molecular diagnostic test, there was no quality assurance in place for checking the accuracy of the testing instruments.

A team of scientists from Wits, led by Professor Wendy Stevens and Professor Lesley Scott in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology, in collaboration with Professor Bavesh Kana from the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research, developed the SmartSpot technology. SmartSpot guarantees the quality of the molecular diagnostic tests.

In South Africa, SmartSpot has been used on all 289 GeneXpert testing instruments in the national TB programme since 2011. Over a year, SmartSpot showed that 2.6% of the TB tests were inaccurate, and that test modules needed replacing.

In the absence of SmartSpot verification, 78 000 test results out of the three million tests performed at the time would have been inaccurate. This would have led to an incorrect diagnosis. As a result, some patients would have remained undiagnosed and either died or infected others, while others would have been subjected to unnecessary, costly drugs with unpleasant side effects.

This technology, developed at Wits in collaboration with local and international partners, impacts significantly on the healthcare of thousands of people and has been exported to more than 30 countries, with more in the pipeline.

Read more about the interface between healthcare, humanity and technology in Wits' new research magazine CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.

Using high tech to tell the story of ancient man

- Wits University

Origin Centre's new Virtual Reality experience uses state of the art communications technology to tell the story of what makes us human.

A digital rendering of the inside of the Blombos cave that can be seen in the Virtual Reality experience.

The history of where we come from and what makes us human will come alive like never before when the Origins Centre, located at Wits University, launches its new Virtual Reality production at the Tshimologong Precinct on 14 September, and at the Origins Centre on 25th September, (a public holiday).

The production, which brings together cutting-edge digital technology with stories of ancient stone age technologies of our 2,6-million-year history, tells a complete story of our development into society, by using the same visual materials that are used by scientists in the research process.

“This is the first time that VR has been used in Origins Centre at Wits, and the first production of the archaeology and palaeontology stories that are told in the Museum, using photographs, text panels, casts of human ancestral skulls and real stone tools,” says Steven Sack, Director of the Origins Centre.

The production, which was made possible through a collaboration between Sack and Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of Tshimologong, has been facilitated by the Rock Art Research Institute, the Evolutionary Sciences Institute and the South African Rock Art Digital Archive, that are all located at Wits University. The National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences has supported two young researchers, Dr Tammy Hodgkiss and Lara Mallen, to lead  the content development.

“The VR experience immerses viewers in a journey through time, from the African early hominin fossil skulls, significant changes in ancient tool use, and the innovations of the Middle Stone Age, to the captivating spirit world of southern African San rock art. You will follow in the footsteps of the researchers who are solving the mysteries of Africa’s rich past,” says Dr Tammy Hodgskiss of the Evolutionary Studies Institute, and an expert in this field of research.

The Origins VR production will be used to update the material currently on display at the Origins Centre and will assist in bringing younger voices and women researchers into the story of what we know about rock art and the early modern human ways of living.

“Tshimologong is Wits University’s exciting new digital innovation precinct in Juta Street, Braamfontein. The VR production was developed by Alt-Reality, one of the start-up companies we are incubating. It will be launched as part of the annual Fak’ugesi Festival we host in Tshimologong,” says Dwolatzky, who has personally funded part of the production.

The production involved a collaboration between VR production house AltReality and archaeologists Tammy Hodgskiss (Evolutionary Studies Institute, Wits) and Lara Mallen (Origins Centre). The music score has been created by Jill Richards, with indigenous instruments performed by Mpho Molikeng.

Barry Dwolatzky (Director of Tshimologong) and Steven Sack (Director of Origins Centre) have had lengthy discussions about how to connect the work of Tshimologong with that of the Origins Centre and Dwolatzky has donated some of the funding himself to enable this production. The National Institute of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) also contributed through a programme at the Origins Centre that they have funded, which looks for ways to diversify narratives.

The VR installation will make part of a permanent display at the Origins Centre. It will launch at the Origins Centre on 25th September 2017.                                                                                                                                                                  


Fak’ugesi launch

Date: 14 September 2016

Time: 12h30

Venue: Tshimologong Digital Innovation Hub, Braamfontein


Origins launch

Date: 25 September 2017

Time: 10:00 – 16:HOO    

Venue: Origins Centre, Wits University

(Hu)man vs. Machine

- Schalk Mouton

In a world controlled and dominated by robots, is there still space for humans?

We've all seen this movie before: Man builds machine. Machine starts to speak. Man gets into trouble. Then, the variations start: Machine starts to cry (or grin wickedly). Machine saves man. Or kills him (and returns in the sequel to kill the man again).  

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us and everyone is afraid. Computers, robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other yet-to-be invented technologies are about to change our lives.

In the near future, you may not have to drive yourself to work (because your car will do the driving, and you may not have a job anyway); your fridge will order your food (if it doesn’t already); and your car will book itself in for a service – and negotiate and approve the fee – without you even knowing about it. 

Researchers at Wits are finding more and more unique and interesting ways to employ technology and AI in the workplace and to improve people’s lives and well-being. The Wits Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems provides key support to mines undergoing mechanisation, while, in the Faculty of Health Sciences, researchers have found ways to control a robotic arm with the brain, or a wheelchair by using eye movement. They have also used the Vestibulo-Occular Reflex (an impulse our eyes use daily unbeknownst to us that fixates our vision while we move our head) to control the mouse cursor on a computer game.

In this increasingly technology-driven world, our future seems uncertain. With robots and machines doing more of the tasks that we are supposed to do – and in many cases doing it better – the question arises of where we fit into this future. Lists of jobs that become obsolete are published at increasingly frequent rates, and every week there are new jobs that are red listed. Are we turning into lap dogs, existing only to be served by – and to provide entertainment to – robots?

In a world controlled and dominated by robots, is there still space for humans?

While there are genuine concerns about possible job losses in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Professor Andrew Thatcher, Chair of Industrial and Organisational Psychology at Wits, says that we are naturally built to make use of technology, and there could be more potential benefits than threats in this new world. “Using technology is literally built into our DNA,” says Thatcher. “Introducing, designing and implementing technology is a very integral part of who we are as human beings. In fact, a large portion of people’s jobs is about coming up with the right technology, designing, building and implementing the new technology, and teaching people how to use different technology.”

While the automation of the workplace might cost some workers jobs, the mechanization of industrial workplaces, like mines, can benefit in a variety of ways, including a safer and healthier working environment; increased productivity and improved profitability; better opportunities for more fulfilling work; a more satisfactory working environment for women; and technological challenges that attract skilled people to the industry. Thatcher believes that the changes technology brings are a natural process and that while some jobs might be lost, new technologies will create much more jobs in the process.

“Change that technology brings have happened right through the ages. If you go right back to early humans, in the Palaeolithic age, we went from running around trying not to get eaten and picking and eating what fruits we could get hold of, to tool use, and that changed the different tasks that we undertook,” says Thatcher. “In fact, tool use is a very important part of our own human evolution, so as we go through the ages, we see tech changing. We don’t see the banging of two rocks together as being tech, but at the time that was advanced technology. Nowadays we don’t see computers as technology, but in the mid- to late 1970s it was radically changing the way work was being done. Computers created many jobs.”

Like Thatcher, Dr Christopher Wareham, a Lecturer in Bioethics and Moral Philosophy in the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics in the Faculty of Health Sciences, believes the revolution will benefit society. “There is an over-emphasis on potential harm,” he says.

Wareham doesn’t believe that our world will become a place where we become completely redundant and served by an army of robots. However, should we, at some stage, be in a position to build a robot well enough to have sufficient “human” abilities, we would be obliged to consider its interests in the same way that we consider the interests of humans. “It would be similar to creating a person or a child,” he says.

Wareham explains that on some definitions, you don’t have to be a human to qualify as a “person”, and not all humans automatically qualify as being persons. The definition of a person is one of the most controversial areas in moral philosophy. Wareham defines a person as an entity capable of “reflective self-control”. This requires, firstly, the ability to grasp and apply moral reasoning and secondly, the ability to regulate one’s behaviour in light of those reasons. “This is controversial, since it may exclude mentally impaired human beings and perhaps infants from being categorised as full persons,” he says.

By this definition, it may be possible for robots with the right abilities to be classified as persons. “It is important that we start looking at this type of vision of how we interact with robots,” he says. “If we create a new form of sentient being on the planet, we should treat that being in the same way we should behave towards other sentient beings. The current mistreatment of animals shows how we may go badly wrong in the unethical treatment of sentient beings. Hopefully, we will treat them better than we currently treat animals.”

This could include the right to a decent existence, but with that right there are responsibilities. With robots or cars having increasingly automated capacities, who would be liable should a robot kill someone? Or, more realistically, if a self-driven car runs someone over?

“This issue is mostly under discussion in most jurisdictions, and legal principles are still being developed,” says Professor Pamela Andanda from the Wits School of Law. “The common approach is to automatically hold the insurer liable if there is no evidence of defect, that would point to the default manufacturer’s liability, or failure of the owner to update the software, or authorising inappropriate use that would lead to the owner’s liability.”

But, back to the question: If there are going to be machines that do everything better than us, where do we fit in?

Both Thatcher and Wareham say that, as we are social beings, this is where our future lies. In being social.

“ATM banking is more accurate and quicker than a human bank teller, and we can do our banking over the phone. Yet, we still want to have someone at the other end of a phone line to complain to in order to get the sense that they understand,” says Thatcher. “Similarly, while a computer can fly an aeroplane much better, and it would probably be safer for computers to fly our planes, nobody would get into an aeroplane while knowing there is no pilot. We need to be assured that there is someone in control that values their own life as much as we value ours.”

Wareham believes that the new economy will become more social, with people filling roles that require social interaction, like bar tenders. But, is there enough of a market for that?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will create many new jobs, believes Thatcher. However, these jobs will not necessarily be where they are now. People might have to reskill themselves, or even move to another country. "If you move the job within the same country, it creates a certain set of problems, but you create another level of problem if you move it across national borders,” he says.

This is a particular concern for a country like South Africa, with low education levels and few tech skills. “What ends up happening is that the automation comes from the United States, Japan or Europe, which means that the people here in South Africa lose jobs because they are not involved in the design or implementation of the automation or the training of the automation,” he says. “As a society, we do not need to be scared of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but as a country we do need to be concerned about our role in the future of the global knowledge economy, to ensure that we are active creators and participants rather than passive users of new technologies.”

Read more about the interface between humanity and technology in Wits' new research magazine CURIOSITY, the iHumanedition.

Light to break bandwidth ceiling

- Wits University

The rise of big data and advances in information technology has serious implications for our ability to deliver sufficient bandwidth to meet the growing demand.

Andrew Forbes, Distinguished Professor in the Wits School of Physics and Head of the Structured Light Laboratory, and collaborators, are looking at alternative sources that will be able to take over where traditional optical communications systems are likely to fail in future.

“The team demonstrated over 100 patterns of light used in an optical communication link, potentially increasing the bandwidth of communication systems by 100 times,” says Forbes.

Traditional optical communication systems modulate the amplitude, phase, polarisation, colour and frequency of the light that is transmitted. Despite these technologies, it is predicted that a bandwidth ceiling will be reached in the near future.

“But light also has a ‘pattern’ – the intensity distribution of the light – that is, how it looks on a camera or a screen. Since these patterns are unique, they can be used to encode information,” he explains. “Future bandwidth can be increased by precisely the number of patterns of light that we are able to use. Ten patterns mean 10 times increase in existing bandwidth, as 10 new channels would emerge for data transfer.”

Andrew Forbes is a Distinguished Professor i the Wits School of Physics and Head of the Structured Light Laboratory

Currently, modern optical communication systems use only one pattern. This is due to technical hurdles in how to pack information into these patterns of light, and how to get the information out again. The team showed data transmission with over 100 patterns of light, exploiting three degrees of freedom in the process.

“We used digital holograms written to a small liquid crystal display and showed that it is possible to have a hologram encoded with over 100 patterns in multiple colours,” says Forbes. “This is the highest number of patterns created and detected on such a device to date. We have effectively shown that packing more information into light has the potential to increase bandwidth by 100 times.”

The next stage is to move out of the laboratory and to demonstrate the technology in a real-world system. The approach can be used in both free-space and optical fibre networks.

In a related study, Forbes and his fellow Wits physicists demonstrated that real-time error correction in quantum communications is possible. “This has tremendous implications for fast and secure data transfer in the future and will aid technological advances that seek to establish more secure quantum communication links over long distances,” says Forbes.

“Essentially, the research demonstrates that sometimes Nature cannot tell the difference between the quantum and the classical (or real) worlds and that a grey area exists between the two worlds called ‘classical entanglement’. By working in this grey area between the classical and the quantum, we can show fast and secure data transfer over real-world links.”

Read more about the interface between humanity and technology in Wits' new research magazine CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.

Wits researchers excel at National Research Foundation Awards

- Wits University

Nine researchers from Wits University were recognised by the National Research Foundation (NRF) at the 2017 NRF Research Awards in Bloemfontein last night.

Wits researchers honoured with NRF awards

The NRF Awards are considered the benchmark for research excellence. The 2017 Awards, themed Sustainable Development through Knowledge Creation, focused on the role of knowledge creation in supporting and enabling South Africa’s sustainable development, as envisaged in the National Development Plan. Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, delivered the keynote address.

Five Wits researchers were awarded NRF A-ratings and four received special awards.

Wits researchers awarded A-ratings for the first time are:

Lynette Wadley, Honorary Professor of Archaeology in the Evolutionary Studies Institute, and  Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology and Director of the MRC Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit received A-ratings for the second time.

NRF A-rated researchers are unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their respective fields, for the high quality and impact of recent research outputs.

Two Wits researchers received Early Career/Emerging Researcher awards. They are Nicole Falkof, Associate Professor and Head of Media Studies in the School of Literature, Language and Media Studies, and Dr Musa Manzi, Senior Researcher and Director of the Wits Seismic Research Centre in the School of Geosciences.

The Thuthuka funding instrument, which enables the Early Career/Emerging Researcher awards, is central to the NRF’s Human Capital Development Strategy. The objective is to enhance the research stature of up-and-coming researchers from designated groups and redress historical imbalances in the country’s research cohort.

Dr Tiisetso Lephoto in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology received the Excellence in Science Engagement Award. This award recognises academics’ efforts to make their research – and science and technology in general – more accessible to the public. 

Shakira Choonara, in the Centre for Health Policy in the School of Public Health, will soon graduate with her doctorate in Public Health. She received the Research Excellence Award For Next Generation Researchers.

Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits, congratulated the awardees:   

“Hearty congratulations to all finalists and winners of the 2017 NRF Awards, especially my Wits colleagues. You are all pioneers in your respective fields and your contribution towards creating new knowledge and finding solutions to the challenges of the 21st Century will benefit our country and beyond. Your commitment to research excellence at the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is essential for enabling an equitable global academy that benefits all of humankind. On behalf of the University of the Witwatersrand, I extend my deepest appreciation and congratulations to all researchers who excelled this year,” said Habib.

Cricket fast bowling researcher elected to SA Young Academy of Science

- Wits University

Benita Olivier is an Associate Professor in musculo-skeletal physiotherapy in the Physiotherapy Department at Wits.

She is one of just 10 researchers elected to the Academy this year.

Olivier is a prolific researcher with a high level of research productivity. Her research investigates and promotes prevention of musculoskeletal dysfunction. She has a special interest in the prevention of sports injuries, with a specific focus on human movement analysis.

As part of her PhD research project, Olivier investigated cricket fast bowling action with the aid of kinematic analysis. She established the Wits Physiotherapy Movement Analysis Laboratory in 2010 and has moulded it into a lab of research excellence.

Olivier has published 37 manuscripts and is currently supervises 13 MSc and 4 PhD students. She is a National Research Foundation Y-rated researcher.

In 2014, she was the recipient of the Claude Leon Merit Award, the Friedel Sellschop Award for Exceptional Young Researchers and was named a Mail & Guardian Top 200 Most Influential Young South African. She was also a finalist in the 2014 Standard Bank Rising Stars Awards and received the School of Therapeutic Sciences Mentoring Award in 2014.

As a mother of two young boys, Olivier aspires to live a balanced life, with a strong sense of integrity and a drive to positively contribute to the lives of others on a daily basis.

The South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) is the voice of young scientists in South Africa. SAYAS aims to contribute solutions to national and global societal challenges; provide a platform for young scientists to influence policy decisions; develop scientific capacity in South Africa through mentoring and role-modeling of future scientists; and foster opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations amongst young scientists.

Complex life evolved out of the chance coupling of small molecules

- Wits University

Complex life, as we know it, started completely by chance, with small strands of molecules linking up, which eventually would have given them the ability to rep

A simple RNA molecule like this may have kickstarted life as we know it.

Complex life, as we know it, started completely by chance, with small strands of molecules linking up, which eventually would have given them the ability to replicate themselves.

In this world, billions of years ago, nothing existed that we would recognise today as living. The world contained only lifeless molecules that formed spontaneously through the natural chemical and physical processes on Earth.

However, the moment that small molecules connected and formed larger molecules with the ability to replicate themselves, life started to evolve.

“Life was a chance event, there is no doubt about that,” says Dr Pierre Durand from the Evolution of Complexity Laboratory in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University, who led a project to find out how exactly these molecules linked up with each other. Their results are published today in the journal Royal Society OS, in a paper entitled "Molecular trade-offs in RNA ligases affected the modular emergence of complex ribozymes at the origin of life”.

Very simple ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules (compounds similar to Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)) can join other RNA molecules to themselves though a chemical reaction called ligation. The random joining together of different pieces or RNA could give rise to a group of molecules able to produce copies of themselves and so kick start the process of life. 

While the process that eventually led to the evolution of life took place over a long period of time, and involved a number of steps, Wits PhD student Nisha Dhar and Durand have uncovered how one of these crucial steps may have occurred.

They have demonstrated how small non-living molecules may have given rise to larger molecules that were capable of reproducing themselves. This path to self-replicating molecules was a key event for life to take hold. 

“Something needed to happen for these small molecules to interact and form longer, more complex molecules and that happened completely by chance,” says Durand.

These smaller RNA molecules possessed enzyme activity that allowed ligation, which, in turn allowed them to link up with other small molecules thereby forming larger molecules.

“The small molecules are very promiscuous and can join other pieces to themselves. What was interesting was that these smaller molecules were smaller than we had originally thought,” says Durand.

The smallest molecule that exhibited self-ligation activity was a 40-nucleotide RNA. It also demonstrated the greatest functional flexibility as it was more general in the kinds of substrates it ligated to itself although its catalytic efficiency was the lowest.

“Something needed to happen for molecules to reproduce, and thereby starting life as we know it. That something turned out to be the simple ligation of a set of small molecules, billions of years ago,” says Durand.

Researchers demonstrate quantum teleportation of patterns of light

- Wits University

Technique paves the way for high-bit-rate secure long distance quantum communication.

Nature Communications today published research by a team comprising Scottish and South African researchers, demonstrating entanglement swapping and teleportation of orbital angular momentum “patterns” of light. This is a crucial step towards realising a quantum repeater for high-dimensional entangled states.

The core element of our quantum repeater is a cube of glass. We put two independent photons in, and as long as we can detect two photons coming out the other sides we know that we can perform entanglement swapping.

Quantum communication over long distances is integral to information security and has been demonstrated in free space and fibre with two-dimensional states, recently over distances exceeding 1200 km between satellites. But using only two states reduces the information capacity of the photons, so the link is secure but slow. To make it secure and fast requires a higher-dimensional alphabet, for example, using patterns of light, of which there are an infinite number. One such pattern set is the orbital angular momentum (OAM) of light. Increased bit rates can be achieved by using OAM as the carrier of information. However, such photon states decay when transmitted over long distances, for example, due to mode coupling in fibre or turbulence in free space, thus requiring a way to amplify the signal. Unfortunately such “amplification” is not allowed in the quantum world, but it is possible to create an analogy, called a quantum repeater, akin to optical fibre repeaters in classical optical networks.

An integral part of a quantum repeater is the ability to entangle two photons that have never interacted – a process referred to as “entanglement swapping”. This is accomplished by interfering two photons from independent entangled pairs, resulting in the remaining two photons becoming entangled. This allows the establishment of entanglement between two distant points without requiring one photon to travel the entire distance, thus reducing the effects of decay and loss. It also means that you don’t have to have a line of sight between the two places.

An outcome of this is that the information of one photon can be transferred to the other, a process called teleportation.  Like in the science fiction series, Star Trek, where people are “beamed” from one place to another, information is “teleported” from one place to another. If two photons are entangled and you change a value on one of them, then other one automatically changes too. This happens even though the two photons are never connected and, in fact, are in two completely different places.

In this latest work, the team performed the first experimental demonstration of entanglement swapping and teleportation for orbital angular momentum (OAM) states of light. They showed that quantum correlations could be established between previously independent photons, and that this could be used to send information across a virtual link. Importantly, the scheme is scalable to higher dimensions, paving the way for long-distance quantum communication with high information capacity.

An experiment showing the entanglement of photons and an alphabet of OAM modes


Present communication systems are very fast, but not fundamentally secure. To make them secure researchers use the laws of Nature for the encoding by exploiting the quirky properties of the quantum world. One such property is entanglement. When two particles are entangled they are connected in a spooky sense: a measurement on one immediately changes the state of the other no matter how far apart they are. Entanglement is one of the core resources needed to realise a quantum network.

Yet a secure quantum communication link over long distance is very challenging: Quantum links using patterns of light languish at short distances precisely because there is no way to protect the link against noise without detecting the photons, yet once they are detected their usefulness is destroyed. To overcome this one can have a repeating station at intermediate distances – this allows one to share information across a much longer distance without the need for the information to physically flow over that link. The core ingredient is to get independent photons to become entangled. While this has been demonstrated previously with two-dimensional states, in this work the team showed the first demonstration with OAM and in high-dimensional spaces.

Paper Abstract:

High-bit rate long distance quantum communication is an mooted technology for future communication networks and relies on high-dimensional quantum entanglement as a core resource. While it is known that spatial modes of light provide an avenue for high-dimensional entanglement, the ability to transport such quantum states robustly over long distances remains challenging. To overcome this, entanglement swapping may be used to generate remote quantum correlations between particles that have not interacted, the core ingredient of a quantum repeater, akin to repeaters in optical fibre networks. Here we demonstrate entanglement swapping of multiple orbital angular momentum states of light. Our approach does not distinguish between different anti-symmetric states, and thus entanglement swapping occurs for several thousand pairs of spatial light modes simultaneously. This work represents the first step towards a quantum network for high-dimensional entangled states and provides a test bed for fundamental tests of quantum science.

Q&A about Watson, the iHuman supercomputer

- Refilwe Mabula

In 2011, a faceless, emotionless voice named Watson famously defeated two of the greatest champions of Jeopardy!, an American TV gameshow.

The victory of Watson, a cognitive computing system developed by IBM, wowed the Tech industry. Watson can answer questions posed in natural language. Watson can understand all forms of data, interact naturally with people, and learn and reason at scale. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on the rise and more companies are relying on AI for cognitive solutions to complex problems.

Refilwe Mabula spoke to Andrew Quixley, IBM’s Watson Platform Sales Leader in Africa, to learn more about this super
system named after the tech giant’s first CEO, Thomas J. Watson.

How does Watson understand human language?

Watson’s ability to extract meaning from language manifests in three ways. Firstly, through understanding the intent of what somebody is saying, Watson can extract intention from a statement or question.

Secondly, Watson understands emotions.Watson is trained to detect a series of emotions and uses these to respond accordingly. Humans can respond intuitively to each other because we have emotions of our own and empathy. We know how to respond to frustration, for example, something a machine is usually unable to detect. Watson can, however.

Thirdly, Watson has a handle on humans through words. The words we use when we write indicate something
about our personality. Watson can take a handwriting sample or a sample of you speaking and determine your
personality from your word choice and verbal expression.

Which languages does Watson understand?

Watson is being trained to communicate with people in their native languages as a native speaker would. This means being able to understand idioms, metaphors, and turns of phrase unique to a language. Originally Watson reached an audience of 400 million English language speakers. Today Watson also understands Arabic, Brazilian, German, Italian,
Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish. Watson also has conversation

Watson also has conversation and language translation capabilities such as Dutch, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese, for companies looking to build conversational agents or chatbots.

How old is Watson?

In the ‘90s, we set ourselves a challenge of beating one of the world’s greatest chess players and we developed a
computing system called Deep Blue. The rise of big data – 2.5 billion gigabytes of data are created daily – and the world’s need to make sense of it ultimately resulted in Watson.

In competing in Jeopardy! Watson demonstrated that it was possible for systems to understand how human
beings communicate with each other. Watson is on track to reach 1 billion people by the end of 2017.

Where can we find Watson?

Watson is a cloud-based cognitive service that can be embedded in anything digital. Access Watson from your home, phone, or office – anywhere you have an internet connection. Learn more at

Read more about the interface between humanity and technology in Wits' new research magazine CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.

Death of the chalkboard and the demise of the sage on the stage

- Deborah Minors

The launch of a high-tech eZone, eFundanathi – “Learn with Us”, is set to revolutionise teaching and learning at Wits.

In a vast hall that previously housed sewing machines, a student scribbles on a wall and Harry Potter emerges. Next door, in a former domestic science lab, students in hospital greens lounge on bright bean-bags and fixate on a wall-mounted monitor. Adjacent to them someone extracts a prosthetic limb from a 3D printer. In a keyhole-shaped pod,
two heads bob in muted debate while alongside, a couple wrestles with an X-Box. These aren’t lazy Millennials loafing – they are Wits students in the classroom of the future and the future is now.

Accessing a digital playground

The eZone and eFundanathi (learn with us) team is the brainchild of Paula Barnard, an Occupational Therapist and PhD candidate who lectures eLearning (educational technologies) at Wits. A joint initiative of the School of Therapeutic Sciences and the School of Education, the eZone is a physical learning space that uses cutting-edge technology and advanced eLearning tools to deliver education that prepares students for the 21st Century.

“South Africa needs trained healthcare and other professionals but escalating costs inhibit access for students who cannot afford fees and textbooks. Furthermore, increasing student numbers impact lecturer-student ratios and actual space. As a physical learning space, the eZone creates a platform for transformation and responds to the call for curriculum renewal and transformative pedagogy,” says Barnard.

The eZone is equipped with broadband Wi-Fi, 80 laptops, 20 iPads, and 20 Galaxy tablets. Here students can connect to Skype or Google Hangouts and interact with academic experts worldwide instantly. There’s a split projector on the wall that enables group learning by reflecting multiple images posted by students simultaneously, for comparison and discussion. There are GoPros for students to take into the field for assignments and other content development
so that they can edit the footage.

eLearning has been lauded internationally for dramatically transforming the teaching and learning space. Through eLearning, study costs are significantly reduced, student access to learning materials improves, and the teaching environment allows for rapid innovation.

Sibusiso Moya, a third-year occupational therapy student, says: “The eZone is a place where one can explore the
yet undiscovered gems of technology-based learning and medical practice – not the proverbial 3D-interactive image
in which one learns or attempts to learn from when faced with Anatomy. This is a space I feel that one can explore
other elements to their interests [and] not just the baseline degree. You can test the waters of an unaffordable interest.”

eLearning ebb and flow

Classroom configuration is central to eLearning. The eZone has a ‘cave space’ for solitary introspection while colourful bean-bags stimulate ‘cave opportunities’ for informal interaction. Hexagonal storage seating can be dislocated and relocated for fluidity of teaching and learning. The eZone walls are whiteboard marker friendly so Harry Potter can be erased quicker than you can say “Expelliarmus!”

“Furniture can be configured to different contexts so that students feel comfortable in their space. Concentration is enhanced when movement happens. What’s more, students are actively creating content rather than simply passively absorbing what a lecturer is saying,” says Barnard.

Professor Patricia McInerney is a nurse and Associate Professor in the Centre for Health Science Education. She co-published a paper on teaching and learning theories and teaching methods in the Health Sciences. McInerney is Acting Director of the Centre for Learning, Teaching, and Development (CLTD) at Wits.

“In some faculties, eLearning strategies are used as an adjunct to help students understand the material, and in others the sole method of delivery is online. While technology is great in helping students learn and in getting education to greater numbers, teachers must remain the human face behind the technology,” says McInerney.

Blended learning and the new pedagogy

The eZone marks a shift in pedagogy towards new models of applied knowledge and learning for a high-tech world. But people remain central. Blended learning integrates face-to-face and online learning activities to deliver a comprehensive curriculum. For Barnard, an Inspiring Fifty Women in Technology Africa 2017 nominee, there is more to it.

“The eZone allows for true connectivity where students can learn together, in a tethered community of practice, where the lecturer guides their learning path. They can access global experts instantly, live stream into clinical placements anywhere, and pose questions to each other or others elsewhere to develop new ideas and knowledge to meet the needs of our communities. It’s about taking learning out of the classroom and into the real world, even if you can’t leave the classroom,” she says.

Barnard’s PhD focuses on the integration and uptake of blended learning in undergraduate occupational therapy. In 2014, she co-authored a paper entitled The Influence of Blended Learning on Student Performance in an Undergraduate Occupational Therapy Curriculum.

“Change is scary, especially when technology, digital immigrants [lecturers] and digital natives [students] teach and learn. The body of knowledge is changing – a student is going to Google something you say in class and challenge you. This new pedagogy provides students and lecturers with the opportunity to learn, unlearn and relearn,” says Barnard.

Are lecturers obsolete?

“No. You’re still teaching and you’re still crafting the learning process. But now teachers must be more artful
at creating knowledge,” says Barnard. “We need to build continual curiosity in our students and that’s a learning experience that’s different to the sage on the stage.”

Read more about digital innovation and the interface between humanity and tech in Wits' new research magazine, CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.

Human rights in a digital world

- Reshma Lakha-Singh

Digital access itself does not untangle past inequalities. In many cases, it may even increase inequality.

Thandeka Mavuso drowns the sounds of the vacuum cleaner by listening with her earplugs to Kaya FM streaming on her mobile phone. She calls her nephew, Sibusiso, at 3pm every day, using WhatsApp, after the school transport drops him at home in Orlando East, Soweto. When the need arises, Thandeka transfers money to family members during the week, using her mobile phone. She has access to the uncapped WiFi in her employer’s home from Monday to Friday. Over the weekend, she goes cold turkey with data. It is a saving of R350 a month in data and airtime costs from her modest monthly salary.

The right to swipe

Access to the internet as a basic human right has become more relevant as key services that enable basic human rights increasingly work off the internet. As Thandeka’s lifestyle evolves, so too, must the definition and scope of her human rights. In Internet Freedom – a Positive Right to Internet Access, Indra de Lanerolle, leader of the South African Network Society’s Research Project at Wits Journalism, comments: 

“The Constitution protects the right to freedom of expression – a basic human right to communicate and to receive information and ideas. We have to consider that internet access is now a requirement for that right to be realised.”

De Lanerolle adds that there is a contradiction in freedom of expression as we begin to see both the opportunity of the
internet to extend these freedoms and the reality of the internet as constraining them. “Historically, services and jobs would be found in the newspapers. Communication networks have now converged around the internet and it is the means through which everything happens.”

Still dialling up...

Although digital access intends to help people break free from historical disadvantages, the opportunity for digital access cannot be disentangled from pre-existing social and economic inequalities. This is according to Professor Jason Cohen, Head of Information Systems at Wits and his colleagues Thomas Grace and Jean-Marie Bancilhon. In a paper titled Digitally Connected Living and Quality of Life: An Analysis of the Gauteng City-Region, South Africa, the authors use data collected from the 2013 Quality of Life survey conducted by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory to examine the relationship between quality of life and the extent to which individuals are digitally connected. The dataset covered 27 490 individuals living in the Gauteng City-Region and helped the researchers better understand the interface of connectivity with aspects of inclusion and exclusion.

“All things being equal means that being more digitally connected provides a better quality of life, but the likelihood
of being digitally connected is only if you earned more and had access to a disposable income. A signal to us in this data was that digital inequality co-exists with other forms of inequality,” says Cohen.

The devices for digitally connected living typically consist of personal computers and mobile technologies such as tablets, cellular phones or smartphones. Network infrastructure is needed to enable devices to connect with each other and this includes access to fixed-line broadband and fibre networks, and/or wireless networks which include WiFi hotspots and mobile networks.

“Having access to these technologies is a function of one’s existing socioeconomic power,” explains Cohen. “Those who are not connected are locked out of the advantages enjoyed by those who are connected. Government services, financial services, access to health information, and employment opportunities are all going online. There is the potential to widen inequalities. This does not mean that we must stop moving forward with digital access and innovation, but it does mean that access should not remain a function of one’s socioeconomic privilege.”

Digital privilege

Cohen stresses that existing socioeconomic conditions may impact the way a person is able to use technology. “Even with access, inequality can still widen if there are unequal digital literacy skill levels and unequal opportunities for how people use the internet and for what purposes. The problem is more complicated than we think.”

He adds that digital autonomy is another dimension of digital inequality. “Your ability to have unrestricted access that is not bound by time, proximity and money is another form of digital privilege. It becomes more difficult to embrace digitally connected living without digital autonomy. But, for many, access is restricted by location and by time. So the idea that people can just use technology to break through historical disadvantages is unrealistic.”

Access to digitally connected living is supposed to halt the perpetuation of social and economic inequalities and
provide opportunities for people to improve their quality of life. However, digitally connected living depends on – and cannot be disentangled from – pre-existing opportunities for social and economic inclusion.


In 2016, former Metro FM and 5FM DJs Tbo Touch and Gareth Cliff addressed Parliament’s telecommunications
and postal services portfolio committee about the high costs of data in South Africa. This resulted in a nationwide call for local mobile networks to decrease the price of their data. In June 2017, the #DataMustFall hashtag returned to Twitter, with calls for a social media blackout to protest the high costs of data.

The Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services tasked the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa and the Competition Commission to determine the extent of competition amongst mobile operators, as competition is the primary tool to reduce costs.

‘Internet for All’, an international project of the World Economic Forum, has partnered with the South African government to bring internet access to millions of South Africans through public-private collaboration. Aligned to government’s National Development Plan and South Africa Connect, it will address the barriers that prevent
universal internet access. The project is already operational in Argentina, Rwanda, and Uganda.

City of Joburg and City of Tshwane initiatives to provide WiFi hotspots have assisted in improving the quality of life of users. However, experts argue that initiatives around access alone are insufficient. Digital skills and autonomy of use must be addressed and differences in purposes of use should result from free choice, rather than socioeconomic circumstances.

Read more about digital innovation and the interface between humanity and tech in Wits' new research magazine, CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.

The future of work

- Imraan Valodia

Tech advances are already impacting skilled white-collar and unskilled workers whereas the digital revolution affected mainly semi-skilled, blue-collar workers.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here. Across the world, communities are adjusting to new ways of doing business,
consuming goods, socialising and conducting research through technology. The sheer speed and scope of continuous technological development probably mean that there is no stopping this new wave of development, but at the same time, it is crucial that we remain vigilant about the possible repercussions that may arise from introducing new technology. For our society, two issues – job security and inequality – are especially important.

As is the case with all new innovations, there are opportunities for interesting new developments that benefit humanity (technology could greatly assist in areas of health, conflict, and the environment for example) but also threats of bringing about significant negative consequences such as under-employment, large job losses, smaller proportions of the workforce having access to jobs, increased inequality and a rise in poverty.

The International Labour Organization has taken a particular interest in the labour market consequences of this revolution and has established a multi-year consultative project to focus on the Future of Work. This issue topped the agenda at a panel discussion in Geneva this year, where I raised the following points:

  • It is important to acknowledge that the experiences of technology are very different for developing and developed nations. Rich countries are having discussions around work-life balance and using technology to ensure that workers have more leisure time because of the flexible work arrangements that technology allows. This is unlikely to be the case for most workers in South Africa and most other developing countries. Given our extremely high levels of unemployment and the extent of low-paid jobs (almost half of workers in South Africa earn less than R3 500), it is very unlikely, except for a very small number of workers with high earnings, that the trade-off is between work and leisure. Instead, our society needs to provide much more, better-paid jobs.
  • Developments in society are controlled by us, through our policy and governance systems and by how we choose to use them. We cannot avoid technological advancements but we can decide how to maximise the benefits and minimise the drawbacks.
  • We have to acknowledge that technology will be disruptive. New advances are likely to result in extra costs for businesses as they adjust. There is also a chance that some of the advancements (particularly in the artificial intelligence arena) are going to replace human endeavours. Many of our large firms in the financial, mining and other sectors are likely to change the composition of their workforces over the coming decades. The focus must be on looking at innovative ways to ensure technology serves to support, rather than replace, workers.
  • We should carefully analyse what we mean by ‘work’. We tend to focus on paid work and completely ignore unpaid work, and the interactions between paid and unpaid work. The reality is that there is a gendered distribution of unpaid work, with a large number of women having to deal with the burdens of low-paid
    work and an unequal burden of unpaid care work.
  • In most developing countries, most jobs, especially for women, have over the last three decades been created in the informal economy. The conversation around technological advances must also look at work in the informal economy.
  • Technological change has different impacts on different groups. We need to understand how these new technological changes will impact our already high levels of inequality and understand what policies and mechanisms can ameliorate the costs on the most vulnerable sections of our population (who are
    unable to absorb these ‘shocks’), and how technology can lead to greater levels of equality.

This means that it is incumbent on us as academics, policymakers, and social partners to start urgently having conversations that talk to measures to protect and promote the Decent Work agenda. At the very least there should be measures to ensure that workers who are most vulnerable are protected by some basic standards. One of these is a national minimum wage that would guarantee an income which, although still below the living wage, is a significant increase for 47% of workers in the country in 2017. But there are other social measures such as a Basic Income Grant, which should be considered as protection mechanisms for the most vulnerable in society.

Wits has recently launched an interdisciplinary five-year project that focuses on inequality in South Africa. It seeks to:

  • identify the key areas where inequality shapes the life chances of individuals across their lives, such as education, health, spatial geography, food security, and the economy,
  • understand how power and inequality are produced and reproduced within these areas, as well as how power and inequality intersect across these areas,
  • imagine an alternative configuration of power that generates affirmative state action, provides greater equality of access to relevant resources, and fundamentally alters the structure of power in society, and
  • develop an agenda for inclusive growth of productive forces.

A key component of this project will be to analyse technological developments in the country and their impact on the working class and the poor. Given South Africa’s complex current labour market challenges, we as a society need to carefully consider this debate, engage with the research in the area, and develop plans for the future. Technological change is not a process that is independent of social norms and regulations. Instead, these social norms and regulations fundamentally shape both the process of technological change and its outcomes.

The worst response would be to assume a one-size-fits-all approach that is based on how wealthy countries adjust to
this new world work order. South Africa has a combination of serious structural and economic problems; massive inequality, high levels of poverty, and unemployment make us far more vulnerable to these inevitable changes. It also means that we need to start having these important conversations in order to ensure that we are the drivers, and not the responders, of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Professor Imraan Valodia is the Dean of the Wits Faculty of Commerce, Law, and Management. He is an NRF B-rated researcher and holds a doctorate in Economics.

The mud beneath the digital magic

- Robert Thornton

The bones of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, like every industrial revolution in the past, come from the dirt under our feet.

The gold that you see at the end of your charging cable is a good example. If you live in Johannesburg, dig a hole and you will almost certainly have gold in your spade. With the right skill, time, and knowledge, it is entirely possible to refine that to pure gold with nothing more than what you already have in your house and garden. Tens of thousands of people do this every day in Johannesburg, although you will only hear of them on the news when some of the so-called ‘illegal’ miners die underground. Without them, and those like them all over the world today, the digital world and the Fourth Industrial Revolution would struggle to exist.

The stuff that makes your cellphone do amazing things comes from the mud of rivers in the Congo and India, from the high mountains of Bolivia, and from the Amazon lowlands. The rocks that are scratched and blasted out of remote mines provide elements that few people have heard of – tantalum, tellurium, caesium, neodymium, and other rare earth elements. We all know about gold, silicon, titanium and other more common materials that make up the backbone of this new age, but these, too, are extracted from the Earth at great cost.

The 4th Industrial Revolution relies on mines and mineral deposits worked by hand by artisnal small-scale miners

A lot of it is ugly, unregulated, unprotected, more than dangerous and sometimes criminal. At present, we do not know how much of these essential elements come from the backbreaking and often lethal work of artisanal miners – people who work with little more than a spade, pick and bucket. Unless you know exactly what to look for, you will not see this industry that provides a living for hundreds of thousands across the Highveld and other gold-bearing regions. Our research shows that these manual methods manage to refine almost 100% of the gold out of the ore. Industrial processes are still not capable of doing this.

Indigenous African mining and metallurgical technologies have existed for more than a thousand years in southern Africa. We are exploring how contemporary artisanal and small-scale miners do this today and comparing this with what was done in the past. Its impact on people and societies is gradually coming into view. Government policy that continues to ignore it or seeks to criminalise it is increasingly short-sighted. This is as much a part of the southern African future as it was in the past.

Presenting both challenges and opportunities, artisanal and small-scale mining provides an increasingly substantial portion of the world’s supply. Artisanal mining and metallurgical technology compete successfully with highly-capitalised industrial mining. It requires almost no capital investment but requires hard work, skill, and courage. While underground extraction of ore attracts the most attention, the bulk of the labour is consumed in processing ore above ground by large communities of workers including men, women, and children.

In short, the Fourth Industrial Revolution relies substantially on mines and mineral deposits worked by hand with little more than Stone Age technologies. The products travel along secret networks that are much like the “Silk Routes” or spice trading networks of the ancient world. These materials move directly from teams of miners’ small villages into the global digital and technological economy.

The miners themselves are directly connected to global markets through their cellphones. They are highly aware of their own skill and value and negotiate prices for their products. While they are ‘illegal’ in terms of South African law which protects the big mines, they are certainly not criminal. They have pride and they are resilient in the face of police harassment and criminal exploitation.

‘High tech’ has evolved slowly from the first iteration of the theoretical digital computer in the mind of Alan Turning,
through the first computers built of vacuum tube ‘valves’, and ultimately through to the vast digital storehouses that make the global internet possible. But the complex chemistry and physics of the materials on which all of it depends still comes from human labour and the artisanal skill of people who are both willing and able to take it out of the Earth and provide it to the global markets.

Associate Research Professor Robert Thornton is an ethnographer and cultural and medical anthropologist. His current
research focuses on African indigenous knowledge and practices of traditional healing. His new research focus is ‘Metals, Magic, and Medicine’, which explores the history of traditional healing in the South African archaeological and ethnographic context. This involves studying early mining and high-temperature technologies in relation to ritual sites and healing practices.

Read more about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the interface between humanity and technology in Wits' new research magazine CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.

Tech as eyes and ears

- Refilwe Mabula

Wits alumnus, Elash Mistry was elated when he became the first blind person in Africa to be admitted as a fellow of the Actuarial Society of SA in 2017.

During his time at Wits, almost 20 years ago, Mistry was assisted by Rykie Woite, then of the Wits Disability Unit, who transcribed Mistry’s material from print to electronic format. Fellow students read and recorded Mistry’s lecture notes onto “ancient” cassette tapes and he would transcribe them into braille. This was tedious for Mistry and Woite because of the editing required to adapt the study materials. Mistry later used screenreading software and raised graphics that Woite created for him to access his notes, study, and write examinations.

Fast forward to 2017 when an array of advanced assistive technologies are available to improve the functional capabilities of students with visual, physical, learning, and hearing disabilities, and enable equal access to education. Dr Anlia Pretorius, Head of the Wits Disability Rights Unit (DRU) says technology is an integral part of her unit to facilitate easier learning for students with disabilities.

“Technology is changing the world and for our students with disabilities, it can be life-changing in that it can improve accessibility, break down barriers, allow access to information and provide greater independence. It forms a vital part of how the DRU is able to support our students and we are proud to have specialist computer centres at Wits, all of which are accessible and equipped with state-of-the-art assistive technologies,” she says.

Jermaine George, a blind fourth-year Bachelor of Music student, uses VoiceOver for his studies. This is a screen reader built into his MacBook, which converts text into speech and allows him to work on his computer. George, who has been blind since birth, is a “speed freak” who prefers technology to braille.

“Braille is a very slow medium and I need to get things done immediately. I don’t have time to sit and read something first and then process it, and then think about it and then do something about it. I just do everything electronically,” he says.

Although George is able to enjoy technology like sighted people, mobility on the large Wits Braamfontein East campus remains challenging for him and other students with visual and physical disabilities. To address this, the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits launched the Wits Campus Personal Navigator Challenge in 2017. The Challenge aims to find digitally innovative ways to assist students with visual and physical disabilities by providing them with a ‘personal navigator’ that guides them from one campus location to another. Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE, notes that most students at the DRU have mobility challenges and although most buildings on the Wits campuses have wheelchair ramps, it is still difficult for students with disabilities to move around.

“This unique navigation system may work independently or in conjunction with relevant existing or future systems with improved software, apps or maps, to provide visual or audible directions and information to the student. To do this, the proposed system might also use multiple sensors installed at key points on campus which will provide location information and alerts to a base unit installed on a walking cane, wheelchair or wearable device,” he says.

Andrew Sam, an Adaptive Technologist at the DRU, researches the latest ATs and trains students to use them. He says that although ATs for students with visual impairments have advanced, challenges remain for Deaf students.

“Supporting Deaf students with Sign Language is still difficult, as there are only a small number of interpreters who are qualified to sign at an academic level. Currently, technology is unable to reliably replicate Sign Language interpreting because, just as languages and dialects differ per region, the same applies for Sign Language,” he explains. “In addition to providing Sign Language interpreting, the DRU uses real-time captioning where spoken content is typed using a laptop and seen in real time by a student on another device like a tablet or smartphone.”

Assistive technologies used at the Wits Disability Rights Unit 

Blind/partially blind students: 

  • Screen reading software (Window-Eyes, Jaws, NVDA)
  • Screen magnifiers (ZoomText)
  • Braille displays
  • Braille embossers, printers and graphics printers
  • BraillePen (portable note taking smart device)
  • Software for Braille music
  • Eye-Pal reader (scanning device which converts printed text into speech)
  • Large print keyboards
  • Digital recorders

Deaf and hard of hearing students: 

  • Real-time captioning
  • Loop system (portable or permanent)

 Learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia): 

  • Read & Write (software reading and highlighting content on the screen)
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software (speech to text software)
  • Screen reading software

 Physical disabilities 

  • Eye-trackers (device which allows users to control the mouse with their eyes)
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software (speech to text software)
  • Motorised wheelchairs
  • Adjustable furniture

Read more about the interface between humanity and technology in Wits' new research magazine CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.