Blog

What is Intelligence?

Nii Commey - Wednesday, December 09, 2015

“Intelligence is that sort of smartish stuff coming out of brains, which can play chess, and price bonds, and persuade people to buy bonds, and invent guns, and figure out gravity by looking at wandering lights in the sky; and which, if a machine intelligence had it in large quantities, might let it invent molecular nanotechnology; and so on.” To frame it another way, if something is powerful enough to build a Dyson Sphere, it doesn’t really matter very much whether we call it “intelligent” or not.And this is just the sort of “intelligence” we’re interested in—something powerful enough that whether or not we define it as “intelligent” is moot”


 

Eliezer Yudkowsky

Cognitive Enhancement

Nii Commey - Wednesday, December 09, 2015

 


 

The coming knowledge society will see an acceleration in the trend towards increasing human intelligence begun hundreds of thousands of years ago. Many converging technologies will facilitate this acceleration of intelligence, including psychopharmacology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and communications technology. The accelerating increase in intelligence will not just be in individual brains, but also in the social, political and economic systems that link those brains together. From growing individual and social intelligence we will create increasingly accurate models of the way the social and natural world works, and how best to achieve human ends.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Sean MacEntee

https://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/4984567320/in/photolist-8AtdcS-dUwB97-kLvswg-beBtDe-9g8fM9-4ckJBL-4R6kYr-7JadBz-akUUJa-4CnZMk-K2DY-8V4Ff8-aguvee-a9GaMX-2EDxGa-7EX7ri-p1TAXp-6Z21gC-9Liu5Q-7EfwfJ-a9JWYb-pEbWSP-6pvc8r-8pBDDb-6WGEtf-8cwHkY-dvk1QD-bEBEhc-7T3JmT-dZZSjZ-98WAbk-9dBv8Q-4zwi8N-a2698M-vMPM8f-2Rt5SJ-7Zn6aC-dge7Y5-914ied-98WzND-hTh8Mc-djYSzB-nDu143-5JVByJ-G4Jfa-bjAfQb-e6kMns-5teoyQ-gnDV6V-asoYtB

 

 

 

James Hughes

 

http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/hughes20070808

 

 

 

 

The march of Artificial Intelligence

Nii Commey - Wednesday, December 09, 2015

 

The Futurist Network

Nii Commey - Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Things Futurists say:Transhumanism


From an academic article “Why I want to be posthuman when I grow up” by futurist Nick Bostrom


Becoming posthuman

Let us suppose that you were to develop into a being that has posthuman healthspan and posthuman cognitive and emotional capacities. At the early steps of this process, you enjoy your enhanced capacities. You cherish your improved health: you feel stronger, more energetic, and more balanced. Your skin looks younger and is more elastic. A minor ailment in your knee is cured. You also discover a greater clarity of mind. You can concentrate on difficult material more easily and it begins making sense to you. You start seeing connections that eluded you before. You are astounded to realize how many beliefs you had been holding without ever really thinking about them or considering whether the evidence supports them.


You can follow lines of thinking and intricate argumentation farther without losing your foothold. Your mind is able to recall facts, names, and concepts just when you need them. You are able to sprinkle your conversation with witty remarks and poignant anecdotes. Your friends remark on how much more fun you are to be around. Your experiences seem more vivid. When you listen to music you perceive layers of structure and a kind of musical logic to which you were previously oblivious; this gives you great joy. You continue to find the gossip magazines you used to read amusing, albeit in a different way than before; but you discover that you can get more out of reading Proust and Nature.


You begin to treasure almost every moment of life; you go about your business with zest; and you feel a deeper warmth and affection for those you love, but you can still be upset and even angry on occasions where upset or anger is truly justified and constructive. As you yourself are changing you may also begin to change the way you spend your time. Instead of spending four hours each day watching television, you may now prefer to play the saxophone in a jazz band and to have fun working on your first novel. Instead of spending the weekends hanging out in the pub with your old buddies talking about football, you acquire new friends with whom you can discuss things that now seem to you to be of greater significance than sport.


Together with some of these new friends, you set up a local chapter of an international nonprofit to help draw attention to the plight of political prisoners. By any reasonable criteria, your life improves as you take these initial steps towards becoming posthuman. But thus far your capacities have improved only within the natural human range. You can still partake in human culture and find company to engage you in meaningful conversation.


Consider now a more advanced stage in the transformation process… You have just celebrated your 170th birthday and you feel stronger than ever. Each day is a joy. You have invented entirely new art forms, which exploit the new kinds of cognitive capacities and sensibilities you have developed. You still listen to music – music that is to Mozart what Mozart is to bad Muzak.


You are communicating with your contemporaries using a language that has grown out of English over the past century and that has a vocabulary and expressive power that enables you to share and discuss thoughts and feelings that unaugmented humans could not even think or experience. You play a certain new kind of game which combines VR-mediated artistic expression, dance, humor, interpersonal dynamics, and various novel faculties and the emergent phenomena they make possible, and which is more fun than anything you ever did during the first hundred years of your existence.


When you are playing this game with your friends, you feel how every fiber of your body and mind is stretched to its limit in the most creative and imaginative way, and you are creating new realms of abstract and concrete beauty that humans could never (concretely) dream of. You are always ready to feel with those who suffer misfortunes, and to work hard to help them get back on their feet.


You are also involved in a large voluntary organization that works to reduce suffering of animals in their natural environment in ways that permit ecologies to continue to function in traditional ways; this involves political efforts combined with advanced science and information processing services. Things are getting better, but already each day is fantastic. As we seek to peer farther into posthumanity, our ability to concretely imagine what it might be like trails off. If, aside from extended healthspans, the essence of posthumanity is to be able to have thoughts and experiences that we cannot readily think or experience with our current capacities, then it is not surprising that our ability to imagine what posthuman life might be like is very limited.

 


A commenter on a futurist subreddit called /r/Transhumanism  


1:If you ask me transhumanism is essentially the ultimate form of individualism.

 

2:That is to say, overcoming your inherent biological limitations goes a long way towards turning you into an independent, autonomous being that has less dependence on others for continued survival (note that I'm not saying that you REJECT social ties, its not that I expect man to become an island).


3:In that sense, transhumanism is all about freedom. Freedom from biological limiters like the need for sleep, food, water, and air. Freedom to do things that would have be unacceptably risky with our current fleshy forms. All the freedom that comes with being self-reliant and sovereign. If death itself is overcome, we are free from the major fear that makes us so subservient in the first place. What need have you to submit to another person when you fear not death, starvation, torture, or captivity? You can live forever (at least until entropy gets you) and explore whatever ideas or whatever activities you like and nobody can nor should be able to tell you otherwise.

4:It opens up frontiers. We'll be able to set out and claim new ground both on this planet and on others. And this will hopefully mean that we can create greater prosperity for everyone. Its not a secret that some libertarians dream of setting up a new society free of the influences of the old regimes.


5:”And once that's achieved, it becomes much harder for any central government to control us. Since we're all out of unclaimed land on this planet, and some pretty hard biological limitations keep us from settling on new ones, transhumanism offers the potential to open up these new frontiers and escapethe power structures that have grown on the old frontiers.

 

6:And from a political/economic ideology point of view, transhumanism begins to obviate the need for centralized control and governance. If we can make man smarter, better, more rational, less susceptible to malevolent suggestion, then many of the justifications for having a central entity to regulate and control and 'protect' us become essentially moot. That's not to say that there won't be entities out there to regulate, control, and protect, but they'll be decentralized, and you won't need some big brother watching you or watching out for you when you're capable of defending yourself and have access to almost all the information on the planet at the blink of an eye.

7:You'll have little need for government-run healthcare if you don't get sick, or need for safety regulations if you can't die. And you won't even need all the 'critical' infrastructure that is usually government provided and you can choose to live completely off the grid if you want. The government starts to look increasingly vestigal when you no longer need the services it offers and no longer feel inclined to submit to its rules.

8:And finally: transhumanism is likely to prove the point, once and for all, that humans are not in fact equal in every single way. Once people are able to fully attain their ideal selves, they will upgrade themselves along paths that best express their own individual goals, desires, and dreams. And people will have wildly divergent goals, desires, and dreams. They always have.


9:The differences of the mind when made explicit in the physical manifestation of the self will probably show how different we really are. The future won't be a bunch of identical faces all pursuing identical goals with identical abilities. It will be a wildly diverse population of people pursuing wildly diverse goals with wildly different abilities.


10: I might choose to upgrade my body and go and explore the depths of the ocean, you might upload your mind to the cloud and enjoy simulating alternate realities.People are not equal in all ways, and that's okay. As long as they are free to pursue their own desires without interfering with or interference from others, people will be happier.


Faceh:1-10

https://www.reddit.com/r/Transhuman/comments/1oofrb/transhumanism_and_libertarianism_am_i_the_only/cctzkrk?context=3


https://mariakonovalenko.wordpress.com/


http://themichaelmacrae.deviantart.com/art/Coming-Into-Being-436094365

 

Main Image:http://greno89.deviantart.com/art/Wallpaper-Circulation-272577439

Full Article:http://www.nickbostrom.com/posthuman.pdf


 

Biotechnology,civilization and the end of progress

Nii Commey - Friday, October 16, 2015
Biotechnology and Cybernetic modification will probably end civilization as we know it.Civilization is built upon human psychology and the motivations that arise from it.Biotechnology could change this permanently,but manipulating our level of satisfaction.

 



Satisfaction is only beneficial when it corresponds to a satisfactory state of affairs.Dissatisfaction is only beneficial when it corresponds with a unsatisfactory state of affairs.

 

 

 

When you have satisfaction in a unsatisfactory state of affairs then you do not benefit from satisfaction.



When you have continued dissatisfaction in a satisfactory state you do not benefit from dissatisfaction.




Preference modification would be a way to make people satisfied with a satisfactory state of affairs.This benefits them.



In this case civilization would slow down to a halt,and that would be ok.




It is very likely that humans will learn to be content with what they have long before a large project like a dyson sphere is needed.

 


 

 




We have reward mechanisms which regulate our behaviour,and we have biotechnology which can eventually manipulate those reward mechanisms.



A goal oriented organism will likely have a way to identify a state of affairs that is beneficial to it and a reward mechanism could trigger to tell it to do whatever it did again to bring about that state.


An organism with enough control over it's own system could hijack the reward mechanism,or hijack the mechanism with which it identifies a beneficial state of affairs.


If such an organism could engage in preference modification.What is more likely,that they would point their preferences towards something that is difficult to accomplish or something that is easy to accomplish?


I would say that if I were to modify my preferences,I am more likely to survive if I need and want fewer resources than if I need and want an entire star.


And I would be able to modify my preferences long before I would be able to build a dyson sphere.





Exponential Thinking in Education

Jana O'Grady - Tuesday, July 07, 2015

I remember riding my bicycle to the public library about 25 years ago. The research section of the library was cool and quiet and the shelves were filled with heavy, beautifully bound encyclopaedias. I remember feeling proud. I wasn’t there to take out Famous Five or Secret Seven on this particular day; I was there for the important purpose of research.


Rich people had their own sets of encyclopaedias at home. I remember the salesmen who used to go around the neighbourhood selling these seemingly large treasures of information. I also remember how these projects were the highlight of my school career: to be given a topic and allowed the freedom to do research. I remember the pride in presenting, with hand-drawn illustrations, the information I accumulated. I also remember the first time a child with a set of encyclopaedias at home handed in the first project typed on a computer and printed in ink.

 

If I think back on my classroom in 1989, I remember blackboards and big wooden chalk rulers and the discomfort of having to sit still and listen for long periods of time. If we look at classrooms today, very little has changed, especially in rural areas and townships in our country. Even in classrooms with whiteboards, projectors and tablets replacing traditional textbooks, the system hasn’t really changed.

 

Education is the means and pathway out of poverty and the key to prosperity. At present, a small percentage of children in Africa have the privilege of a good education that will allow them to excel in the fields they might choose. If we look at the challenges we face in education in Africa today, it is understandable that many people have serious concerns. It is also understandable that, to most, it seems that the problems in the education systems on the continent might take decades to solve.


Contrary to general cynicism, technological advances in education are growing exponentially and could enable radical change much sooner than we expect. The lack of infrastructure and effective teaching may not be as problematic as we might believe. Africa may just be able to move straight into a sophisticated alternative approach to education.


Do we really grasp the power of exponential growth? Exponential growth is the growth of a system in which the amount added to the system is proportional to the amount already present. The bigger the system, the greater the increase will be.

 

Technology grows exponentially and therefore the rate that our technological advances are achieved is increasing. As the rate of our advances continues to accelerate, the future continues to come faster than we traditionally expect with our linear thinking patterns. It’s also why such growth can be hard to grasp. Once we grasp it, it becomes clear that the possibilities are unfathomable and hold the promise to an abundant future.

 

According to futurist Ray Kurzweil, in his 2001 essay titled The Law of Accelerating Returns, whenever a technology approaches some kind of barrier, a new technology will be invented to allow us to cross that barrier. He predicted that this would become increasingly common, leading to technological change so rapid and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.

 

Kurzweil also points out that we are not evolved to think in terms of exponential growth. Exponential growth is not intuitive and linear thinking is hardwired in our brains. Exponential growth of information technologies is even greater and we are doubling the power measured by price-performance, bandwidth and capacity about every year.

 

Technological change is inevitable; it is happening faster than we could ever have imagined and will continue to do so. Are we ready?

 

Kurzweil recently said that technology has always been a double-edged sword, since fire kept us warm but also burnt down our villages. He believes we have enough time to devise ethical standards before we achieve human-level artificial intelligence. The same applies to change in education. We need to focus attention on strategies, guidelines and safeguards to protect our children and to gently guide them in the new world of accessing information. Our current curriculum does not accommodate the rapid change we are experiencing and that awaits us. We cannot have a system that is cast in stone.

 

In most education systems around the world, there is the same hierarchy. Mathematics and science are considered to be most important, humanities are in the middle and art is at the bottom. There is also a general misconception that children mostly excel in one of these fields; a child is either creative or logical. These outdated systems were developed during the industrial revolution, when this hierarchy provided the best foundation for success. This is no longer the case. In a rapidly changing technological culture and ever-growing information-based economy, creative ideas are of utmost importance. Yet, existing education systems do not nourish creative thinking.

 

According to Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their book, Abundance, most education systems are built around fact-based learning, but the internet makes almost every fact instantly available. There is no real need to spend hours learning dates and names. We are training our children in skills they rarely need while ignoring those they absolutely do. Teaching children how to nourish their creativity and curiosity, while still providing a sound foundation in critical thinking, literacy and maths, is the best way to prepare them for a future of increasingly rapid technological change.

 

Indian physicist Sugata Mitra puts it into perspective when he says the education system is wonderfully constructed and not broken – but we don’t need it any more. It’s outdated. If we look at today’s jobs, the most important skill is to be able to read discerningly. We don’t even know what jobs will look like in the future. Mitra imagines it being a place where people will work from wherever they want. He raises the important question: How is present-day schooling preparing our children for the future?

 

Diamandis and Kotler speak mostly from an American perspective. Let’s look at a very appropriate example of an experiment done in India, where there are many similar challenges to those we face in Africa.


In 1999, Mitra became interested in education. He designed a simple experiment in which he introduced a computer with internet through a hole in a wall to children in the slums, without any guidance on how to use the technology. In a short time, the children figured out how to use it and to browse the internet. This experiment was replicated all over India and all over the world. The outcome is always the same: children, working in small, unsupervised groups and without any formal training, could learn to use computers very quickly and with a great degree of proficiency.


Weren’t the research projects we enjoyed so much in school based on the same principal of self-learning? The way we access information has changed, the way we think has changed, and education systems must change. Complete change might not be the solution, but rather a shift in focus on the elements of our current education system that fit into the new world.

 

The role of the teacher has changed. The internet is the greatest self-improvement tool in history. Take a moment to think about the incredible effect the internet has on our daily lives and what life used to be like without it, only a decade or two ago. The way we access information has changed, the way we think has changed, and the very core of our education system has to adapt to the information explosion. The emphasis has to shift to personal growth and personal responsibility. It is the key because we are in the midst of an educational revolution.

 

There are many communities in Africa without any education infrastructure. Most existing education systems rely on a pedagogical framework that is outdated and ineffective. In the rural parts of Africa, schools face many challenges. There are a lack of resources, including textbooks, stationery and electricity; a lack of well-trained and motivated teachers; malnutrition; high student-teacher ratios; and a lack of stimulation of children from illiterate parents between birth and Grade R. It seems like a hopeless situation. Poverty is preventing many children from getting a good education, while education is a ticket out of poverty. How do we break the poverty cycle and find solutions to bring about rapid change in education - an education system that will improve the lives of millions of people that will bring about change within the next few years?


We have insight and understand the reality of the problems we face in Africa. This insight is needed to make a shift to digital technology in education a sustainable reality. On a practical level for example, if we use tablets, we need to design them for our children. I imagine a device that is inexpensive, durable and has a long battery life and charging stations at schools.


Merely replacing paper with digital alone solves many of our challenges, like a lack of resources and, I believe most important, time. But it is not enough; so much more has to change. Software built on big data is a viable substitute for our lack of teachers and resources and could change the face of education.

 

What excites me most is that this can truly make education equal and enjoyable for all children. Most of us had our favourite subjects in school, often taught by our favourite teachers. Imagine a generation of children who are interested in just about everything. Imagine if the element of fear is removed from school and our classrooms are filled with stimulated and excited children with a great love for learning and an extraordinary ability to solve problems creatively.

 

I believe that this is the future we can look forward to. Let’s not allow fear to hold us back.

 

“We are all afraid – for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet, every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.” Jacob Bronowski

Mobile Clinical Audiometer

Jana O'Grady - Wednesday, July 01, 2015

An edited version of this article was first published in Business Day South Africa.


Telemedicine - a combination of telecommunication and information technologies - can be used to provide clinical healthcare remotely. It eliminates distance barriers and makes health care accessible to people in remote areas. Great progress is being made in this field and exponential growth in technology continues to provide us with solutions to the problems we face.

 

Africa has a severe shortage of hospitals, medical resources, trained doctors and nurses, and technology that will replace the need to visit a doctor or clinic would save and improve the lives of millions of people. As the idiom goes, prevention is better than cure, and this particularly relevant on a continent where undiagnosed conditions are often fatal or cause preventable permanent damage.


About 3-million people have hearing loss in South Africa. Every year, about 4000 people become deaf due to antiretroviral and tuberculosis treatment. Early detection through screening tests could halve this number. The general awareness of hearing impairment is low and our primary healthcare facilities do not have adequate staff or infrastructure to do these tests frequently enough to prevent permanent hearing loss.


In telemedicine, there are two types of tele-audiology tests. The first is an asynchronous test, in which a patient is tested and the results transferred via the internet to a professional, who will look at the results. The second is a synchronous test, in which a patient is tested in real time as if sitting in front of an audiologist.

 

The only difference between seeing an audiologist and tele-audiology is that the physical distance has changed. This technology solves the problem of distance but it does not solve our problem of a lack of healthcare professionals. We either need more doctors and nurses or an alternative that can reach more people.

 

Johannesburg based company eMoyo is taking tele-audiology technology a step further. The company manufactures and distributes mobile audiometers that can detect hearing loss in its early stages. The KUDUwave software and automated testing processes subscribe to the principles of telemedicine, but their newest innovation, transmedicine, includes world-class interpretations of test results. This makes it truly ground-breaking. The mobile audiometers are synchronous, automated, portable patient-examination devices. If results show hearing impairment, patients can be referred to a healthcare professional to receive treatment.


“It is the only true mobile clinical audiometer in the world. The tests it does will detect hearing loss and a doctor can intervene before it gets worse.” says Dr Dirk Koekemoer, director of eMoyo and inventor of the KUDUwave audiometer.

 

Software developer Petra Kritzinger works on including comprehensive medical expertise in a single program that uploads and screens information and provides accurate results. The software is designed to upload data when internet connectivity is available and a delay or power blackout does not affect the data-capturing process. The software is built on the backbone of Big Data - an evolving term that describes any voluminous amount of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data that can be mined for information.

 

The eMoyo laboratory team brings to mind the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs working on the revolutionary Apple 1. The components of the KUDUwave audiometer are 3D-printed and then assembled and tested. “If we need a new part, we just build it. The parts we need don’t exist yet,” says Koekemoer.

 


 

The KUDUwave 5000 portable audiometer comes in a lightweight case equipped with a headset. Built into the headset is a clinical audiometer, two Insert earphones, a bone conductor and an ambient noise SPL meter.

 

The audiometer has no analogue cables that have the risk of malfunctioning and the automated software improves the reliability of test results for air and bone conduction. The device can be used in a variety of testing environments, taking into consideration the unique problems people in remote areas experience.

 

eMoyo is an ISO-13485 Medical Device Quality Assurance Company. This quality extends to every aspect of the business, from design and prototypes, clinical trials and regulatory testing, to manufacturing and calibrations. Quality control is of top priority and the KUDUwave is compliant with European and South African standards for audiometers. Apart from this international quality accreditation, the KUDUwave audiometer carries the European CE quality mark. The KUDUwave is also registered with US Food and Drug Administration for distribution into the US.


eMoyo’s main focus is primary healthcare. “Cheaper by the Dozen" is the latest development by the team. Instead of one nurse testing one child every two minutes, 12 KUDUwave audiometers can be used to test 12 children in the same amount of time. The team shows a deep understanding of the obstacles in the field and strives to find practical solutions.

There are about 18-million children in SA. According to SA’s health regulations, children should be tested for hearing impairments at least every three years. In order to prevent long-term damage that could cause permanent deafness, this should ideally be done annually. The three-year hearing-screening goal has not yet been achieved.

 

The Department of Health has acquired 150 audiometers. There are 3507 primary healthcare clinics in SA, excluding mobile and satellite clinics. If every primary healthcare clinic was to be equipped with a mobile audiometer testing station, the effect could be great. Apart from hearing impairments often going unnoticed, many families travel great distances and take time of work and school to visit clinics, where it is mostly a lengthy process to receive basic treatment. Apart from the healthcare benefits, mobile audiometers will save much time.

“My biggest dream is for every school to have a primary healthcare clinic for children and their families. A small room would be adequate space for basic equipment. The technology exists, it is possible,” says Koekemoer.

 

KUDUwave can diagnose a variety of conditions from a single test. The aim is for the KUDUwave to become a multi-disciplinary device. Financial support will enable more engineers to be employed, more devices to be produced, and more research to be conducted and will speed up the process by leaps and bounds. The expertise, skills and passion are already in place. eMoyo aims to acquire its primary funding from sponsorship by companies that realise its importance.

 

Medical technological devices that can perform the basic tasks of healthcare professionals should not be seen as a threat to the healthcare profession but rather as an advanced tool to improve effectiveness. If devices like mobile audiometers - that can perform accurate basic screening - are widely used, it will allow healthcare professionals to attend to and focus on serious cases. In effect, the function of the doctor becomes more specialised. We are a long way from doctors being replaced by machines, but we are on the brink of technology immensely improving the quality of life of those without access to healthcare.

 

In short, there are certain tasks that can be performed by expertly programmed, monitored and maintained devices and software. The need for easily accessible healthcare is great and if technology can enable medical doctors to reach patients outside of their immediate environment in great numbers, it becomes very clear that there are only benefits to the medical technological revolution.

 

O’Grady is with Singularity Institute Africa http://www.singularityinstituteafrica.com

Energy Innovation on African Soil

Jana O'Grady - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

An edited version of this article was first published in Business Day South Africa.

 

Silicon Valley boasts hi-tech innovation so complex and fast-paced that it is often hard to comprehend from our African perspective. Many futurists and scientists believe we are on the brink of the Technological Singularity, a point in the predicted near future when exponential growth in technology will allow artificial intelligence to exceed human intellectual capacity. It is best described as an intelligence explosion and the possibilities are boundless. But where does Africa fit into this scenario? Most of our people’s basic needs are not yet met and, in the light of the challenges we face, talking about intelligent robots seems frivolous.


Africa, a continent with plenty of sunshine, is believed to be home to the Cradle of Humankind, where humanity started shaping the landscape. Since the first steps, the first paintings on cave walls and the first tools, mankind has evolved in unfathomable ways and continues to do so. We have an energy crisis, despite the continent being endowed with resources and the availability of alternatives; but that is hopefully about to change.




Imagine if global equality was a real possibility. Imagine if, instead of the cold place depicted in futuristic films, the future was a time when people could once again live with the seemingly simplistic beauty of Africa but, with exponential growth in technology, to be a globally interconnected community with more power of knowledge than ever before. Imagine a world where everyone can live in harmony with nature through the use of technological advances so sophisticated that there can be sufficient nutritious food, energy, clean water, sanitation, education and shelter for everyone.




If we consider the reality of the dire circumstances in which most people in Africa live, it seems like an unrealistic western dream exclusively applicable to the wealthy. There is, however, a glimmer of hope based on what we see in growth curves. If we look at exponential growth curves, this should be possible, globally, much sooner than our linear thinking patterns allow us to expect. It seems like Africa was left behind, but will not be for much longer.


Unfortunately, for many people in Africa little has changed in the past 100,000 years and many people still rely on fire for heating and cooking. Resources are running out. Paraffin is also a very common energy source but is the cause of many deaths due to ingestion and fires. Renewable energy is the obvious solution, but are these technologies a practical solution on a continent where a lack of financial resources and mismanagement of funds are a reality?


According to the International Energy Agency, 1.3-billion people worldwide live without electricity. Nearly 97% of those live in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. The latest estimate for sub-Saharan Africa has been revised upwards by 22-million. Rapid population growth continues to outpace the rate of electrification. Energy is arguably the most important resource we have. With enough energy, we solve the issue of water scarcity, which also addresses most of our health problems. Energy also brings light and internet connectivity, which facilitates education, which in turn reduces poverty. Energy aids in the promotion of economic growth, improvement in agriculture, communication technology and industrialisation.


According to Ray Kurzweil, in his 2001 essay titled The Law of Accelerating Returns, whenever a technology approaches some kind of barrier, a new technology will be invented to allow us to cross that barrier. He predicted that this will become increasingly common, leading to technological change so rapid and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. When it comes to our lack of financial resources, exponential growth curves also show that the price of technology is decreasing and that innovators are finding ways of overcoming challenges in more cost-effective ways. The solutions are within our reach.

 

We may have no urgent need for intelligent robots on the continent, but in the light of 3D-printed organs and the promise of immortality, solving Africa’s energy problems seems quite simple on a continent with so much sunshine, deserts and wind.


The lack of infrastructure and development in large parts of Africa may not be as problematic as we might believe. Africa may just be able to skip years of technological practices that put much strain on the environment and move straight into sophisticated and sustainable alternatives.


In a few short years, mobile-phone networks transformed communication in Africa. It allowed many Africans to skip the landline stage of development and jump straight to into digital communication. Kenya became the midwife of mobile money transfer using a technology it did not invent. Africa can do for renewable energy what it did for mobile communication. With our lack of existing energy infrastructures, it makes sense that renewable energy, like mobile education, will become a priority on the continent. We have insight and a deep understanding of the challenges we face. This insight can make sustainable solutions on the continent a reality.


“The exponential-technology train has left the old station and is rapidly running towards a world of infinite possibilities. Let’s not be left behind. It’s time for Africa to jump on the exponential-technology train,” says Dr Kwame Amuah, a respected Johannesburg-based academic and entrepreneur.


Dr Amuah is an alumnus of the University of Cape Coast Ghana and hosted a delegation from the university during their recent visit to Johannesburg. I had the pleasure of facilitating, on behalf of Dr Amuah’s latest initiative, Singularity Institute Africa, meetings between the delegation of the University Cape Coast Ghana and various universities in and around Johannesburg.


The aim was for the University Cape Coast Ghana to explore the possibility of collaborations and to draw inspiration and motivation from innovation happening at these leading academic and research institutions in South Africa. I was astounded to find that the South African universities have most definitely jumped on the exponential technology train.


“I believe you have an energy crisis in South Africa,” Vice-Chancellor Domwini Kuupole said to me on the steps of the University of Johannesburg’s impressive Madibeng building. “Yes,” I replied, “sometimes our power outages last for up to four hours.” Prof Kuupole and Prof Samuel Annim exchanged glances and chuckled. “I suspect that I’m being completely ignorant, please tell me about the energy situation in Ghana,” I said.


Ghana experiences blackouts that last for up to 12 hours at a time and urgently needs alternative sources of energy to cut costs. The electricity supply in Ghana and many African countries is erratic and, apart from the negative effects on their economies, it affects critical infrastructures such as telecommunication networks, financial services, water supplies, hospitals and academic institutions. Generators are among the greatest expense at the University of Cape Coast and renewable energy technology is among its top priorities.


We paid a visit to the Faculty of Engineering on the Potchefstroom Campus of North-West University. Nothing could have prepared us for the day ahead. The university has a clear vision for research and innovation. Its aim is to move from being a tuition-based institution that does focused research towards being a balanced teaching-learning and research university. This sounds great on paper, but seeing it in practice exceeded my already high expectations.


Our first visit on a tour of the faculty was the impressive Solar Training Centre, which was installed as a partnership project between Sunfarming Germany and Suncybernetics in South Africa to provide practical training opportunities at North-West University. Sunfarming focuses on large-scale renewable energy generation, energy training and, as a by-product, crop growing underneath the solar panels. The solar training facility on the campus comprises several grid-tied solar photovoltaic systems and a photovoltaic solar island system that charges electric scooters a nd electric bicycles used as transport on the campus.



 


The aim of the training centre is to establish sustainable knowledge by teaching comprehensive theoretical as well as practical knowledge related to photovoltaic energy solutions. Students, electricians and installers trained at this facility are able to plan, install, maintain and operate photovoltaic plants. Apart from becoming independent of fossil energy, solar energy is a key driver in job creation.

 


 

The training courses operated by Sunfarming for professors, doctors and masters students provide qualified personnel with the latest developments in photovoltaic solutions. The training modules have been developed to South African requirements by Sunfarming Germany and the train-the-trainer programme ensures that the skills remain in South Africa.


Our last stop is a visit to HySA Infrastructure. SA’s Department of Science and Technology developed the National Hydrogen and Fuel CellsTechnologies Research, Development and Innovation Strategy, which was branded Hydrogen South Africa (HySA). The overall goal is to develop and guide innovation in hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies in South Africa.It is co-hosted by North-West University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. HySA director Dr. Dmitri Bessarabov took us on a tour of the facility.


HySA is mandated to deliver cost-effective technologies for renewable hydrogen production, storage and distribution. Its goal is to develop and guide innovation in hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies in South Africa and create jobs through the initiation of new hi-technology industries based on minerals found in South Africa, especially platinum group metals.

The team consists of more than 30 people, including students. They are renowned for their international expertise in electrolysis, renewable energy, power management, membranes and fuel cells.

 

The facilities are world class and include state-of-the-art electrochemical analytical equipment, fully automated test stations for single-cell electrolysis benchmarking, a triple-volume laboratory for hydrogen pilot-plant operation and a 15 kilowatt peak photovoltaic expendable research plant for renewable hydrogen production.

 

HySA focuses on technologies such as hydrogen storage materials, hydrogen reticulation and delivery, systems integration for hydrogen production and delivery, and platinum group metal recycling. Fuel cells that use a catalyst such as platinum use hydrogen, which has little or no polluting emissions. Chemical energy is converted into electrical energy. Hydrogen is a clean and efficient fuel, but the challenge is to develop infrastructure to produce, store and make hydrogen available for these applications, as well as cost-effective replacement catalysts.

 

HySA aims to develop cost-effective ways of local hydrogen generation, focusing on using renewable energy and is taking steps to take solar-hydrogen to commercialisation. They believe we can look forward to a great revolution in hydrogen technology.

 

Advances in technology that seemed to apply only to developed countries are becoming real possibilities and many life-changing projects are already in place on African soil, specifically as seen at the universities during the Ghanaian visit. The price of technology is decreasing and scientists, academics and civilians are inventing ways of overcoming our greatest challenges in cost-effective ways that will benefit everyone.

 

Visiting the universities and witnessing inspiring deliberations showed that African research institutions are participating in and contributing to the global technological evolution on a practical level. It is time for Africa to become an integral part of the process and to speed up and lead technological evolution on the continent. It is within our reach to start an energy revolution on the continent. The technology to solve our energy problems exists. The challenge is to convince our governments to think like our academics and entrepreneurs. 


Renewable energy cannot be relatively small-scale or long-term projects. To achieve rapid change, it has to be regarded a top priority of African governments.


Constructive debate and collaborations on innovation between African universities, innovators, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts will spark communication on the continent in a broader sense.