On the internet-of-things and South Africa’s development

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I have often talked about the fact that my grandmother, Vho-Tshianeo, even though she could not read or write, was my first engineering teacher. She used to make clay pots with impressive artistry. She would go with me to the river to collect the best clay she could find. This is what in engineering we call materials selection. Artificial intelligence (AI) procedures such as ant colony optimisation are used for materials selection. AI is a procedure for making machines intelligent. Ant colony optimisation is a procedure that is derived from the research of South Africa’s Afrikaans writer Eugène Marais, who studied the ways ants build complicated ant hills. These days we can use the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technology, 3D printing, to make clay pots. 

As for Vho-Tshianeo, she would put her pots in the sun to dry. After that, she would put the dried pots in the furnace to heat them. She would then allow them to cool down slowly. This process of slowly cooling the pots is called annealing. Annealing is such a powerful concept that an AI procedure called simulated annealing is used to find the shortest distance between two locations. Then she would knock each pot and listen to its sound and based on the sound, and she would determine whether it is a good or bad pot. The process of listening to the ringing of the pots is called sensing, and when there are rings from many pots that are being listened (sensed) to, we call this sensor network.  

The sound of the pots was transferred wirelessly (without a wire) to Vho-Tshianeo’s ears to be processed by her brain. We call this wireless sensor network, and the brain is replaced by an AI procedure in the 4IR. If the sensing device is buried inside the pot, we call this embedded sensors. Because this entire process involves sensing and distributing the sensed information wirelessly to a data bank for further analysis and action, this is called the internet of things (IoT).   

Recently, on the 28 August 2020, the South African born, Silicon Valley-based engineer Elon Musk unveiled a brain implant that measures the activities of the brain and sends the information to a central database where it can be analysed. Similar to Vho-Tshianeo’s pots, this brain implant is embedded in the scalp to sense information from the brain. Furthermore, it can activate different parts of the brain. It then transfers the information wirelessly to some device, for analysis and further action. The implications of this embedded brain implant technology on the health of individuals are far-reaching. With this data from the brain, we can track blood sugar levels, tumours, epileptic activities, high blood pressure, Alzheimer and many others. 

The IoT involves sensing, distributing, analysing and actioning. Data is sensed, and in the case of Musk’s company Neuralink, by an implant. Then data is transferred wirelessly to a central place, e.g. a smartphone or cloud, where it is analysed using tools such as artificial intelligence. The knowledge that is then extracted from the data is used for action. For example, if the application is in health, and the data analysis reveals that there is something wrong with the person from whom data was gathered, the information is relayed to a doctor, and an appointment is automatically made. The applications of IoT are vast and include machine health monitoring, pollution monitoring, landslide detection, forest fire detection and water quality monitoring.

Recently, I was appointed as the Chairman of the International Advisory Board of the African Center of Excellence in Internet of Things (ACE-IoT) at the University of Rwanda. The ACE-IoT is a testament that Africa is indeed taking serious steps towards participating in the 4IR. As Rwandan President Paul Kagame put it, “Africa’s story has been written by others; we need to own our problems and solutions and write our story”. As we define our own path in the 4IR, institutions such as the ACE-IoT are crucial to writing our story. We should use institutions such as the ACE-IoT to foster movements of 4IR experts into the African continent, and African researchers to collaborate with researchers from important 4IR centres in the United States, China, and Europe. These centres should be linked to industry, government and venture capital.

For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the globe propelled into a threatening environment. Here we can apply IoT to monitor the movement of people and contain the spread of this pandemic. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has observed that the 4IR would pave the way for new jobs, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering, data analysis, computer science and the social sciences. In this context, we need to adapt our education system to one that adequately equips students with the 4IR relevant communication, logical and mathematical skills. IoT is at the heart of innovation, and it can power automated systems, wearable electronic devices such as fitness trackers or smartwatches or smart fridges. The value chain of IoT is vast for us to insert ourselves. For example, we could analyse all these data gathered using wireless sensor networks using AI. Or we could choose to manufacture these sensor devices. According to an Ericsson IoT report, it is predicted that there will be around 29 billion connected devices by 2022 – 18 million of which will be IoT-related. 

A report from Verified Market Research estimated that the global IoT market was valued at $212.1billion in 2018 and is expected to see a growth of 25.68% between 2019 and 2026, reaching $1,3trillion. The economic impact of IoT applications is expected to range from $3.9 trillion to $11.1 trillion per year by 2025. As the Executive Chairman of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, wrote in the foreword of our book, Disruptive fourth industrial revolution, “If we don’t actively shape the direction of technology, will it rather help or hurt societies at large?” We should invest in technologies such as IoT so that we can lead our country into prosperity.


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the upcoming book: Closing the Gap-The fourth industrial revolution in Africa. He can be followed on twitter at @txm1971.