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IMAGINE a “beep beep” on a cellphone could be the SMS alert that saves a life.
What if technology was not just about 140 characters updating the world about what you’ve eaten for lunch, but could be a warning for Alexandra residents living along the Jukskei River to evacuate before the river floods?
Technology and communications specialist Lee-Roy Chetty sees a cyber- future in which the internet intuits our preferences, factors in our quirks and makes our on line networking super-intelligent. At the same time Chetty sees an opportunity for technology to be low-tech, but locally appropriate. He envisages a technology that has the power to intersect with the goals of a developing world that must leapfrog existing developmental challenges to meet the demands of a modern world.
“We already see things like farmers in deep rural India using their cellphones to check on trading prices before they cultivate their field. That way they get the optimal prices for their harvests. Before that they were stuck getting whatever market price was going.
“In South Africa we could use SMS alerts to help people stick to their ARV treatment programmes, tell them about changes at their local clinics before they make long, costly trips for their check-ups or create early warning systems for communities at risk from natural disasters,” says Chetty. His twin views situate him well to represent SA at a UN think tank in Geneva this month. The 70 young global thinkers will look at opportunities and challenges for a planet that’s home to seven billion people.
Chetty started out his working life in advertising and changed direction to look at the world of communications and media in digital space. He went back to study and became a two-time winner of National Research Foundation scholarships.
Through the programme he got to complete his media studies at the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts. He is completing his PhD at UCT and an economics degree with Unisa.
He turned his masters thesis into a book called Imagining Web 3.0, which was the theme of his talk at SciBono’s Speak to a Scientist lecture this month. This next web generation, also called the semantic web, will see the rise of computers capable of interpreting data about its users. The artificial intelligence will deliver a more personalised interaction with the internet and is seen as the next big evolution in our hyper-connected world.
The power of Web 3.0, as Chetty sees it, has the potential to bring machines closer to users and producers. Says Chetty: “In the next 20 years I believe creativity and young people being tech-savvy will be as important as literacy.” He also works as a tech-adviser to the deputy minister of foreign affairs. He says “e-governance” is necessary to close the digital divide.
“A single cohesive strategy is essential to ensure the diffusion of ICT (information communication technologies) in all areas of society and the economy. Like energy and transport, ICT is an enabler – it can speed up delivery, support analysis, build intelligence, and create new ways to share, learn and engage.”
But that divide runs deep. He notes there are those cheering on a “cyber- utopia”, the world in which they are never far from their tablets, smartphones and laptops to download a new app or to “like” something on a social networking site.
Also there are those surviving without the basics of clean water or shelter, and then there are those increasingly alienated by technology.
But there’s no holding back the tidal wave of technology. High cellphone penetration is a promising starting point, as is the fact that there are already 13 million internet users in South Africa. Tweet that!