From the editor's desk: Exciting times ahead?

30 April 2024 News

Peter Howells, Editor.

There are many subjects that excite me in this world, but two of the larger technical subjects are, firstly, renewable energy, and secondly, the idea of artificial intelligence as it continues to evolve and shape the world we live in.

I suppose that living in South Africa, we all have a vested interest in renewable energy in some form or other. This is largely due to the monumental failure of planning by Eskom which has seen parts of the country plunged into darkness at regular intervals. The term coined for this is loadshedding, but I suspect this is simply to make it sound more appetising. More citizens would be outraged if it were called what it actually is: deliberate power failures.

We are told that this is to protect the aging and poorly maintained infrastructure that can no longer cope with the demand that South Africa puts on it, thereby preventing a total collapse of the electrical grid. And I agree, it is. But let’s not sugar coat it.

Amazingly, approximately 95% of the electricity used in South Africa and 45% of the electricity used in Africa is generated by Eskom and the utility still ranks in the top 20 utilities worldwide by generation capacity. But we can surely all agree that they are battling.

Of course, this is why I am so excited by the prospect of renewable energy. I firmly believe that this will be our saving grace in SA. Not because of any new infrastructure that the current government is installing, but rather what the ordinary citizens are doing, now that the government has removed a lot of the red tape. Installations of solar photovoltaic systems, which currently make up the bulk of renewable energy generation in South Africa, has increased dramatically over the last year. Solar panels are becoming cheaper as manufacturing processes get more efficient, and more and more people are spending the capital needed to keep the power on.

These little marvels of electricity generation, showcased here, have increased their efficiency significantly, and 500+ W panels are now commonplace. Reducing one’s reliance on the national grid has now become easier than ever before.

Artificial intelligence also gets me excited. I believe everyone has heard of, if not used, ChatGPT to see what it is capable of. But this is just a drop in the ocean of systems that use AI. Almost every modern system has some form of AI behind the scenes making sure that the results are spot on; manufacturing, optical recognition, forecasting models, advanced driver assist, online shopping suggestions, humanoid robots…the list could fill up pages if we continued. A survey from 2021 found that 56% of companies had adopted AI in at least one function within the organisation. That number is undoubtedly higher now.

But what is it about AI that makes us so enamoured with it?

The fact that it is able to mimic a human response. Whether that response is to a question put to it, from an optical system, or simply scouring through volumes of data to find correlations, the output is uncannily human.

The next major shift in AI is going to be the widespread use of quantum computing. Quantum computers promise a level of computing power not seen before using classical computing. Combining quantum processing with AI is going to provide machine learning models with a learning capability that will surely make today’s ML systems look paltry.

While quantum computers are still in their infancy, great strides are being made in this field. Many institutions believe that the winner of the race to conquer this form of computing will have benefits we cannot yet comprehend.

We are certainly living in exciting times.


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