Load-shedding and broken undersea cables notwithstanding, South Africa is catching up with global tech trends. At least three of those emerging, disruptive technologies look set to impact our daily lives and businesses in 2020, as the country leaps into a hyper-connected future.
Robots are here to stay
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or 4IR, or Industry 4.0) continues to kick in, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine automation, 5G and blockchain blur the lines between the physical and digital worlds. In South Africa, RPA is about to add itself to that list. ‘This year is going to be a momentous year for robotic process automation,’ says Aaron Harris, Chief Technology Officer at Sage. ‘It refers to the process of automating mundane tasks such as taking data from one file and entering it into a business application like CRM (customer relationship management). It’s about computerising repetitive tasks that are an inefficient use of people’s time.’
While it’s called robotic, RPA isn’t a physical robot. Instead, it’s a way of working across several software applications, automatically entering, maintaining, migrating, integrating, mining and testing data on spreadsheets. As Harris puts it: ‘It’s equivalent to an employee who never sleeps, eats or makes mistakes on tasks that need repeating over and over again.’
Although RPA has generally been limited to big companies in South Africa, Harris sees that changing this year. ‘In 2020, we’ll start to see this trickle down to small and medium-sized businesses,’ he predicts, citing global stats from market research company Gartner. ‘RPA software revenue grew 63.1% in 2018 to $846 million and Gartner foresaw that it would grow to $1.3 billion in 2019. That makes it the fastest-growing segment in the global enterprise software market.’ ‘
In 2020, we’ll start to see robotic process automation trickle down to small and medium-sized businesses.’ - Aaron Harris, Sage
It’s warp speed ahead
Much like high-speed fibre internet went from a pipe dream to a daily reality within a couple of years, 5G and WiFi 6 are expected to have a similarly quick – but far more disruptive – impact. 5G (the fifth generation of mobile technology) and WiFi 6 (sixth-gen WiFi) offer super-fast connectivity, allowing smart machines and mobile devices to connect to one another quickly and seamlessly.
‘South Africa is still playing catch-up in terms of internet connectivity and speed,’ says Colin Timmis, General Country Manager at Xero SA. ‘However, WiFi 6 is set to improve the way routers distribute traffic to connected devices and increase the transfer speeds by around 30%. When you’re on the go, 5G is the next generation of mobile data standard. It’s already being trialled by South African carrier Rain, and a broader rollout is expected in 2020.’
The future of money
This year began with the news that Senegalese-American rapper Akon was establishing a futuristic crypto city in Senegal, built on an 800 hectare plot given to him by Senegalese President Macky Sall. The city, which is approximately the size of 800 Trafalgar Squares, will trade exclusively in Akon’s own digital currency, AKoin. While this may sound like a popstar publicity stunt (or a massive ego trip), it’s actually a sign of the maturity of digital currencies.
There’s been plenty of hype around cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Facebook’s Libra, but Harris believes that digital currencies will start to prove their real worth, as they go a long way to solving the growing global problem of money laundering. ‘In the present, largely paper-based system of financial transactions, there can be little or no trace of where money is coming from or going to,’ he says, pointing to UN estimates which put the amount laundered annually at between 2% and 5% of global GDP, or as much as $4 trillion a year.
‘A digital currency, on the other hand, produces an immutable record of every transaction made, of where it came from and where it is going. It is like a cryptographically protected distributed ledger for currencies and makes it much harder to launder money,’ he says.
That’s why, despite the raft of regulatory and legislative issues, Harris says that, ‘I can see at least one of the recently launched virtual currencies really taking off in 2020.’
Mark van Dijk
An award-winning writer who has written for publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to the official magazine of the JSE.