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Free data campaign from SA goes global

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The Wikimedia Foundation shares a heartwarming story about the slums of South Africa to promote its Wikipedia Zero petition

The Wikimedia Foundation has made a short documentary about a group of South African high school students who pleaded with local mobile networks to offer free access to Wikipedia.

It forms part of a new petition from the foundation for its Wikipedia Zero project, which aims to offer free access to the online, crowdsourced encyclopaedia on mobile phones.

“You might think that the cost of data is trivial, but it is the single greatest barrier we face to getting everyone access to Wikipedia,” the petition states.

According to Wikimedia, roughly 6 out of 7 people today have access to a cellular phone, but the cost of data is so expensive for most people they simply can’t afford to access Wikipedia – despite its free licence.

“That’s why the Wikimedia Foundation has been working with cellular phone providers to waive data charges for accessing Wikipedia,” Wikimedia said.

“This initiative is called Wikipedia Zero.”

The documentary and petition build on a campaign Wikimedia launched last year (October 2013) when it published an open letter from South African high school students to local mobile operators on change.org.

Signed by 24 Cape Town students from Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park, Milnerton, the letter encouraged South Africa’s mobile operators to follow in the footsteps of operators in Kenya and Uganda.

Orange Kenya and Orange Uganda have reportedly offered zero-rated access to Wikipedia since August 2012.

Wikimedia Foundation and Airtel Kenya also announced a partnership in October 2013 to trial free Wikipedia access via SMS using technology from SA-based Praekelt Foundation, called Vumi.

Praekelt describes Vumi as an open source USSD and SMS mobile messaging platform offering connectivity in Africa, which serves NGOs, corporations, and entrepreneurs.

Following the publication of the letter at the end of October 2013, MTN responded with a statement saying it was already working on a programme to zero-rate Wikipedia access.

In February 2014, at the height of the #NekNomination craze, MTN released a video announcing it would start offering free Wikipedia access to its customers:

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Siri Will Soon Understand You a Whole Lot Better

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It all started at a small academic get-together in Whistler, British Columbia.

The topic was speech recognition, and whether a new and unproven approach to machine intelligence—something called deep learning—could help computers more effectively identify the spoken word. Microsoft funded the mini-conference, held just before Christmas 2009, and two of its researchers invited the world’s preeminent deep learning expert, the University of Toronto’s Geoff Hinton, to give a speech.

Hinton’s idea was that machine learning models could work a lot like neurons in the human brain. He wanted to build “neural networks” that could gradually assemble an understanding of spoken words as more and more of them arrived. Neural networks were hot in the 1980s, but by 2009, they hadn’t lived up to their potential.

At Whistler, the gathered speech researchers were polite about the idea, “but not that interested,” says Peter Lee, the head of Microsoft’s research arm. These researchers had already settled on their own algorithms. But Microsoft’s team felt that deep learning was worth a shot, so the company had a couple of engineers work with Hinton’s researchers and run some experiments with real data. The results were “stunning,” Lee remembers—a more than 25 percent improvement in accuracy. This, in a field where a 5 percent improvement is game-changing. “We published those results, then the world changed,” he says.

Now, nearly five years later, neural network algorithms are hitting the mainstream, making computers smarter in new and exciting ways. Google has used them to beef up Android’s voice recognition. IBM uses them. And, most remarkably, Microsoft uses neural networks as part of the Star-Trek-like Skype Translate, which translates what you say into another language almost instantly. People “were very skeptical at first,” Hinton says, “but our approach has now taken over.”

ONE BIG-NAME COMPANY HASN’T MADE THE JUMP: APPLE, WHOSE SIRI SOFTWARE IS DUE FOR AN UPGRADE

One big-name company, however, hasn’t made the jump: Apple, whose Siri software is due for an upgrade. Though Apple is famously secretive about its internal operations–and did not provide comment for this article–it seems that the company previously licensed voice recognition technology from Nuance—perhaps the best known speech recognition vendor. But those in the tight-knit community of artificial intelligence researchers believe this is about to change. It’s clear, they say, that Apple has formed its own speech recognition team and that a neural-net-boosted Siri is on the way.

Lee would know. Apple hired one of his top managers, Alex Acero, last year. Acero, now a senior director in Apple’s Siri group had put in nearly 20 years at Microsoft, researching speech technology. There he oversaw Li Deng and Dong Yu, the two Microsoft researcher who invited Geoff Hinton to that conference in British Columbia. Apple has also poached speech researchers from Nuance, including Siri Manager Gunnar Evermann. Another speech research hire: Arnab Ghoshal, a researcher from the University of Edinburgh.

“Apple is not hiring only in the managerial level, but hiring also people on the team-leading level and the researcher level,” says Abdel-rahman Mohamed, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, who was courted by Apple. “They’re building a very strong team for speech recognition research.”

Ron Brachman, who oversees research at Yahoo and helped launch the project that originally gave rise to Siri, points out that Apple’s digital iPhone assistant depends on a lot more than just speech recognition. But Microsoft’s Peter Lee gives Apple six months to catch up to Microsoft and Google and start using neural nets, and he thinks this will significantly boost Siri’s talents. “All of the major players have switched over except for Apple Siri,” he says. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”

Cade Metz contributed reporting to this story.

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What is an IP PBX?

An IP PBX is a complete telephony system that provides telephone calls over IP data networks. All conversations are sent as data packets over the network.

The technology includes advanced communication features but also provides a significant dose of worry-free scalability and robustness that all enterprises seek. The IP PBX is also able to connect to traditional PSTN lines via an optional gateway – so upgrading day-to-day business communication to this most advanced voice and data network is a breeze!

Enterprises don’t need to disrupt their current external communication infrastructure and operations. With an IP PBX deployed, an enterprise can even keep its regular telephone numbers. This way, the IP PBX switches local calls over the data network inside the enterprise and allows all users to share the same external phone lines.