E&T news weekly #63 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday September 25 2015

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Smart lighting installation to be revealed in Scotland

We work on powerful computers, keep up with the world through our smartphones and drive home in cars chock full of sophisticated electronics to our homes where we interact with smart TVs and consoles. Yet we do these things with the help of lighting which has the sophisticated functionality that you can turn it on, you can turn it off again or, if you’re lucky, you can turn it up or down. For those who live and work indoors, we use lighting most of the time. Isn’t it time lighting was as smart as the rest of our electronics? This project at the University of Strathclyde makes lighting that can adapt to what we are doing and how we feel without us having to think about it. Ultimately it’s got to be more efficient as well. I am only concerned about the idea that it could make us work harder – remember Muzak?

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
France presses ‘right to be forgotten’ case against Google

A reminder that any and all information you choose to share with the world via the internet is quite likely to remain there for all to see through time immemorial. France is hustling Google to delete all ‘right to be forgotten’ data held on French citizens by the search engine across all Google’s web domains – not just from its .fr results. Google, thus far, is not playing ball. It seems a farcical interpretation of the law that a person’s right to be forgotten request might only be actioned in their home country, as if they wouldn’t care that every other country in the world – in fact, anyone in their home country as well that uses google.com rather than google.fr – could still search and access the contentious information. If something is no longer true about a person in France, surely it’s also not true in America? Or Bolivia? Or Outer Mongolia? Google, somewhat spuriously, disagrees. This is almost certainly not a debate over an individual’s right to be forgotten worldwide, but more about Google keeping its search engine advertising business – still the company’s major cash cow – a vibrant and attractive proposition to businesses. It can’t be seen to be so readily pulling information off all its domains worldwide. Otherwise, if all the juicy, salacious titbits are stripped out, what will there be left to search for?

IBM’s Watson psychoanalyses Twitter users to target ads

Meanwhile, people who tweet with great enthusiasm, flinging all manner of personal information and opinion about on the internet, are blithely revealing the secrets of their psyche, which advertisers are keen to exploit with exquisitely targeted ads that prey on a user’s predilections, desires and weaknesses, all of which were unwittingly revealed tweet by tweet. Enter IBM’s Watson supercomputer to psychoanalyse a user’s timeline and bingo bango, disturbingly ingratiating ads begin to pursue them. This is all reminiscent of the episode of Futurama in which Bender presents the internet, to which Fry exclaims, “My God, it’s full of ads!” and the team is relentlessly besieged by flying adverts everywhere they go. And lo, it came to pass.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Smart lighting installation to be revealed in Scotland

On a Monday morning, the weekend starts to feel like a mere memory, a fleeting glance at happiness. I wouldn’t blame anyone to not feel a little down in the dumps as we settle back into the daily grind. We all need a little pick me up sometime. This Power over Ethernet lighting installation, developed by Cisco and amBX, improves human well-being and performance by regulating colour and intensity of artificial light, as well as keeping users’ needs in mind. It could be extremely useful in the office. It also uses LED technology that can reduce energy consumption by 75 per cent. The installation takes into account the amount of ambient daylight, time of day, amount of space and temperature, which is rather considerate of it. It will be unveiled in Glasgow next month. The COO of amBX says that using Power over Ethernet lights in workspaces and different environments could make humans healthier and happier. I love me some healthy working humans.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
VW emissions scandal leads to fears of global mass recalls

I’m probably a typical motorist in that I regard replacing my car not as something to look forward to, but a chore that I put off as long as possible. It’s something I want to get done with the minimum of fuss, so with my current vehicle on the way out it was useful that having a relatively new Volkswagen on hire for a couple of weeks’ family holiday over the summer provided the opportunity for an extended test drive of a possible replacement. Everything went OK and I was seriously considering tracking down a VW of the appropriate size, age and price. Until this week. It’s hardly surprising that news of faked emissions tests and potential for nearly half a million cars being recalled in the US alone saw the company’s share price plummet. The brand’s strong enough for a core of loyal customers to stick with it; for those like me who just want their motoring to involve as little hassle as possible though this is a massive deterrent. With the US government announcing it’ll be looking at other manufacturers and experts saying this could just be the tip of a very large global iceberg, maybe I’d be better off buying bikes for the whole family.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Wind gust generator imitates real-world turbulence

Independent R&D organisation the Aircraft Research Association has just installed a wind-tunnel gust generator that is believed to be the first of its kind. The ARA hopes it will help aviation engineers get a better understanding of how turbulence affects aircraft performance.

Paralysed man walks again with brain computer aid

It’s a striking headline, and inevitably the underlying story is less dramatic. Even so, the fact that researchers in California have enabled a paraplegic man to translate thoughts into controlled leg movements offers hope for future developments, albeit ‘many years away’.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, online news reporter
Multi-material printheads ‘the next frontier’ of 3D printed products

Despite all the press attention and claims that it will revolutionise manufacturing, 3D printing has always seemed limited to me. I had my first hands-on experience with one of the devices earlier this year at a trade show. The printer was chewing up plastic cups and turning them into small red rings with hearts on them. Although I could see the potential of such a device, I wasn’t sure that the world really needed hundreds of these cheap-looking rings. The limitations of being confined to a single material type made it seem like it would only be useful in relatively niche scenarios. However, Harvard boffins have recently created new printheads that are capable of layering different material types and even constructing electronic circuits with variable resistances. If this technology becomes mainstream, the potential possibilities are mind-boggling. I can’t wait to see what weird and wonderful products people will come up with when they able to manufacture them with just a click of a button.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Solar-powered emergency mobile network developed in Pakistan

This is an innovative idea which has the potential to make a real difference to rescue missions in disaster-prone countries. A team of researchers in Pakistan have developed a solar-powered portable mobile-phone network capable of providing emergency phone service when standard lines of communication are down. In countries like Pakistan, where poor communications systems, especially in remote areas, are susceptible to disruption, the possibility of calling for help via mobile phone could make the difference between life and death. The network is yet to be tested in a real-life scenario but the researchers behind the project hope to put it into practice within the next six to eight months.

Girls win big at Future Industry Leaders Awards

This year’s EDT Future Industry Leaders Awards were all won by young women with an interest in engineering. My interest in this article is two-fold, of course I’m excited by the results, any victory for girls is a plus in my books, but I am also pleasantly amused by the perfect timing of the story. It is as if the results have come in direct response to last week’s revelation that the majority of girls find STEM subjects “too difficult to learn”. Now it seems that there are still a few girls with a passion for the more ‘masculine’ subjects. Fantastic! For some time now a specific objective of the EDT has been to convince girls that there are no barriers to women having enjoyable and successful careers in industry, and it looks as though ladies are beginning to rise to the challenge.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Government urged to probe car makers in wake of VWgate

VWgate, the latest scandal to hit the automotive industry, has led to a furious backlash; itsCEO has resigned and Volkswagen owners are turning to social media to express their views as it has been revealed VW cheated its emission tests using special software. VW has spent years branding its diesel engines as ‘clean diesel’, but it’s now facing heavy fines and with its reputation in tatters, what will become of VW and could this possibly draw attention to other car manufacturers. Watch this space.

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