E&T news weekly #69 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday November 6 2015

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Airlander blimp takes to the air for the first time

The idea of an airship might conjure up visions of the 1930s, but for the last few years work has been going on to build one at the historic Cardington hangar in Bedfordshire. The team members at Hybrid Air Vehicles are hoping that it will be the first of a new generation of quiet, green long-endurance transporters serving remote areas where conventional aircraft couldn’t land. I saw the Airlander when its hull was first inflated (with air, not helium, back then), so I was delighted to read in this progress report that it has now got off the ground for the first time.

Seawater greenhouses to bring cultivation to Somalia

It’s good to hear that the government is helping to fund this research project, which will use seawater to create a controlled greenhouse environment for food cultivation in hot, dry places such as the Horn of Africa.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Geminoid robots make people uncomfortable, study finds

To me, this sounds like a shining example of a pointless survey and waste of taxpayers’ money. Wasn’t the result fairly predictable well before the start of this so-called ‘experiment’? Would any human in the right mind feel ‘comfortable’ when confronted with an exact replica of themselves which is in actual fact a man-made machine, no matter how clever? I would feel extremely… erm… edgy, even nervous, I can tell you, and would be tempted to run away – no experimentation necessary. I think that the Australian scientists involved should now capitalise on the obvious success of their ‘survey’, the news of which has been spread all over the world, and start conducting extensive research in the following areas: how would a human feel if a robot or another human punches him or her in the face; would it feel ‘comfortable’ to be mugged on your way home from work; and – most importantly – if the results of some half-baked pseudo-scientific investigations are bound to make one feel angry? I can offer myself as a volunteering guinea-pig for the latter, albeit it shouldn’t be too hard to forecast the result.

TV networks using mind-reading tech to trap viewers

This is a direct throw-back to Orwell’s ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’ – a TV set that – as you are watching it – is also watching you! From now on, I will never be able to enjoy BBC News at Ten (the only TV programme I watch regularly) in peace. Greetings from Winston Smith, everyone.

Anti-immigrant system launched for truck drivers

I am probably in a grumpy mood today, but the so-called ‘driver’s buddy’ device described in this story strikes me as yet another token ‘solution’ to a very serious problem. It reminds me of the recently announced electronic gadget to be installed on Britain’s railway platforms to send to the waiting passengers’ iPads and Smartphones information about the available ‘space’ (not seats for sitting down, mind you, space for squeezing in!) in this or that carriage, so that they could dash to the right one when the train arrives. This kind of ‘solution’ is of course much easier to carry out than longer trains with more seats on them. Likewise, allowing the driver to monitor his truck for hiding migrants when it is common knowledge that many drivers carry asylum seekers willingly and for a fee from human traffickers, is not going to achieve anything, apart from ticking yet another bureaucratic box: buddy installed – problem solved. In linguistics, there’s a term ‘false friend of a translator’ meaning a word that denotes something totally opposite in a foreign language than it appears to mean in one’s mother tongue. Consequently, I would rename this new monitoring device ‘a driver’s false buddy’.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Bhutan streets to be paved with waste plastic

What a great idea: Bhutan is planning to use its waste plastic to pave its streets. The country has launched a public-private project called the Green Road that will mix bitumen with waste plastic to create a paving material which will curb the use of fossil fuels and deal with the growing quantity of plastic waste. This issue of plastic waste struck home – literally – with me earlier this week, as I noted the amount of food and dry goods packaging I was carrying to my recycling bin after only two days. Multiply that by every household on earth and it’s clear that new thinking, such as this roads project in Bhutan, is very necessary before we’re all engulfed by our own post-consumer waste.

Airlander blimp takes to the skies for the first time

I like the Airlander blimp. I particularly enjoy looking at pictures of it, as its smooth, bulbous, rounded form exhibits a pleasingly fulsome, tactile, almost erotic aesthetic. I want to embrace it and in turn be enveloped and smothered by its copious and generous curves. Perhaps it was precisely to play down this kind of emotional response that prompted the designers to add a third helium chamber, rather than having a proud pair. Two might have been too much to take.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Self-driving Nissan car drives like your granny

‘…and swears at other drivers like your grandad’ is the bit that’s unfortunately missing from this headline. As far as I can remember, neither of my grandmothers ever drove a car or even expressed much interest in doing so. Their generation was the first for whom owning a family car was a mainstream proposition, and driving was definitely a male preserve. Given the chance they would probably have been excellent drivers; the sort of cautiousness Nissan’s cars are being criticised for by motoring journalists was probably a symptom of having a spouse in the passenger seat watching like a hawk. It can’t be long before Top Gear or the like turns up at a driving test centre with one of these to see how it fares under the steely gaze of an examiner. I wonder how it would rate for safe driving in competition with Jeremy Clarkson and his petrolhead acolytes?

TV networks using mind-reading tech to trap viewers

For me, the late-teen and early twenties years when you’re not only fascinated by new technology but have the time to mess around with it coincided with the arrival of the video recorder, which in those days took some time to master. Time well spent, I thought at the time, freed from the need to be in front of the TV for anything I feared might never be aired again. (It’s all on YouTube now, of course.) Anticipating a similar mindbending exercise in frustration, I’ve put off getting to grips with my Tivo digital video recorder for a while, limiting myself to hitting the record button when I have to attend to something else and want to catch up with what I’m watching later. Now I’ve delved into the sub-menus that are ‘My Shows and Recordings’, I find this clever box of tricks has been hoarding a lot more of what it calls ‘suggestions’ – a collection of films and shows it thinks the family would like based on other stuff we watch. I say watch, but it’s things that have been on when someone’s in the room, or recorded even if they were deleted without ever being viewed (sorry ‘The Walking Dead’, there’s just too much of you to catch up with). This research by neuroscientists and US broadcasters takes a more scientific approach by using encephelograms, skin sensors and heart monitors to check when viewers – in the artificial environment of a laboratory, admittedly – are paying proper attention. They say it’ll help them target better adverts and trigger a stronger emotional response by monitoring viewer reactions. I can think of a better use – a device that when your attention starts to wander just turns the TV off and suggests you go and do something more engaging. After all, whatever you’re watching is still going to be around for decades to come.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Self-driving Nissan car drives like your granny

The Japanese car company’s self-driving vehicle has been reported to be super cautious when it comes to its driving. The car ensures safety and efficient routes by using radars, lasers, cameras and computer chips. The human driver doesn’t have to use the steering wheel, the accelerator pedal or the brakes by giving full handling to the car, which can brake safely in dangerous situations – one of its many perks. The car, however, is almost too careful for people’s liking. I am an impatient person and always have been. I don’t care that I wouldn’t have to actually ‘drive’ the Nissan. In my version of events, this self-driving car would get a beating from me as I urge it to ‘drive faster! What are you doing?!’ as it slows down when a car comes from another lane. It has to have time to figure out what it should do. I would turn the ‘self-driving’ off and take the wheel. Unless it actually starts driving at appropriate speeds and begins to work things out at a non-tortoise-like rate, I won’t be buying one. Hey, but if you’re a wee bit lazy, it’ll be available to the public around the year 2020 when the system is fine tuned.

Enough oil for decades with new exploration tech, BP says

Well this is good news. Not. Look, if you find out the world won’t run out of oil and gas for a while longer, you don’t go running your mouth about it. Unless you’re BP. Oil and gas reserves will almost double by 2050, thanks to supercomputers, robotics and use of chemicals that suck out the maximum from available reservoirs. Plus, with the growing demand, it seems that the world won’t crumble under the weight of our greed. Yet. Now let’s pummel it into nothing and then cry about it afterwards when everything runs out and the earth refuses to keep us alive. However, renewables and policies designed to get the world off fossil fuels, oil and gas could leave resources unexplored, which would be good for the earth. I’d rather stick to that plan. Leave the earth to rest for a bit.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Geminoid robots make people uncomfortable, study finds

Reading this story made me feel vaguely uncomfortable. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia, conducted a study introducing participants to a human person and her perfect robotic copy, geminoid Actroid F. The results found that, when pressed, 50 per cent of participants were unable to successfully pick which was which. This whole experiment is terrifying. I’m sure I’m not alone, as further results show, in feeling seriously unsettled by the idea of robots that look exactly like real people. This sounds far too much like the beginning of a horrible sci-fi horror flick. Participants were then asked a series of questions to assess their emotional response to the experiment, with results suggesting that when introduced to people, geminoid robots can incite feelings of nervousness, anxiety and fear. What’s more I’ve conducted my own private study and found that the mere mention of geminoid robots is enough to incite feelings of nervousness, anxiety and fear. I can’t deny that the existence of such robots is pretty cool, and I’m sure some people would be over the moon to hang out with an exact robot replica of a human being – they’re popular in Japan, go figure – but not me. I’ll take a ‘less confusing’ mechanical humanoid robot any day.

Bhutan streets to be paved with waste plastic

An impressive public–private project has been launched in Bhutan with plans to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, cut waste and improve durability of traffic infrastructure – by paving the roads with recycled plastic. What an amazing idea! The new project, Green Road, will involve mixing bitumen with waste plastic generated domestically to create a new hard-wearing paving material. The scheme will reduce the amount of bitumen imported from India by 40 per cent, as well as drastically cutting the amount of plastic waste going into landfills. This is an incredibly exciting and innovative project which sounds like it could prove really popular, and effective, in developing countries where poor infrastructure, and inadequate recycling measures, remain an issue.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Porsche dragged into VW emissions scandal

This week, Volkswagen faced a further blow as its luxury Porsche brand has also been accused of cheating its emission tests. The US Environmental Protection Agency investigating the 3.0 litre engine revealed the toxic nitrogen oxide levels were up to nine times the regulatory standard. Porsche and Audi vehicles are the company’s biggest source of profit, and with its newly appointed CEO, Matthias Mueller now under pressure to prove he is not responsible, sale figures are sure to hit a record low.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Heating buildings with computer power named best climate venture

Server builders have been struggling with the heat dissipation problem for years: how to keep performance high while keeping the wasted power low. It’s a cost problem for data centres and an environmental problem for everyone. But one Dutch company has thought about the problem form a different angle: what if we can harness that wasted heat instead of trying to limit it? Can we do something useful with it? Like hep to keep buildings in warm? Meet the server radiator, which has just won an environmental award.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Geminoid robots make people uncomfortable, study finds

Cute humanoid robots like Kirobo, or human-like androids? What do you prefer? A new piece of research suggests that not being able to tell a robot from a real person makes people insecure and anxious.

TV networks using mind-reading tech to trap viewers

They’ll do anything to get you, right? But are we stronger than the brainwashing machine?

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