E&T news weekly #78 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday January 22 2016

Jack Loughran Jack Loughran, news reporter
Robots to trigger widespread redundancies by end of decade

Robots are increasingly being presented in the same negative tabloid light that is sometimes shined on immigrants. Comin’ over ‘ere, stealing our jobs etc etc. Personally I see the move towards robotics taking the place of humans in mundane repetitive roles as solely a good thing; society just needs to accommodate the change rather than be fearful of it. We’re heading closer to the utopian (depending on who’s talking) ideal of complete automation for all tasks not strictly requiring a human brain to operate. When tractors were invented, some less progressive people probably bemoaned the number of jobs lost, but if we listened to them, we’d all still be subsistence farmers working 16 hour days doing backbreaking labour to feed our families. As more and more people lose their jobs to robots, there will be simply less work that is needed to be performed by humans. This can be solved in two ways. It would seem sensible to simply divide the essential jobs that are left between everyone so that most people only have to work for 20 hours or so a week, leaving lots of other time for creative endeavours or simply basking in the wonders of modern entertainment. Unfortunately I instead foresee a bunch of pointless jobs being created to replace the ones now being done by robots. Technology journalist, for example.

Vitali Vitaliev Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Cyber-attack on Kiev airport prompts security review

Some people – and countries – never seem to learn from the past. If Russia is indeed behind all the cyber attacks on Ukraine (as if annexing a chunk of the latter’s territory, cutting off gas supplies and unleashing a proxy war in Donbass weren’t enough of a punishment), it is repeating the mistake of several years ago when Estonia – a small but proud ex-Soviet republic – was targeted in a similar way. Such attacks were pursuing a double aim – to destabilise and to intimidate – yet in the case of Estonia they had achieved quite the opposite; the small Baltic country consolidated its cyber defences and became the world’s leader in the fields of cyber security and e-governance. So whoever was behind the attacks had pretty much shot themselves in the foot. Instead of punishing the rebellious nation, they have actually rewarded it with new technological know how and the powerful stimuli for further infrastructure developments. Instead of weakening the maverick neighbour, they have made it much stronger – another proof of Newton’s Third Law of Motion (“force breeds counterforce”) applied to geopolitical structures. “It is worse than a crime – it is a mistake,” as the 18th century French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord famously remarked. Will they ever learn?

Twitter suffers longest outage in its history

Now I know the reason behind the eerie silence I was exposed to when venturing into my garden first thing on Tuesday morning. The birds, who normally – and notwithstanding the season – chirp their little lungs out at this time of the day, were not singing. Nor were they  cheeping, twittering, chirruping, cheeping, chattering, trilling or (most importantly) tweeting – out of solidarity with the temporarily ‘outed’ Twitter website, no doubt. Here I have to disagree with social media expert Warren Knight, quoted in our news story as saying that this short outage makes Twitter (the website) more human. After experiencing that deafening silence of birds in my garden on Tuesday morning, I would rather say that the outage (what a dull little word) made Twitter much more avian than ever before. At least to my Twitter-deaf ears (for I had never received a tweet or tweeted myself) it did.

dominic-lenton Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Technology in education ‘not a replacement’ for teachers

It may be superficially a case of another politician saying something that sounds forthright, but is anodyne enough for everyone will agree with, but Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s reminder that technology is no replacement for good teachers deserves closer analysis. Invoking one t-word – ‘traditional’ – to describe what the government believes is the right approach to teaching young people and contrasting it with another – ‘technology’ – suggests there’s some muddled thinking going on at the highest levels. Why should the two be mutually exclusive, with the sort of tech on display at the Bett event in London where she was speaking being regarded as a substitute for acquisition of ‘knowledge’, which the current administration believes doesn’t get enough attention? Yes, classroom gadgets can appear to be engaging kids in learning simply because they’ve got a novelty value. Let’s not forget though that today’s schoolchildren will grow up and work in a world where this sort of technology is an everyday part of life, and getting to grips with it – not to mention working out how best to take advantage of the opportunities it provides to avoid learning things by rote – should be embedded in the curriculum. At the same time, Morgan’s point that it won’t replace actual teachers is understandable, considering she was speaking to a large audience of them, but surely their role will have to change as much as it has since Victorian schoolmasters and mistresses stood at a chalkboard and did all the talking to a passive  – and probably bored – class. From the random sample of people I know in the teaching profession, I’m sure they’ll be enthusiastic about engaging with this challenge and the changes it’ll bring to their jobs. What Morgan and other politicians need to move away from is establishing the debate about how this happens in terms of one thing replacing another. Just like we’re supposed to tell the kids, it’s all about working together to achieve the best outcome for everyone.

Rebecca Northfield Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Twitter outage caused by faulty software update

Oh no! This must have caused a state of mass panic in the social networking world! The longest outage in Twitter history – about six hours – was allegedly caused by a faulty software update, which was eventually removed to get Twitter back to normal. The Twitter folk managed to fix the internal code change in the late afternoon of Tuesday. One wonders how many people felt like lost souls as they tried desperately to hashtag their feelings about the inability to tweet. They even had problems signing in, poor dears. The glitch affected tweeters in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and North America and caused the company to lose 7 per cent of their shares. Ouch. Twitter is struggling to keep up with the bad boys, Instagram, who surpassed 400 million users last year. Poor old tweety bird only has 300 million, with 2015 their slowest user growth year to date. Shoot the bird? Or sell it to Facebook like everyone else?

Renault recalling 15,000 vehicles over emissions breaches

Whoops. Looks like another vehicle manufacturer is in trouble. Renault has started recalling 15,000 vehicles to modify the engines to ensure they’re following emissions regulations. Tests on some of the models showed unacceptable levels of nitrogen oxide, although there was an announcement last week that there was no evidence of ‘defeat devices’ in Renault vehicles. The recall will involve adjusting the filtration systems. Luckily, the cars haven’t been put up for sale yet, so that’s one thing above VW.

Katia Moskvitch Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
2015 warmest year on record

Global warming is happening – and 2015 is yet another proof of it. According to NASA and NOAA, last year was the warmest one in history, with global average temperatures 0.9  degrees C higher than the 20th century average and 0.16 degrees C above 2014 values, which had set the previous record. Both organisations have called for a more urgent action to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. The temperature rise in 2015, the scientists believe, was partly driven by the El Niño effect that warms the surface of the Pacific Ocean every two to seven years. However, the researchers said that the main drivers are growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – a result of burning fossil fuels.

Jade Fell Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Rise of robots may worsen social inequality

Here’s some terrible news for you – I am at risk of being replaced by a robot. In fact, we all are. While in the past it was just those on production lines that worried about robots stealing their jobs, the rise in increasingly sophisticated ‘thinking’ robotics means that more and more roles are at risk, including those in industries previously considered safe, such as journalism. Now normally I’m all for robots – you know, when they’re cute, non-threatening and designed to make the world a better place – but this I take issue with.

VR tour of Buckingham Palace accessible on YouTube

You know what I’ve always wanted? To be able to stand perfectly still, and look around the rooms of Buckingham Palace from the comfort of my own home. And now I can, thanks to a new, freely available virtual reality tour on YouTube. Good show!

Lorna Sharpe Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Nissan invests in UK electric car battery manufacturing

In recent years the north-east of England has become a centre of expertise for electric vehicles, with Nissan’s Sunderland operations making a significant contribution. I’ve been somewhat sceptical about some of the grander predictions for how fast private motorists will take up electric cars, but there’s no doubt at all that battery vehicles can work well in a lot of corporate fleets, where they don’t travel long distances and aren’t needed overnight – so long as the economics are right. If this new investment leads to batteries that are cheaper to produce and last longer it will be a big step in the right direction.

2015 warmest year on record

This is definitely worrying news. I’m old enough not to attach too much significance to a couple of warmer or colder years, but there’s no doubt from these figures that the trend is upwards and we need to take the implications seriously – both for how we adapt to change and how we can stop making things worse. We have a responsibility individually and collectively to look after the world we live in.

Dickon Ross Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Pakistan lifts YouTube ban

It used to be said that the web knew no borders and couldn’t be censored or blocked in the way traditional print and broadcast media could. That may still be technically true in that if users are determined to find ways around government restrictions they may well be able to do so, but it won’t always be straightforward and it may be dangerous if they can be traced. China has long restricted its citizens’ access and even struck deals with western companies that allows it to do so. Now Pakistan, which shut out YouTube following protests over anti-Islamic videos, is allowing the country-specific site back in with provisions to take out videos it objects to. It may not be able to stop all access to banned videos in the country but it will certainly limit traffic from casual users.

Which? claims 95 per cent of diesel vehicles breach NOx emissions

We have known that diesel cars are more polluting than they should be since the scandal broke over Volkswagen cheating in NOx emissions tests. Thanks to the consumer group Which? we now know how much they are over the limits- and the numbers are quite shocking. The real losers though are not the owners of diesel cars but the people living and working in our polluted cities. For that reason, the cheating is much worse than the sports cheats in athletics, cycling or tennis because it affects our health and our childrens’ health. Whoever was at fault in the companies concerned, it’s a pity that an engineer in one of them – or elsewhere in a position to know how the public were being cheated – wasn’t prepared to turn whistleblower to expose the cheating before the companies were caught out.

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