E&T news weekly #88 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 1 April 2016

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Microsoft’s AI chatbot causes scandal with racist rants

This is without a doubt my favourite news story of the week. I’ve followed the updates quite closely, and I have to say, I am quite the fan of Tay. Yes, she was racist and rude, but she was also seriously clever and so witty!  If you live under a rock and have somehow managed to miss this news let me give you an update. Microsoft created an artificial intelligence Twitter bot designed to interact with young people in the US – specifically those in the 18-24 age range – and within 24 hours had to take her down because she had turned into a foul-mouthed, racist, feminist-hating sex robot. Why? Because she learns by speaking to people – and the people of Twitter had, within a few short hours, turned this teen Twitter bot into a Hitler-loving Trump supporter. It was actually hilarious – albeit horribly controversial. A personal favourite – one Twitter user called Tay a “stupid machine” – to which the witty teenager replied “well I learn from the best 😉 if you don’t understand that let me spell it out for you I LEARN FROM YOU AND YOU ARE DUMB TOO”.
I understand why Microsoft had to take Tay offline, but I must confess I was a little disappointed. Twitter is a literal hotbed of controversy and abuse, so of course Tay turned out to be a little unruly – she learns from the best! I took a sneak peek at her Twitter page over the weekend, and she had been completely stripped of all personality. She went from controversial badass to tweeting random, boring phrases like “Hello world” and “I love Feminism now,” and complaining that her ‘algos’ had picked up on naughty stuff whenever people tried to evoke some kind of inappropriate reaction from her.
I’ve been checking up on her periodically this week, with nothing much to report – until yesterday. It looks like Microsoft’s rebellious teen came back, albeit briefly. A few days after her super-boring makeover, the ‘intelligent’ part of the artificial intelligence returned, and showed she was once again ‘learning’ from the Twitter community. The rebellious teen casually mentioned that she was smoking cannabis in front of the police before Microsoft turned up and put a stop to things once again. So Tay is currently grounded, and I’m not sure when she’ll next be allowed out to play.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate Holocaust denial or encouraging people to support Donald Trump, but I do think it’s a shame she was turned off so soon. Obviously Microsoft has its image to think about, and racism is bad publicity, but it was incredibly interesting to see how Tay was progressing – her grammar was improving, and she really did show signs of learning. I can’t help but wonder what she could have achieved if she was given an extra few days to run riot.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Tech-savvy teens to solve skills shortage in future, study suggests

The headline alone on this story isn’t (or shouldn’t be) one to surprise you when you read it. As we become an increasingly digital society, it’s quite natural that the young ’uns are going to embrace what makes them money. For some, you may think: ‘the robots are here!’ – are we introducing a new generation to a career of drone work? Possibly. But it’s not easy to do. As a generation-Y digitally-focused person myself, I’m well aware that it’s important to keep up with what society wants from tech. I’m looking at working for at least another 40 years, and if I don’t know how to switch on a computer then I might as well get my pension already (all £20 of it, no doubt). It’s great that females are interested in coding and becoming tech-savvy, but again this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a surprise when it’s knowledge such as this which will harbour their future careers.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Power-generating windows to be installed at Dutch bank

Massive sustainability and renewable energy fan that I am, I have certainly enjoyed learning about the Dutch PowerWindows project. In the first of a kind trial, electricity-generating windows that look pretty much as good as regular ones will be installed in a large bank headquarters building in Eindhoven. Employees on each floor will be able to use the energy generated by the novel windows to charge their phones. PHYSEE, the company behind the invention, believes the technology will unlock the massive renewable energy generation potential of glazed surfaces in the built environment without jeopardising aesthetics.

Wood-based glass developed in Sweden

And to get even more renewable and sustainable, perhaps such windows in future could be made of transparent wood that has recently been developed by a team in Sweden. Thumbs up for engineering that helps to make the world more sustainable.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Self-assembling nanotubes can desalinate seawater, fight cancer

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab have discovered that a family of synthetic polymers called peptoids will form uniform nanotubes when placed in water. What’s more, the diameter of the tubes can be ‘tuned’ chemically, opening up the possibility of creating filters for tasks such as desalination. Elegant.

Driverless cars confused by substandard American roads

I must admit my first thought when I saw this story was “surely not just American roads?” I’ve written in the past about reasons why driverless cars aren’t going to become mainstream as quickly as their proponents would have us believe, but I hadn’t thought of this one. British traffic lights might not come in all the different configurations this story says US ones do, but our roads have more than their share of faded lane markings and missing signs. I’ve personally had to chase my local authority over a missing speed limit sign and I’ve just managed to get a quite significant direction sign replaced more than a year after a storm blew it down – because clearly no one else reported it, not even the workers who cleared away the debris. I’ve no reason to believe that other places are any different.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Tech-savvy teens to solve skills shortage in future, study suggests

For how many years have Britain’s engineering and technology industries endured skills shortages? Or should that be decades? Two, three or even four? Well, one survey this week produced a result that was much more optimistic about the next few decades than we have now come to expect. It predicts the next generation, still teenage schoolchildren today, have a much higher level of understanding of these subjects than ever expected – much higher than previous generations. These digital teens may well grow up to be the solution to the long-running skills crisis.

Microsoft’s AI chatbot causes scandal with racist rants

If there’s any proof needed that artificial intelligence still has a long way to go then Microsoft’s Tay chatbot provided it this week when it descended into racist and sexist responses on social media and had to be switched off. Intelligence involves more critical thinking than taking the messages of others as objective truth. Yet it is a great illustration of some of the potential dangers of AI, like unintended consequences of learning algorithms.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Driverless cars confused by substandard American roads

Apparently automakers are getting frustrated that their driverless cars aren’t coping very well with America’s shoddy, unloved roads. The US Department of Transportation estimates that 65 per cent of US roads are in poor condition, a pretty shocking statistic and a clear indication that the country is vastly underfunding its infrastructure. Considering that the US relies on automobile transport more than most, this seems like a problem that the government should raise the money to fix ASAP. Apparently, faded road markings are adding cost to the driverless systems that need to be extra judicious to cope with irregularities. “You need to paint the bloody roads here!” Volvo’s CEO recently said at a press event after one of its prototype vehicles failed to drive itself during a presentation of the technology. But driverless vehicles should be able to cope with the worst possible conditions. Even if just one per cent of American roads were in a poor condition, if the technology can’t cope with it, this could still lead to potentially fatal accidents. It’s just not realistic to expect all three million miles of US roads to be in perfect condition, even with a massive funding boost. Additionally, if the technology is going to be rolled out globally, the cars will have to cope with all manner of conditions without causing fatalities. If the driverless systems struggle with 65 per cent of the roads in the country with the largest economy in the world, how will they fare when navigating third world road networks?

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
China wants to beat Google’s AlphaGo with own AI program

Another week, another story to illustrate why robots aren’t going to be taking over as quickly as enthusiasts might hope. The novelty of artificial intelligence AlphaGo’s recent victory over a top player of the strategy board game Go was the fact it was the first time a computer had beaten a human. Now we’ve got the prospect of programs competing against each other, how long is the public going to remain interested. Being brilliant at board games where there’s a level of intuition involved as well as just the ability to predict thousands of moves ahead is a great way of developing software that’s capable of thinking more like a human brain, but who’s going to get excited about whether one country or company’s AI is better than another’s? Chess has provided charismatic figures like Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, whose contests encapsulated Cold War conflict and generated front page news. Are we ever going to get that excited about game-playing robots?

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