E&T news weekly #89 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 8 April 2016

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Barclays finally adopts Apple Pay; huge rise in contactless payments

As anyone who has used Apple Pay knows, it’s like a little slice of the future every time you casually bip your iPhone or Watch over the merchant’s contactless payment reader. No fishing around in your purse, no ungainly arrhythmic slapping of pockets to locate your wallet, no tiresome tapping of numbers or fumbly insertion of card in the PoS machine. You simply bip and go, all the while smiling beatifically at the shoppie as you casually swank about how technologically advanced you are. “Look at me!” you cry (hopefully not out loud). “I’m so far in to the fiscal future that I’m actually beyond money!” The news this week that Barclays – the last major UK bank holdout from joining the Apple Pay partner list – has finally succumbed and has adopted the scheme for its customers (presumably also tacitly admitting that its own Bpay contactless tag payment scheme has spectacularly failed to even moderately warm the world, let alone set it on fire) is further validation of the beauty and simplicity of using Apple Pay. The fact that your correspondent’s primary personal bank remains conspicuously absent from the Apple Pay partner list is moderately disappointing, but hope springs eternal.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Facebook’s iOS apps describe photos to blind users

Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat… The internet is flooded with images – some 1.8 billion of them get uploaded every day to various social networks. And now Facebook has made a move to get visually impaired users on board too, by launching a feature on its iPhone and iPad apps that can give the description of photos using VoiceOver tech that reads written text out loud. Its vocabulary is rather limited at the moment, consisting of only about 100 words that describe familiar objects and activities such as pizza, tennis, baby and sky. But the idea is that the AI will evolve, becoming more sophisticated with time, as it scans more and more images. The developer of the system, Matt King, is a Facebook engineer who lost his sight because of retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that destroys the light-sensitive cells in the retina. Facebook is not the only social network providing such a service, though. In March, Twitter added a function allowing users to add their own descriptive text to pictures. It’s a bit different from Facebook’s idea, as Twitter users have to choose to do it, while Facebook’s system tags every image automatically. One thing is certain – the AI is there, and it’s definitely getting smarter.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Outcry over Google’s ‘Mic Drop’ April Fools’ prank

One of Google’s hallmarks is a set of elaborate April Fools pranks every year consisting of a number of joke ‘features’ added to its products. This year Google added the new ‘Mic Drop’ tool which was placed next to the normal ‘Send’ button on everyone’s Gmail. Once clicked, the new feature sent a message containing a GIF of a character from the Despicable Me and Minions movies dropping a microphone, as well as muting any future replies, ending the conversation. Gmail has about one billion users, what could possibly go wrong? A lot, predictably. With that many people using the service, emails were mistakenly sent to distraught relatives of the dead featuring the ‘funny’ gif, and responses from bosses were not received leading to sackings around the world. Perhaps the search giant will think again next year before adding joke features to its main email platform.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Electric vehicle wireless charging hits 90 per cent efficiency

One national supermarket chain’s attempt to pull in customers over the recent Easter holiday weekend with an offer on fuel prices that saw both unleaded petrol and diesel selling at under £1 a litre shows what an effective tool big retailers believe getting people onto forecourts can be in boosting profits. If any of them said they were going to give petrol away it would be front page news, with queues for miles, yet when I noticed that someone was not only parked in one of the spaces reserved for electric vehicles in my local store’s car park but was actually plugged in and taking advantage of the free charging facility it was notable enough for me to mention it the next day in the E&T office. Maybe these four slots are continuously occupied throughout the week when I wouldn’t notice – I don’t think it’s likely though. They’ve been there for at least a year and are usually conspicuously empty. If even priority parking and free energy aren’t encouraging take-up, perhaps the prospect of quicker charging that might let you do the equivalent of filling your tank in the time it takes to do the weekly shop will help. US researchers claim their three-year project has culminated in a system that’s capable of charging at 90 per cent efficiency and three times the speed of existing plug-in systems. What’s more, it’s wireless, which means you don’t have worry about your car being the target of any passing prankster who thinks it’s amusing to yank the cable out. It’s just one element of a fast-evolving sector that some research says will see electric models making up more than a third of new vehicles sales within a couple of decades’ time.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Humanoid robot gives Scarlett Johansson run for money

A Chinese designer spent a year making a humanoid robot designed to look exactly like actress Scarlett Johansson, because, well, you know, that’s not a weird thing to do with your time at all. It’s a completely normal thing for a fully-grown man to be doing. The robot, which cost £35,000 to make, can respond to a set of programmed verbal commands and has its very own 3D-printed skeleton, apparently allowing it to move in a ‘human-like’ way and create ‘realistic’ facial expressions. Personally, I think to say that the facial expressions are realistic is being a little overgenerous. Sure, it’s more human that C3PO but that facial expression is not real – unless of course she’s supposed to look as though she’s having a stroke? In which case, I stand corrected. I would really like it if people could just stop experimenting with humanoid robots. I love robots, but these things never cease to freak me out. The second they try to wear a human face it gets just a little too personal for my liking. I’m not sure how I would react if I came into contact with robot Scarlett Johansson, it would be quite the internal dilemma. Part of me thinks I’d quite like to interact with her, but I’m not sure I could cope. Perhaps I could play around with the voice recognition while blindfolded, to save myself the distress of looking into the eyes of this hideous she-beast.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Facebook’s iOS apps describe photos to blind users

This is a really interesting news story for several reasons. Basically, Facebook is developing software for its visually impaired audience designed to describe images to them as they scroll through their news feed. One of the reasons why this is great news is because it unleashes a whole new type of tech to people who may have missed out beforehand from using Facebook altogether (and getting to avoid having Candy Crush invites every day too). Tech is getting more and more adaptive to people’s needs, which means everyone gets the chance to enjoy it. Another reason why this is a great news story is because there will inevitably be a time where it goes wrong a bit. Developments like this don’t happen seamlessly (as we learnt from Google’s go at this) and it’s only a matter of time before something happens with this software too. Granted, it might not be as accidentally offensive, but it’s sure to be hilarious nonetheless because…well, because Internet.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Distracting in-car technology endangers ‘millions’ of drivers

We’ve long been aware that a mobile phone is a dangerous distraction in a car – even hands-free. Now attention is turning to other in-car electronics, everything from radios to screens. A new research report aims to quantify the risk posed by new in-car technologies. It’s a problem that will ultimately be solved by driverless cars – why choose to drive when you can just sit back and relax and do whatever else you like?

Brexit rejected by aerospace, defence, security and space sectors

Collaborative research is not an issue that’s top of the agenda public debate over the UK’s referendum on EU membership in June, but it’s one reason that companies cited as reasons to stay in the UK, in a survey published this week. And it’s one or four or five issues that E&T is discovering most matter to industry. Look out for our feature in our next issue.

Hannover Messe preview: plastic solar cells, glowing foil, 3D printed implants

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will open the giant Hannover Messe industrial show in Germany later this month. This is our pre-show preview of some of the new technologies on show there, and we’ll have more in our coverage from the show in E&T.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
FBI says iPhone hack only works on pre-5s models

Only older phones are vulnerable to the FBI’s hacking skills. That’s going to be super useful! In the future, I reckon people who have phones worthy of hacking won’t be rocking a retro model of Apple’s most popular creation. The hack used on an iPhone 5c owned by a San Bernadino shooter made the FBI drop their legal case against Apple. However, something may come up again, and it’ll probably restart the whole suing process. Sigh. Since the 5s, Apple has used processors with ‘Secure Enclave’, which is thought to be the reason why the hacking method won’t work on newer phones. FBI director James Comey said that the case is a bit of a technological corner, as the world has moved on with their phone technology. So basically, the next time they need to break into another phone, all this hullabaloo will be useless and they’re going to be stuck again. Ah, dear FBI. You silly.

Electric vehicle wireless charging hits 90 per cent efficiency

Soon we’ll all be whizzing along in our super quiet cars and we won’t need to worry about plugging it in. Huzzah! Wireless charging is approaching the efficiency of wired charging, which is pretty cool. Apparently, the cars will charge at three times the rate of wired charging. It’s definitely a breakthrough for sure. The dream is to not be tethered to a plug, so you can drive with ease, without having to worry about your silent vehicle running out of electric goodness.One thing I will say though: have you ever heard an electric vehicle? That’s right, you haven’t. And neither have I. They’re silent, and oh so deadly. You cross the road and BAM. You’re squished. Imagine getting yourself hit by one of these environmentally friendly bad boys. Good for the environment, bad for pedestrians. Hashtag just saying.

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