E&T news weekly #99 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

Friday 17 June 2016

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Pepper the humanoid robot joins hospital staff in Belgium

You’re desperate for the loo, but everything is in Japanese. You’ve run around the whole place like a madman, squeezing your bladder tight so you don’t pee yourself. You can’t find any signs and you think that this is the worst place in the world and needs to be burned to the ground because you’re dying from pee fever. And you scorn yourself because you were too lazy to learn Japanese. You miraculously find the reception, and you’ve pressed the bell. You tap your fingers impatiently on the desk. Nothing happens. No one comes. You growl with anger and a touch of fear, knowing wetting your pants is imminent. And then up rolls Pepper, the humanoid robot who will recognise your panicking face.

“Pepper! Where is the toilet?” you scream in English, hoping she will understand you.

“Ah, the toilet,” she responds in kind. “This way, follow me please.”

Then you do the toilet tango of sorts. The robot comes around to your side of the desk and continues forward, running over your foot. You yelp in pain and almost lose control of your bladder.

Catching up with Pepper, you hobble behind her like a disgruntled troll, your body folding in on itself to relieve the pressure.

Why does she go so slowly?! Why are you following this robot to the toilet?

What if she didn’t understand you and is taking you to the boiler?

Seriously, she is so slow you can’t believe – “and we are here,” Pepper says in a monotonous, unfeeling voice.

Finally! You dive into the loo, not looking back.

She will never know your pain, the robot rascal.
-End scene-

Seriously this isn’t going to happen if robots become receptionists. But I was trying to think of a scenario where they wouldn’t be the best help. Plus, who names a robot Pepper?

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
A millennium and a half before alien contact, astronomers claim

“I don’t believe in aliens, I know they exist” – these were the words once spoken by an annoying colleague of mine. The comment annoyed me – like, you don’t know, you don’t know anything – but I understand where he was coming from. The universe is huge after all, so it feels impossible, not to mention super unsettling, to think that we are entirely alone. There are 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and close to 50 per cent of those stars hold the potential to host Earth-like planets – so why haven’t we found any aliens yet? It certainly isn’t for lack of trying, for years now SETI scientists have been scouring the cosmos, searching for alien signals, but have so far come up empty handed. This week, a team of scientists have announced that in all probability, it could be another 1,500 years before ET finally manages to phone our home planet, or, if you like, to have his mobile phone hacked by nosy researchers. The calculation is based on the probability of extra-terrestrial life existing, and the likely length of time that such creatures would have been emitting signals across space. I’m not sure how they work out these probabilities, but I really hope the estimations are off by say, 1,495 years or so. I’ve waited 27 years for news of little green men, and I am just about out of patience. Guys, if you’re out there please make contact already! We are waiting for you!

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Nasa ignites largest fire in space as safety experiment

Nasa has lit an experimental fire inside an unmanned cargo delivery space capsule returning from the International Space Station so scientists can study the risks and improve astronaut safety. In particular they want to find out how flames behave in microgravity. The experiment will transmit images and sensor data until the vehicle enters the Earth’s atmosphere and is destroyed, which is expected to be on 22 June. Unsurprisingly, previous fire tests in space have been extremely limited, as operators say “not on my spacecraft,” so this work is an important precursor to any long-haul manned missions.

3D printed robots could emulate Raspberry Pi success

I’ve never felt any desire to get a Raspberry Pi, but these cute ‘Marty’ mini-robots look much more fun. Edinburgh start-up Robotical is looking for funds to start producing them on a commercial scale in kit form, so buyers can build their own and begin controlling them at a fairly basic level before moving on to more advanced programming. By coincidence, just after I saw our news story I was asked to edit a longer piece about employment opportunities for engineers in the construction-toy market, which features an interview with Marty’s creator, Dr Alexander Enoch.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
E3: PlayStation VR release dated; souped up Xbox One announced

The relentless pace of technology developments and product upgrades can catch any of us out. Last Sunday, my tweenage son, having ummed and aaahed for the last two years – as well as painstakingly saving every single penny he ever got in money gifts for Christmas, birthday, Easter etc – finally committed to ordering a new Xbox One from Amazon. The very next day, Microsoft announced its all-new Xbox One S console! The very next day! Even before my son’s Amazon order could be delivered, the technology was outdated, superseded en route by a newer, faster, shinier, more desirable iteration. Fortunately, I believe there should be a happy ending to my son’s Xbox odyssey, as Amazon has accepted the return request, so all he has to do now is wait – albeit begrudgingly – another couple of months to take receipt of an even better Xbox than the one he was hoping to be playing with tonight.

Nasa ignites largest fire in space as safety experiment

It doesn’t sound like a good idea – deliberately lighting fires inside orbiting space capsules – but Nasa wants, and needs, to understand how fire behaves in space, so that future long-term missions, such as journeying to Mars, can be better planned. Better for all known eventualities to have been studied and analysed in controlled isolation, instead of trying to put out emergency fires as they happen.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
E3: PlayStation VR release dated; souped up Xbox One announced

Is 2016 the year of virtual reality? At the E3 show in Los Angeles, both Sony and Microsoft announced moves into VR gaming, following the Oculus Rift launch earlier this year. But the VR announcements are mostly about gaming so far. I can see that gaming is the most immediate market, but it’s not the most interesting nor ultimately likely to be the largest. As we explored in our VR issue back in March, there are much more exciting applications for VR, in the world of art, music, medicine, tourism, journalism, engineering and even office work. gaming will be most important in providing the applications to get the hardware out there and the provide the revenues to invest in much more interesting applications.

Brexit won’t affect research funding, leave campaigners claim

A group of top Nobel-prize winning scientists came out in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union this week. They said they would lose too much valuable European collaborative research. The same could be said for engineering. And the UK does rather well for funding, compared to what it puts in. But the Brexit camp, responding as if it were a political party standing for election, promised that the UK government would maintain that research funding. But what about the collaborative aspect? The European scale often makes sense for university research projects and programmes. The EU partners may not allow outsiders into its projects, which is what Swiss sources told E&T earlier in the year for our Europe In/Out feature. But the referendum campaigners continued to argue about the money.

A millennium and a half before alien contact, astronomers claim

Catching up with a podcast version of BBC Radio 4’s excellent ‘In Our Time’ show from January this year about the planet Saturn I was reminded that it’s not so long ago fictional alien invaders were expected to come from that close to Earth. In this month’s issue of E&T, Piers Bizony takes the release of the new Independence Day movie as a starting point for an up-to-date look at the science behind the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, while the success of Ben Miller’s book ‘The Aliens Are Coming!’ (reviewed in the March 2016 issue of E&T) demonstrates the grip that the idea of invaders from another planet exerts on the public imagination over a hundred years after HG Wells wrote ‘The War of the Worlds’. Reassuring news, then, that US scientists reckon we won’t make contact with intelligent life for at least another 1,500 years. Their prediction isn’t as romantic as the fiction, but it’s based on hard facts about the likelihood of civilisations being technologically advanced enough to send out signals and the probable length of time they’ve been doing so. And sadly it all hinges on something called the ‘Mediocrity Principle’, which assumes that there’s nothing at all special about the Earth or its occupants, meaning there’s no reason we’re likely to be the first or last to develop radio technology.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Pepper the humanoid robot joins hospital staff in Belgium

Great news. From what the story says, Pepper, the robot receptionist, is already streets ahead of all human medical receptionists, most of whom (unlike Pepper) often have difficulties telling whether they are talking to a man, woman or child. My former surgery’s receptionist would routinely send me invites for some particular (feminine) smears and breast cancer tests. As for their (I mean the human receptionists’) linguistic prowess, it is more often than not much-much lower than Pepper’s. In fact, I have never come across a receptionist speaking any other language than English (and often even that one not very well). Yet, if you ask me, human receptionists are still in many ways irreplaceable in the UK, for I wonder if Pepper has been programmed to say: “The nearest available appointment is in three weeks’ time” in any of the 20 languages it speaks?

VR motion sickness alleviated with field of view alterations

Another piece of good news. To me at least it is, for I will never forget how dizzy I felt while exploring new Dassault Systemes’ VR apps in the company’s state-of-the-art virtual reality room in the outskirts of Paris several years ago. I remember my VR flight above medieval Paris. When I landed for a brief rest on the roof of the still unfinished Notre Dame cathedral (just next to a not-too-pretty chimera) and looked down I nearly lost my balance with dizziness and had to ask my hosts to stop the demonstration immediately lest I should fall down onto some not too inviting , even if VR, cobbles of an old Paris street. They did on that occasion. During another demonstration, however, neither they nor I had time to react when, driven by the virtual-reality sickness, I bumped my head (rather heavily) against an invisible (to me) glass wall while trying to enter a lovely-looking VR kitchen of a no-less-VR flat that I was exploring. Watching this from behind the control panel in one of the room’s dark corners, Mehdi Tayoubi, one of the company’s engineers in charge of the demonstration, said: “Be careful! The virtual world doesn’t hurt – it’s the real one that does!” It was easy for him to say; my encounter with the wall could have been virtual, yet the lump on my forehead was more than real and hurt like hell.

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