E&T news weekly #101 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

Friday 1 July 2016

Jonathan Wilson Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Google and Facebook begin auto-blocking extremist videos

And not before time. Freedom of speech is all well and good, and we like to think of it as a basic human right, but some things really do not need to be said, disseminated, repeated and amplified. Haters are always going to hate – and murderous lunatics are always going to murder – but there’s no need to encourage them in their twisted vanity by giving them a public platform from which to scream their demented extremist bile.

Edible crops successfully grown in Martian soil

OK, so maybe it’s going to take at least another 15 years before mankind begins to colonise Mars but we’re already getting the vegetables sorted. All we need now is to figure out how to farm livestock on the Red Planet and we can continue to enjoy our meat and two veg on various planets across the Solar System.

dominic-lenton Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Driverless cars should kill their passengers if necessary poll finds

Last week brought a survey for UK Robotics Week which found the British public are looking forward to robot-driven vehicles reducing the number of accidents on our roads. Here’s the flipside of the situation, where another survey found we’re less keen on artificial intelligence deciding it’s better to avoid killing several people if it can take evasive action that results in the death of a smaller number of its passengers. Hardly surprising, and an example of well tested theories about how inconsistent even the most rational of us are about perceiving risk depending on what level of control we have over a situation. The problem is that we’re asking machines to make snap decisions in situations that are far from clear cut. Few of us would expect our human driver to plough through a group of small children messing around on a crossing even if taking evasive action meant heading for a brick wall. What if it was one elderly person emerging unexpectedly from between parked cars though? Can the calculation be as simple as working out which course of action will harm the fewest people, regardless of who they are, and doing that? Either way, the aftermath of future road traffic accidents could change dramatically, from breathalyser tests and police station interviews to software specialists downloading on-board records of what the vehicles involved did while the humans walk away. Then again, maybe it’ll result in a macabre marketing race between manufacturers: “Buy our car. It’s programmed to keep you safe and leave the pedestrians to look out for themselves!”

Student-built electric car breaks acceleration record

I’ve been visiting universities with one of my offspring recently to look at engineering courses, and Formula Student is a great example of how institutions can differentiate themselves with enthusiasm for competitions which pit institutions against one another. Plaudits then to the team from ETH Zurich and Lucerne University who have held top spot in the electric racing car challenge since 2013 and have set a record by getting it from 0-100 km/h in just over one and a half seconds. It’s a glimpse of the performance we can expect of mainstream EVs in the future, and a reason why we need to think about questions of how they’ll be programmed if they’re driverless as well.

Rebecca Northfield Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Edible crops successfully grown in Martian soil

Last time they were concerned that the Martian soil compounds would get into the fruit and veg and make us sick. This time, it was proven that if we eat the Martian treats, we don’t vomit or turn into mutant monsters. So this means if humans consume their crops from the Moon, nobody dies! Huzzah! Apparently, the tests mean that attempts to colonise the planet could go ahead in the distant future. There was no heavy metal in the crops – shame, I like that genre of music the most – which meant it wouldn’t be dangerous for us to munch away on our food grown on other planets. Imagine if people were poisoned by the alien compounds? Now that would be Metal, indeed! *does sign of the horns*

Light pollution triggers early spring, study finds

I can’t even tell what a season in Britain is anymore, so I am not even surprised. Plus, I like seeing baby versions of things, like lovely lambs and bouncing, orphaned Bambis.

Lorna Sharpe Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Light pollution triggers early spring, study finds

So far this week, the news media have been almost entirely dominated by the fallout from the Brexit referendum result, but outside the world of politics life is going on pretty much as usual – and that includes the ‘citizen scientists’ whose observations have made such a valuable contribution to this study. The researchers collated satellite images of night-time lighting with information from the general public about when trees came into bud to conclude that street lighting has a significant effect. Astronomers have been complaining about light pollution for a long time. Now there’s another reason to consider how we can reduce it.

3D bio-printed cow cartilage offers hope for arthritis sufferers

I know people who wince just walking across a room, and I’ve seen that surgery hasn’t provided a quick or easy solution for them. Work in the lab to manufacture ‘cartilage patches’ might still be a long way from clinical practice, but it’s a good step in the right direction.

Georgina Bloomfield Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Toyota recalls 3.37 million cars over possible faults

There are several reasons why I clicked on this story – first, I’m on my second Toyota, so I have a vested interest. Second, my first Toyota got recalled a couple of years ago for the same reason they’re being recalled now – airbag issues. I find it somewhat surprising that the cars are being re-recalled, especially as airbag issues are slightly scary. Having said that, the concept of airbags alone is a little unnerving. There you are, driving along knowing that a faulty airbag could go off at any minute. If that’s not terrifying, I don’t know what is. New Toyota cars (and most new cars I imagine) now have a helpful yet somewhat off-putting graphic on the passenger sun visors, showing what happens if an airbag goes off and a child is in the seat at the time. Just focus on the road, people.

Dickon Ross Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Will Brexit lead to ‘Techxit’? What does the vote mean for UK engineering?
Brexit fallout: Hinkley Point threatened; other companies weigh options

The engineering and technology sector is reeling from the UK referendum’s decision to leave the European Union. It’s not the result it was expecting and now it’s trying to assess what it will mean for the industry. Talk has turned to fears of a ‘Techxit’ as technology startups, half of which are set up by entrepreneurs from outside the UK, may think about setting up in cities such as Berlin instead of London. Some voices are more optimistic. E&T has been following the fallout of Brexit and we’ll be rounding it up in our next issue of the magazine – out next week.

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