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

Friday 12 August 2016

 Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

‘Space tour guide’ could be your future career

This news story could not fail but spark off my imagination. I do not share Steve Tooze’s opinion that it is hard to predict what those future jobs will be like. Nothing can be easier, if you ask me. “Space Tour Guide” sounds intriguing of course, but how about such future professions as: “Pokémon Trainer” (as well as “Pokémon Tamer” for the most unruly specimen); “Augmented reality controller”; “Delivery Drone Dispatcher”; “Robot Care Home Carer” (not a robotic carer, but a human carer for elderly and malfunctioning robots!); “Remote VR food taster” and so on?
Among less respected (read punishable by law) occupations for those in search of quick buck, I could envisage “online burglars” and “internet banks robbers”, some of which are already in existence; “online scam operators” and “cryptic password stealers” (not to be confused with “cryptic crossword solvers”) –  these are here already too, but the sheer numbers are bound to grow.

So I would advise the youngsters concerned about future job opportunities to stop worrying. After all, if everything else fails, there’s always likely to be an opening (as I was assured during my visit to the headquarters of Ordnance Survey in Southampton last Monday) of a land surveyor on Mars (for someone will have to make maps for all those “space tour guides” and their tourists). And because ever returning from Mars during one’s lifetime will most probably still be an unlikely perspective, that position could be openly advertised as a “guaranteed job for life”.

China warns Hinkley Point decision could sour UK relations

This story brought back memories of my early school days. Getting to school every day was a trial not because of bad roads and non-existing public transport, albeit all those did, or rather did not, take place. It was an ordeal because every morning the school was surrounded by a flock of child bullies, locally known as “siavki”, who would try to relieve the orderly school-goers of their packed lunches under the threat of a punch in the face. The worst thing to do was to succumb and hand over your jam-and-butter sandwich, lovingly put together by your granny. The following day, the “siavki”, who now had reasons to treat you as a  soft target, would demand not just your sandwich, but  the small change out of your pockets too. A much better alternatives were to either  run away, or – better – push the bullies aside and resolutely walk past them, without waiting to be punched. In the latter scenario, the hoodlums were very likely to leave you alone for good, for bullies are all secret cowards scared of determination and resistance. Coming back to the Hinkley Point scenario and an obvious attempt on the part of the Chinese to bully Britain into submission (or, euphemistically speaking, to “urge a quick decision”) not by depriving it of a nuclear “sandwich”, but, on the contrary, by force-feeding the country with it, the response should be as firm, determined and unconditional as Brexit, even if the big guy (China) threatens that refusal “could impact the future relationships” between the countries. Swallow this dodgy nuclear “sandwich” – and we’ll be fed many more… Refuse it – and a new mutually acceptable solution will eventually be found.

 Jack Loughran, news reporter

China’s robotics sector could fall into a debt-ridden black hole

Revelations that the Chinese robot sector is largely funded by trillions of dollars of government loans suggests a crisis may be on the horizon. Industrial robotics parks are largely funded by a ‘local government finance vehicle’, which is a state-sponsored program that offers money and a raft of other incentives for firms that want to set up there. Some of them are worth hundreds of millions of dollars but analysis of the robotics sector shows that it may be reaching overcapacity; with many Chinese start-ups creating novelty products that will ultimately fail to generate enough money to pay back the vast loans. When the government tried to tighten the rules around its loans in 2014, growth in the country as a whole quickly fell to a 25 year low leading to a quick reversal of this decision. With China currently owing $26.5 trillion in total, the robotics sector could be one of many interesting yet ultimately uneconomical industries that drives the country with the largest population in the world into a debt-ridden black hole. The world’s economy will surely soon follow.

 Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Solar storm radio jamming ‘took US to brink of nuclear war’

Unless Hollywood could draft in a couple of bankable stars to play a pair of romantically entangled 1960s weather scientists, there’s probably not enough in this Cold War tale to sustain a future blockbuster. But though not quite as engaging as Matt Damon’s extraterrestrial science-based adventures in The Martian, it’s a fascinating – if chilling – example of how technology can gently steer the politicians away from plunging us all into Armageddon. When US radar systems went blank one day in 1967, the immediate assumption was that the Soviet Union was up to something and aircraft laden with nuclear weapons were put on standby. According to some new research documenting what happened, it was only when scientists pointed out that unusual events on the surface of the Sun were more likely to be to blame that the military stood down and the nuclear clock moved a few seconds away from midnight. I almost don’t want to know about these things. Not quite old enough for school at the time, I would have been playing with my Lego, doing a jigsaw or just running around the garden, blissfully unaware of what was going on on the global scene. Nice to learn now that the techies, as they continue to do, were working in the background to help world leaders retain a bit of sanity.

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