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

Friday 2 September 2016

Jack Loughran Jack Loughran, news reporter
Amazon Dash Wi-Fi buttons launch in the UK

Amazon’s Wi-Fi connected buttons, dubbed Amazon Dash, sound convenient and perhaps offer a look into what the future holds for online shopping, but the reality is a lot scarier. The idea is simple: users place these buttons around the house near items like toilet roll or washing up liquid and when the product runs low, one push of the button orders a replacement. While the idea itself is fine, it also increases Amazon’s reach ever further into your home. Already, while shopping on the internet for almost any imaginable consumer good, Amazon will be most people’s first port of call. This total and utter dominance over internet shopping is surely a terrible thing for consumers in the long run. The larger Amazon gets, the more difficult it is for any other players to squeeze into the market, stifling any semblance of competition. Right now there really isn’t any other major competitor that can compete. As it heads towards a monopoly over selling goods on the internet, the number of alternative options dwindles as other companies struggle to compete with its low prices. While in the UK at least Amazon has so far not encroached too much into the food sector, or the kinds of household goods that one buys from the supermarket, Dash represents an attempt to gain traction here. If successful, one can foresee a day where virtually all purchases get funnelled through a single, incredibly powerful company. This kind of future has been written about in dystopian fiction before, but the reality is depressingly now on the horizon.

Jonathan Wilson Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Electronic sheep reveals how extreme weather affects flocks

Proof that virtually no aspect of life cannot be improved by technology. Researchers from North Wales – where else? – have developed an electronic sheep to study how extreme weather affects flocks. Two electronic ewes – decked out in thick fleece and equipped with ear tags and woolly tails – were each fitted with a battery-powered heating system and stationed at Bangor University’s research farm. The heating system simulates the heat a real animal would produce when exposed to various weather conditions, in order to measure how much energy the animal needs to expend in order to handle weather-induced stresses. Seeing as the body temperature of a sheep on a hot day can rise to 60 degrees Celsius, there is clearly a genuine need to understand how best to care for a flock. Turns out that more hedges and trees are the simple, natural solution.

Giant airships to start operating in Alaska by 2019

The world’s skies will apparently soon be full of gigantic bulbous airships. If it’s not Airlander 10, it’ll be Lockheed Martin’s Hybrid Airships, which combine the features of an airship, helicopter, an aeroplane and a hovercraft. That’s a heck of a lot of technology convergence in one giant airship. These huge vessels – each the size of a football field, to use that universal indicator of scale – are expected to start transporting freight and human passengers in Alaska and Northern Canada by 2019. The craft, held in the air by helium, can land on every possible surface including snow, ice, gravel and water without the terrain requiring any adjustments.

Rebecca Northfield Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
‘Turing Learning’ allows machines to learn by observation

Robots are learning from other robots now. Interesting. You know this is like the Terminator story. Intelligent machines making other intelligent machines making machines follow their actions and EVERYBODY DIES IN A ROBOT-INDUCED APOCALYPSE. But whatever. I’m sure this sort of thing won’t happen. That’s what Elon Musk’s openAI company is for – making sure robots don’t turn on their creators and kill everyone. Perhaps our world will be a bit like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Bladerunner and “all those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain,” meaning we won’t be culled like poultry, androids will only rebel a little bit and Harrison Ford will hunt the bad droids using the Turing Test. Jolly good show. Remember, all dystopian fiction with robots is entirely possible. This need for us to learn and create intelligent machines is a definite way for Arnie to shoot you in the face without flinching, his laser eyeball giving you the stink eye as he looks into the hole in your head. #JUSTSAYING.

Georgina Bloomfield Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Personal data held by far more companies than internet shoppers realise

Apparently, a new survey has found that online shoppers in the UK are significantly underestimating how many organisations currently hold sensitive information about them. The survey only offered 50 examples across the many thousands of organisations currently in receipt of customer data, from airlines and retailers to online services and utility companies. This is worrying considering everywhere we go there are concerns about privacy and new technology. If a new TV comes out with a camera to read your emotions to what you watch, the first thing you’re going to ask yourself is if it’s a bit Nineteen Eighty Four. But when it comes to giving away your email address to get a voucher for something online or supplying your phone number ‘for delivery purposes’ when online shopping, we never give it a second thought. Are we so used to being asked to give away our data that it’s no longer an issue among the common consumer?

Jade Fell Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Alien life on Proxima b could be discovered in a few years

This week we all got very excited by the discovery of a new Earth-like exoplanet orbiting the closest star to Earth – Proxima b. Where Mars failed to fulfil our expectations for an Earth sister back in the 1960s, Proxima b has risen to the occasion, and offers the latest hope for the discovery of extra-terrestrial life. What’s more, new telescope technology now available means that it could take just a few years to scan the planet for alien lifeforms. I don’t want to get too excited by this news – I do hate to gear myself up for a fall. But my waters are telling me that exciting things are waiting for us on a planet not too far away and I cannot wait to make best friends with an alien. It’s fitting, too, that this planet was discovered this year. It’s felt so horribly lonely down here since David Bowie returned home in January. Who knows, maybe he’ll come back if we finally manage to discover ‘life on Mars’, or, you know, Proxima b. #HERESHOPING

Dickon Ross Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Hinkley what’s the Point? Report finds UK can hit climate targets without it

First it’s on, then it’s off, on again and off again. That’s the story of Hinckley Point C but, industry warned, it’s how the UK’s power supply will be behaving in the future if the UK’s first nuclear power station in a generation doesn’t go ahead. Or is it? A report from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit last week suggests otherwise; it says the UK could achieve the same reliability of supply through other sources of power and making the grid smarter.

Smarter power grid and ‘internet of energy’ would prevent UK blackouts
Renewable energy to power thousands of UK churches

This week, the National Grid also said this ‘internet of energy’ would avoid UK blackouts in the future, although more power stations would help too. And this week thousands of churches publicly backed renewables on the ‘world day of prayer for the care of creation’.

Back-to-school bags packed with £1.2bn worth of tech

“Mum, Dad, everyone at school has got a new phone. Like I am, literally, the only one in the school with this brick – it’s butters. When did you buy this – in the Stone Age?” In fact, you bought it last year, but gadgets move fast and don’t be surprised to hear this kind of complaint after your dear little ones go back to school after the summer break. It seems parents are spending more than ever on packing technology into their kids’ school bags. In my day it just extended to a calculator – and they were controversial. “A calculator!” I hear some of you cry. “You were lucky. In my day it was a slide rule.” Do kids today even know how to use a slide rule? Does it matter?

Vitali Vitaliev Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Electronic sheep reveals how extreme weather affects flocks

I’ve been waiting for this to happen since the untimely demise of Dolly the sheep in Roslin, near Edinburgh, in February 2003, at the tender age of 7. I was then living in Edinburgh and can still remember that mourning feeling that paralysed (well, almost) the great Scottish capital then. Although equally fluffy, unlike Dolly the Clone, the new Lamb of God, created at the Bangor University Research Farm in North Wales, is thoroughly electronic (shall we call it Ellie?) and unable to move, to graze or to baa, let alone to baa baa. It does not seem to have any eyes, so on top of it all, the poor thing is also blind. On the positive side, however, the new sheep is not black and is extremely sensitive to changes of temperature – a very important quality in North Wales, with its short summer and 365 days of rain a year. In fact, the whole purpose of creating Ellie the Sheep was to measure how much energy a normal, non-electronic and not cloned, lamb would require to resist the vicissitudes of the unpredictable Welsh climate. And since “handling the thermal stress” is an important skill to have not just for the sheep, I hope the Bangor Uni researchers won’t stop here and will soon produce an electronic cow, an electronic dog, and – who knows – maybe even am electronic Welshman too? In the meantime, they should concentrate on making a new model of Ellie the Sheep – Ellie Two, who, unlike its taciturn precursor, should be able to baa baa, since frequent baa baa-ing must be costing real sheep lots of energy and cannot be ignored while calculating the overall energy loss or intake. If they succeed in doing so, there will be grounds for renaming their respected scientific institution Baa-ngor University, or even Baa Baa-ngor University. Why not?

Giant airships to start operating in Alaska by 2019

I can see an immediate parking problem here. Let me explain. During a 10-day research visit to Alaska as a Daily Telegraph columnist some years ago, I was amazed (among other things) by the sheer number of private airplanes in its dramatic skies and on the ground too, for no plane can spend all its lifespan in the sky and will have to land sooner or later and therefore must be assigned with a parking space. In Anchorage, Alaska’s state capital, the problem of plane parking was already acute in the end of the last century and has now reached enormous proportions. Owning a private plane there is almost as normal as owning a car in Britain. It is not unusual for some families to have two (or more) planes each in their possession: one for the husband (or wife) to fly to work, and the second one for the housewife (or househusband) to do fly-shopping and take the kids on their daily school flights. I’ve heard of an increasing number of parking tickets being issued to parking-space-desperate pilots by the city’s flying authorities. Where on Earth, I wonder, are they going to park the giant airships , each the size of a football field, even if they commandeer for that purpose all existing American Football grounds on the peninsula? I can only hope they will sort it all out successfully and would like to finish on a more cheerful, even if somewhat gruesome and plane-parking-related,  note – with a joke I heard in Alaska from the pilot of a small four-seater hydroplane that was taking me on a bear-watching expedition to Kodiak Peninsula. In the middle of the flight, one of the passengers (not me) asked the pilot through the intercom: “Can this hydroplane land on the ground?”. “Yes, it can!” the pilot answered. “But only once!”

dominic-lenton Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Uber launches electric car service in London

Like so many other technological breakthroughs that need to attract a critical mass of support to make it into the mainstream, the key to getting drivers to accept the idea of electric cars is probably to just give them a taste of what it’s like to travel in one. Unless you’ve got a friend or relative who’s already invested in one, the most likely opportunity is public transport, so Uber’s plans to have more than 50 fully electric cars ferrying passengers around the streets of one of Britain’s busiest cities by the end of the month could do a lot to get potential buyers at least thinking about investing in one themselves. The car-sharing service intends to introduce the same vehicles in another city before the end of the year, and with more than 60 per cent of its journey miles already accounted for by hybrid cars this could be a significant step in persuading sceptics that it’s a sensible option as well as a virtuous one.

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