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

Friday 16 September 2016

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Monkeys transcribe Hamlet with new brain-reading tech

Researchers want to use this technology to eventually help people suffering with severe paralysis like good old Steve Hawking. Monkeys with brain implants were able to move a cursor on a screen and transcribe words from Shakespeare and the New York Times. Pretty cool, right? But I have one thing to say. Why on earth did they use Shakespeare? Someone who hasn’t really studied the bloke’s numerous plays, sonnets, poems etc would be completely lost if they were to read, transcribe, dictate or even generally understand an excerpt from one of his works. For example, this is a passage from Hamlet. Ophelia is basically saying that the advice she has been given by her brother Laertes on her relationship with Hamlet was totally hypocritical and she thinks Laertes will not follow his own advice when he pops off to college: “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, And recks not his own rede.” Yeah. You can totally get that from the text, right? This is how I think a monkey’s brain would process the text if they were trying to transcribe it: “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do [do these men not say please or thank you, or something?], Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, [Someone’s a bit pessimistic] Whiles, [While. Okay I’ll write that down. No wait, it’s whiles. Whiles?] like a puffed and reckless [puffed? Like a cushion? Or popcorn? I like popcorn] libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, [This guy sounds like a bit of an idiot] And recks [Recks?! What the hell is that?] not his own rede [Red-e? Red. E. Is it ready? Sounds like ready. What is it? Oh man, now nothing makes sense].”

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Terahertz spectrometer allows unopened books to be read

Researchers at MIT and Georgia Tech in the US have been able to read text clearly on the top nine sheets of a stack of paper and see writing on up to 20 by directing ultrashort bursts of terahertz radiation into the stack and analysing the signals that are reflected back. One day, museums might be able to use the technology to scan the contents of old books too fragile to handle or to examine paintings to confirm their authenticity or understand the artist’s creative process. This really appeals to my twin interests in technology and history.

Reykjavik to go emissions-free by 2040

The mayor of Reykjavik wants to make the Icelandic capital carbon-neutral in less than 25 years. He’s starting from a good position, as the city is already powered by hydroelectricity and its buildings are heated from geothermal sources. The next steps are to restrict urban sprawl and develop a mass-transit system that people will use in preference to driving. Beyond that, it will need some pretty impressive developments before 2020 to make sure that every non-car vehicle scrapped after, say, 2025 (from road rollers to fire engines) can be replaced by a commercially available, economically sensible, clean alternative.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
SpaceX to resume rocket launches in November following explosion

Despite a launch pad explosion that destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 1 September, the seemingly undaunted company has now said that it will resume flights as early as November this year. The firm is currently investigating what went wrong, and why the rocket suddenly burst into flames as it was being fuelled for a routine prelaunch test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. “We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight in November, the November timeframe,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said earlier this week during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week Conference in Paris. Well, it’s great news, and hopefully soon commercial missions to space will become routine.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Drive to work reaches end of the road in the smart city

Do autonomous vehicles need to become more confident? While freight convoys can crawl along our motorways at night to reduce congestion and save fuel, unmanned passenger vehicles need to contend with other traffic and they need to be more assertive if they are to be more popular with the public, thought delegates to this year’s TM Forum Smart City conference in Yinchuan, China. Autonomous vehicles’ cautious – perhaps even over-cautious – algorithms make it more difficult for them to turn into busy traffic than human drivers edging their way or even forcing their way into busy roads. They tend to hold back and that can mean long, frustrating waits for the occupants. They can also tend to ‘stutter’ down the road, nervously stopping and starting down the road, and this could be made worse by pedestrians’ knowledge that the vehicles will always stop for them – unlike the traffic where I live. Autonomous vehicles should “behave more badly” said one speaker. But how nicely or badly should they behave? The first person to be hit by an unmanned vehicle that just didn’t stop will be very bad for the industry – no matter how many people are killed every day on the roads by manned vehicles.

UK likely to miss renewable energy targets for 2020

It looks like the UK is going to miss its legally binding renewable energy targets for 2020. Brexit means it may not have to pay the EU fine but it probably deserves too. The problem areas for the UK are housing – especially insulation – and transport.

London set to electrify bus fleet

London mayor Sadiq Kahn has announced many more all-electric buss for the capital. For those who don’t know London transport, the frequent bus service is a popular way of commuting in London and they are well used – often full at rush hour. It won’t make much difference to the UK meeting its 2020 targets but its’ a helpful contribution to improving the poor air quality in London.

Reykjavik to go emissions-free by 2040

Reykjavik’s mayor is being much more ambitious in declaring the city will be carbon-neutral by 2040. But it is powered by geothermal energy and to be fair there aren’t many volcanoes near London.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Terahertz spectrometer allows unopened books to be read

I’m not familiar enough with the work of JK Rowling to be certain, but this bit of research from the US sounds close enough to Arthur C Clarke’s dictum of sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic to be something that Harry Potter and friends have achieved at some point with the help of a quick incantation. The serious use of the ability to read a book without opening it in the real world isn’t as exotic as accessing the contents of a dusty, padlock-bound grimoire – there are some paper artefacts so fragile that even trying to lift the cover could damage them to the point where they become unreadable. Scanning with terahertz waves could give archivists the ability to scan the contents with no danger of them crumbling to dust. And there are more prosaic applications in industry, for example to detect defects in vehicle structures that are concealed by several coats of paint. At $100,000 dollars a time though, for now no one’s going to be using it to grab a surreptitious peep at the contents of your diary or other confidential documents.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Reykjavik to go emissions-free by 2040

You know what; after a week spent in Iceland last year, I can believe this! During my visit, I only managed to see the outskirts of Reykjavik, but even in the suburbs the pavements (or ‘sidewalks’ as they say in Iceland, American-style) get heated using geothermal energy from hot springs in winter. Iceland’s capital, like many other towns in that vast yet sparsely populated country, is sitting on top of a large magma chamber that makes the area prone to volcanic eruptions. Through the years, Icelanders have learned to use this precarious geography to their advantage as a clean energy source – an example to be commended and emulated wherever possible. Having all but missed Reykjavik, I did manage to visit Hveragerði, about 50km from the capital, the town that is also known as the hot springs capital of the world. Indeed, Hveragerði and the surrounding area are literally swarming with hot springs, and the locals routinely use geothermal energy not just for heating all their dwellings and Iceland’s biggest public swimming pool, but also for cooking, baking, washing up and even for making their world-famous ice cream! The hot springs’ energy is used in dozens of hot houses in which various tropical and subtropical plants are being cultivated, so some of the bananas we buy in UK. While there, I had a chance to dip into a hot (not burning hot!) spring – very relaxing; and even to cook my breakfast (not very well) in a special geothermal oven – the experience I shared in my last year’s Christmas ‘After All’ column.

Brexit not a threat for UK space sector

It becomes increasingly clear that the multiple myths of the dangers posed by Brexit, from complete economic collapse to the start of World War III, spread by some ‘Remain’ supporters have been grossly exaggerated. Less than three months after the referendum, the British economy is picking up, the pound is recovering its strength – slowly but surely; and the somewhat panicky mood is being replaced with new confidence and dignity. It’s now obvious (to me at least) that, free of excessive controls and regulations, the British space sector, as well as the country’s engineering, science and manufacturing industry, are all in for a new age of growth and prosperity in the post-EU era.


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