A cartoon showing lots of people going to work at the 'West London Earplug Factory' as a plane flied overhead

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All change for apprentices

‘All aboard for older apprentices’ (July 2015) was spot on. Recently, I was asked to take a class of apprentices who were studying the 1853/2882 qualification for electronic security systems and had visions of being greeted by a group of boys aged between 16 and 20 with little knowledge of technology.

As an experienced on-site assessor and qualification consultant for the awarding bodies in that sector I should have known better. The class was made up of both males and females who were all older than I anticipated. Also more or less everyone was well clued-up in a variety of other engineering technologies, with many having good industry accreditation to support them.

Technology training programmes have changed enormously over the years. They are now formed from modern frameworks and the mapping of units with other related industry qualifications. On-the-job training linked to external learning allows flexibility in terms of time spans so these modern apprenticeship routes are a far cry from the older apprenticeships with their four or five year ‘hands-tied’ approach.

Gerard Honey MIET
Consett

Starting an apprenticeship as an older adult is a good thing as the individual has a better idea of what they are capable of doing. A 59-year-old retired attorney of independent means (and well-placed connections) becoming a boatbuilder is not quite the same as 59-year-old bank teller becoming a boilermaker or fitter and turner. I imagine most older apprentices would choose a trade that is not as physically demanding as one a 16-year-old would choose. The biggest issue for most older people is supporting a family on an appie’s wage!

Anthony Brooks MIET
By email

Living with robots

Despite the engineering community’s best efforts, there are still areas of robotic behaviour that have yet to be addressed. One features in several articles in your July 2015 issue, where contributors point out that robots could be made smarter than humans, eliminating human-related errors and making them inherently safer.

Let us not forget that some of the most dangerous criminals in history were also highly intelligent, and it was only due to a human error or mistake that they were apprehended. Asimov’s three laws were not perfect – in the stories, it was humans that exploited the loopholes in the laws. What we may have to consider is robots smart enough to do the same.

The impression I got from the articles is that the engineering community is striving towards Lt Commander Data from ‘Star Trek’. As an observer of human nature, my guess is that they’ll actually get Bender from ‘Futurama’.

Reid Thomas MIET
Frimley, Surrey

I know the intense satisfaction of solving a difficult scientific or engineering problem, particularly if it is internationally discussed. But if ‘The machines want to know how you feel’ (July 2015) we should resist. Exposing our inner feelings to strangers? Especially via furtive surveillance technology?

We would all adapt our facial expressions and body movements to reveal nothing. We would never react to anything in public or in front of our TV screens. As the robots became more human, we would become more robotic!

Alan Joinson MIET
Abingdon

I was surprised by the omission of one seemingly obvious pattern for human/AI interaction: an autonomous intelligence that people have been familiar with for thousands of years, are familiar with issuing spoken commands to, comes in all shapes, sizes and functions, from specialised pest control, fearsome security models, through helpmates, and multiple search and rescue functions – yes, the dog. Could this be a short cut to bridging the ‘uncanny valley’? An AI occupying an artificial dog body may be easier to accept than a humanoid AI.

Keith Talbot, MIET
By email

Is energy harvesting floor viable?

I find it difficult to believe that anyone is taking energy-harvesting technology like the paving system featured in your July issue news section seriously. A couple of years ago I was pleased that our students had taken my advice not to install similar tiles in their new union building. I believe the proposal was to install eight tiles at a cost of about $30,000. The projected total output was an average of about 2W.

Some have the fallacious belief that the energy output would otherwise be wasted, whereas in fact these recovery methods simply make it more difficult to do the original activity. If you really want to make people contribute substantially you could put generators on every door hinge, or have posts with handles that you could push as you went past.

WG Dunford
Dept of Electrical & Computer Engineering, University of British Columbia, Canada

UK maglev's aftermath

Contributions to the British maglev project (Letters, July 2015) were also made by the electrical engineering team at Tracked Hovercraft, of which I was a member under the leadership of Chris English, but only latterly in the project.

Mostly, levitation of the main test vehicle was by means of hover-pads and propulsion by single-sided linear-induction motor. The peak achievement, in the closing days of the project was a test run of the prototype vehicle at 107mph on a mile test track at Earith, Cambridgeshire. On closure of the project the electrical engineering team was recruited en masse by Spar Aerospace of Toronto and subsequently assisted in the development of the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System. Britain’s loss was Canada’s gain.

Stan Tofield MIET
By email

Tracked hovercraft were never a serious proposition for main-line railways. The cumbersome track did not allow for the pointwork necessary for more than a simple layout. The energy needed for support as well as propulsion and the nuisance created by the used air forced out of each side just condemned the whole thing. Luckily the British project was called off early. The French spent millions on M Bertin’s ‘Aerotrain’ and even illustrated it on a postage stamp. Test-track ruins still deface countryside for several kilometres north of Orleans and can be seen from passing TGVs.

John R Batts IEng MIET
Banbury, Oxon

Correction

On p45 of the July 2015 issue of E&T, as part of our focus on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, we incorrectly described Professor Alan Winfield as heading the Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Professor Winfield is director of the university’s Science Communication Unit and his colleague Professor Chris Melhuish is director of the Robotics Lab. Apologies to both of them for this mistake.

The ‘bionic man’ Frank shown on p55 was created by the Shadow Robot Company for Darlow Smithson Productions for Channel 4 and Smithsonian TV. It was modelled on presenter Bertolt Meyer, also pictured, but he did not design it as we stated.

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