Comment

Best of the week's news: comment and analysis from E&T's editorial staff

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

'Musical Raspberry Pi' wins young tech competition

The young tech inventors and entrepreneurs of the UK are celebrated in this story, including the 24-year-old behind the deceptively simple but highly engaging Dots, which features a collection of stackable buttons that enable children to make their own music without having to learn a traditional instrument. Removing arbitrary barriers to help in unlocking a child's creative potential is clearly an award-winning idea - which is exactly what it is now. 

Labour to ban fracking if elected

I'd vote for the party that promises to ban fracking. When there are so many cheaper, cleaner, less destructive and eternally sustainable energy alternatives available to us right here, right now, why are we still drilling sideways into our national parks and vigorously pummelling the bedrock below them with high-powered water jets, just to try and eke out a little bit more gas? It all sounds so desperate and primitive, pushed on by people who simply can't shake off the old ways. There is a better world available to us. Get out of the Stone Age.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

BBC's prototype holographic television goes on display

I've wondered for a while when we would get holographic TVs the likes of which are constantly sprinkled throughout Hollywood's latest and greatest dystopian fiction flicks. Last weekend a friend brought a tiny acrylic pyramid round to my house and blew my mind by turning the screen of his mobile phone into a hologram – it was tiny, but with the lights off and having consumed more than a few glasses of Chardonnay my mind was blown. Turns out the whole acrylic pyramid trick is actually pretty old (I grew up in the Cambridgeshire Fens, don't judge me). This however is the first time it's been carried out on such a scale, with BBC engineers using a specially formatted 46-inch TV. It's basic, but pretty cool. 

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

'Fracking is safe' claims Ineos boss as US shale gas arrives

Err, what? It may be a safe option to get more money into industry and help people get jobs that are otherwise unemployed, but safe? As in, not dangerous? As in, nothing will happen? Is he having a laugh? This dude says that we have to accept the world is not perfect, occasionally we have spillages and we have incidents. He describes fracking accidents as "occasionally you get a puncture in your car. However hard you try, things go wrong occasionally." Okey dokey. So, according to the Huffington Post and the study 'Fracking by Numbers', fracking released 5.3 billion pounds of methane into the atmosphere in 2014, which is as much global warming pollution as 22 coal-fired power plants produce in a year. Also, at least 239 billion gallons of water have been used in fracking since 2005. Oh yeah, between 2005 and 2015, fracking used at least 23 billion pounds of toxic chemicals. Which means, poisonous to humans and animals and EVERYTHING AROUND US. Plus, in 2014 alone, fracking wells produced at least 14 billion gallons of wastewater, which is really dangerous. It goes into our drinking water sometimes. Finally, infrastructure to support fracking has damaged at least 675,000 acres of land since 2005. Ta-dah! So there you have it, fracking is safe, guys! There is something positive, though. If the Labour Party wins the next general election, they say they'll ban fracking in the UK. At least there's that. Just the rest of the world to go. 

Tereza Pultarova, news reporter

RACE demonstrates robot teamwork and launches extreme environment test bed

Labour launches commission to protect workers from automation threats

Workers worry that robots will come and take their jobs. Their concerns are so serious that the UK Labour Party decided to launch a new commission that will examine the future threats to job security stemming from automation. Hopefully, the workers will not object to being replaced with robots when it comes to tasks in hazardous environments such as nuclear decommissioning sites or oil and gas refineries. As I learned this week during the visit to the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s site in Culham, plans are already being made to completely remove workers from such scenarios by replacing them with teams of remotely operated cooperating robots. To encourage industries to move to robots when it comes to dangerous work, the UK Atomic Energy Authority has launched a new facility that allows manufacturers to test their devices rigorously to make sure they don't cause more harm than good.

Hydrogen-powered aircraft takes to sky in Germany

Congratulations to German engineers for the success of their HY4 project. This hydrogen-powered aircraft, the first in the world, is a major step towards sustainable aviation. So far it can only carry four people, but its range is quite impressive and as long as the hydrogen used in its fuel cells is generated using renewable electricity, its operations won't produce any emissions.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

3D printed bones created from cheap, synthetic material

3D printing technologies seem to be developing with amazing speed. Printing human bones isn't that new - last year it was reported that soldiers could be scanned before deploying and a 'twin' kept online so that new bones could be 3D printed if they are injured. E&T has also covered this theme in our series of Louise Murray's features on the latest breakthroughs in forensics. A truly mind-boggling development bringing to memory 'Star Diaries' – a brilliant book by my favourite science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. 'Star Diaries' is a humorous account of the rather incredible and always hilarious adventures of Ijon Tichy, a fantasist space traveller of the future – a Baron Munchausen of the Space Age. One distant planet this talented fabricator (allegedly) visits during his travels is being severely affected by unceasing meteorite storms pounding its surface. Because of that, all visitors to the planet have to have full DNA copies of themselves made on entry. When hit by a falling meteorite, a space tourist can then be promptly replaced by their complete, probably 3D-printed, lookalike. Ijon Tichy himself is hit on the head by a meteorite when watching a play in the theatre one evening and is later shocked to discover several scraps of wrapping paper behind his ears…  Well, it looks like – again – a wild fairy tale is about to become reality and we all could end by being 3D printed, or rather reprinted, sooner or later. So please watch for those bits of wrapping paper on your body.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Labour launches commission to protect workers from automation threats

There was enough going on at the Labour Party conference to keep the mainstream media busy without having to touch on an announcement that deserved a lot more attention than it received. As part of its traditional role of protecting the rights of British workers, the party has quietly launched a commission to monitor the impact that increasing automation is having in the workplace. This isn't just a modern-day Luddite objection to robots taking jobs from machine operators; the rate at which the Internet of Things is connecting all kinds of planning and production could eliminate the need for humans to be involved at all levels. Labour's immediate concern is the effect this will have on wages – a survey linked to the commission launch found that a fifth of workers are already worried about pay going down as robots take on more responsibility. Despite this, and the fact that a similar number of people believe it'll have an adverse effect on job security, almost 40 per cent said they're in favour of investment in automation technologies, with many confident it'll help increase their productivity. Minimum wage levels are one way of addressing this, but won't they just encourage employers to replace expensive and disgruntled human workers with cheaper, uncomplaining robots? In the long-term, it'll take a collaborative effort to manage increasing automation in offices and factories. That means not pitting workers against management, but working together to take advantage of the opportunities that other, more far-sighted countries are already looking to benefit from.

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