Best of the week’s news 25 November 2016: 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.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
I’ve never been able to understand how someone can get through life without using the snooze button. Those annoying individuals who, the second the 06:15 alarm sounds, are awake, out of bed and engaging in some light pre-dawn yoga. Perhaps it’s short-sightedness on my part – being a chronic over-snoozer – but this seems like a hugely unhuman skill to possess. How can anyone resist squeezing out just five more minutes of blissful duvet time? It’s madness! That said I do find myself somewhat envious of people who can say with certainty that they will get up at a specific time and don’t have to worry about fighting with their sleep-heavy self every single morning. As such I’m quite drawn to the idea of this new Pavlovian-style alarm clock that’s recently been launched on Kickstarter. The Alarmshock is a clever little wristband that trains over-sleepers to associate hitting the snooze button with pain, by emitting an electric shock to the wearer if they don’t get up. Having given an initial wake-up-call in the form of a gentle vibration or sound alert, the wristband detects whether the wearer has opted for a five-minute snooze and emits an electric shock of increasing frequency until it detects that they are up and out of bed. Sounds horrific, doesn’t it? Literally horrific, but I can imagine it’s pretty effective, especially seeing as the wristband actually locks itself to the wearer’s arm, meaning that it cannot be removed in the hope of sneaking in a few more minutes shut-eye. OK, so it’s technically a kind of self-torture and might also teach you to associate your bed with pain and suffering, but you definitely won’t be late for work and that’s got to count for something, right?
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Specially trained saboteurs are testing quality-control systems at Ford’s car plant in Valencia, Spain, by secretly placing wrong parts and faulty components on the assembly lines. The idea is to monitor the effectiveness of Ford’s industry-first Vision System technology, which photographs, checks and tracks every single part of each of the 400,000 cars and vans assembled and the 330,000 engines built at Valencia each year. Once upon a time, an unreliable new car would be described as a ‘Friday afternoon’ car because it was assumed that the workers who built it were thinking about the weekend ahead. Not any more.
This is a feel-good feature that’s well worth reading. It tells of the ways engineers work with disabled young musicians, in particular, to design tailor-made prosthetics that help them play their instruments more effectively and comfortably. Most engineers make people’s lives better in one way or another, but not many get to work with individuals in this way. It must be very satisfying.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
An easy target for a left-wing environmentalist perhaps, but this is really one of the most absurd and dangerous things to come out of Trump’s shock election win. And that’s saying something. After initially accusing China of inventing climate change in order to suppress other countries (this coming from the USA, a nation whose economy is built on huge, polluting industries), Trump has finally conceded that there may be “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. Despite this apparently recent realisation, he still announced that he intends to slash funding for Nasa’s climate research programme. Throughout his campaign, Trump made broad sweeping statements about whatever was on his mind at the time with little thought for their basis in reality. “This is fine,” his supporters said. “He delivers with conviction and that’s all that matters”. Forget evidence-based reasoning. It’s frustrating that Trump has the ability to deny that climate change exists and then base policy on that, despite overwhelming global scientific consensus purely because it’s inconvenient for him in one way or another. “Global warming, my ass. Have you been outside lately? It’s pretty cold out there right now. Explain that!” seems to be Trump’s line of thought. And he’s about to become the leader of the free world. For the next four years.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
I welcome this Singaporean invention with enthusiasm. Firstly, because – unlike all other driverless vehicles which now include a driverless bus for 11 passengers being tested in the Swiss town of Sion – it appears safe (indeed, no foreseeable damage can result even from the scooter’s head-on collision at 6 km/h). Secondly, because it is portable and if one gets fed up with riding, he or she can easily dismantle, pick up the scooter and carry it unhurriedly to a destination. And walking – as opposed to riding – is good for one’s health, so here we have the third reason for embracing (in the true sense of this word!) the scooter in question. The logical next step for Singaporean inventors would be a cyclist-free bicycle, my only concern being that ‘reinventing the bicycle’ is a Russian equivalent of the English expression ‘reinventing the wheel’. So, having weighed up all pros and cons, I would still go for the most tested, reliable and healthy means of transportation – my own two feet. Moreover, their cruising speed can easily exceed that of a driverless scooter and the only equipment required is a pair of good walking shoes.
Well, if you ask me, Naomi Alderman’s future is here now, with women already “holding all the power and men trembling at their feet”. Indeed, women are already at the helm of some of the world’s most important states, like Germany, Latvia, Iceland and many other. In Britain, of course, both the head of state and the prime minister are women. Let alone the most recent past President of the IET. In the USA, well, a woman had just narrowly missed becoming the President. And look at all the prominent women scientists and engineers, starting with the delightful Baroness Greenfield whom I had the honour of meeting once at a futurists’ conference in Switzerland. In short, women have managed to get all the power without becoming “aggressive and violent”, as Naomi Alderman predicts in her dystopian novel. On the contrary, they have done so while remaining beautifully warm and charming and if men do “tremble at their feet” occasionally, they do it out of sheer affection, not fear. This is of course my own personal point of view. Call me old-fashioned, but I do love women and am not afraid of saying so.
Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
What a gentle way to wake up! As if the sound of an alarm wasn’t traumatising enough, now you’re going to get an electroshock on top of that. The company behind the Alarmshock wristband, which is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, says it teaches snoozers to get up immediately and encourages them to develop healthy sleeping habits. I am not exactly sure about this. If you want to wake up in the morning full of energy, go to bed early in the first place. No amount of electroshocks is going to do that for you.
Forget about robbing banks or petrol stations. If you want to make money illegally, learn some coding. It’s really efficient. From run-of-the-mill ransomware attacks to sophisticated bank hacks, cyber-crime is a profitable and rather safe business. The majority of attackers are never found as they are usually based on the other side of the world. In the latest hacking masterpiece, eastern European attackers managed to make ATMs around Europe spit out cash. Beforehand, they despatched their gang-members to collect the jackpot before the banks noticed and switched off the ATMs.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Beleagured Volkswagen must be heartily sick of the diesel car emissions scandal. Granted, it was of its own doing - a foolish decision made by foolish decision-makers at the top of the company - but no serious long-term harm has been done to people or the planet. Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon, this is not. America's litigious victim culture has seen thousands of VW diesel car owners and their legal representatives mewling to be adequately compensated (for what, exactly?) and now their pathetic, transparently avaricious wailing has seeped across the Atlantic and been picked up by none other than London mayor Sadiq Khan. Khan is asking Volkswagen to reimburse the city £2.5m for pollution and lost Congestion Charge revenue from vehicles with higher emissions than declared, as well as compensating the owners. The whole thing strikes me as an unseemly, greedy grab for cash, propelled by ambulance-chaser lawyers, no better than all those PPI claim operations. Like sharks, Volkswagen is bleeding money right now and the smell of it is in countless lawyers' nostrils.
A self-driving scooter with a top speed of 6km/h might sound unspectacular, but having just returned from a trip to Shanghai, China, where people ride motorised scooters directly at you on every pavement with a cavalier disregard for the safe preservation of your shins, I can see real value in this. The fact that this scooter will autonomously route itself around the city streets and safely navigate around obstacles - e.g. you and your shins - is certainly a great scoot forwards.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
The Chancellor's autumn statement represents a change of direction for the UK government, with billions to be invested in transport, communications and R&D. Hidden among the controversial economic forecasts were announcements on investment in railway digital signals, driverless car tests, 5G and broadband network upgrades and billions for a new National Productivity Investment Fund. Some of them were trailed in the days before, but the scale is surprising compared to recent years' government spending patterns. Unsurprisingly, they were generally welcomed by the engineering and technology industries - albeit sometimes with caution about the obstacles ahead. Jack Loughran has all those reactions and the detail of the announcements so far. Watch out for our supplement in the New Year on what the industrial strategy will mean for the future of manufacturing.
The robots are taking over - slowly but surely. Manufacturing was one of the first real applications for robotics, going back to car production plants way before the internet, mobile phone networks or even PCs. When online meant it was just on a production line. Half a century later manufacturing robots are getting more connected and smarter. Ocado has 1000 4G-connected robots in its warehouse.
There are more highly automated plants. Saboteurs in Ford's plant in Valencia, Spain, are putting spanners in the works there but they aren't really in a jealous war with the plant's 1,900 robots - it's a scheme to test and improve the automated systems. In fact, when I visited the plant last week I was struck by how many real life humans are still employed in such automated plants. Ford is one of the region’s top employers and producers - half of it exported to the US. Donald Trump's protectionism, if it ever comes to that, could be bad very bad news for such European plants as well as those in Mexico or China. Let's hope it doesn't.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Don’t be fooled by the lavish pictures; this collaboration between the National Trust and Historic England is much more than just a coffee table guide to some of the nation’s most picturesque historic properties. It looks in a thought provoking way at how the moneyed classes of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were the early adopters of their day when it came to labour saving domestic technology. Whether it was heating, lighting or something more frivolous they had the cash to splash on innovations that eventually made their way into the mainstream. And the downturn in fortunes that hit many in the end meant that they just couldn’t afford to replace it. How much of the in-home gadgetry that’s being installed by the super-rich today will still be around in 20 years’ time, let alone a hundred? If you’re feeling generous and need to buy a Christmas Gift for someone who’s interested in the history of technology, membership of National Trust or Historic England plus a copy of this book would make a great combination as well as setting them up for many enjoyable and instructive days out.