Best of the week’s news 9 December 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.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Amazon Go’s high-street store lets you walk in‚ take items and walk out

Let’s talk about Amazon. I think I know the true origins of the company’s name. Not, not the eponymous river, but the adjective ‘amazing’! Or the verb ‘to amaze’, if you wish. I’ve been using Amazon’s services for years, mostly as a reader and more recently as a writer too, and they have never ceased to amaze me. Yes, I know it is a multinational corporation, very much preoccupied with its profits (why shouldn’t it be?) and reportedly not always paying its warehouse employees very well. I am equally aware of the fact that, having grown out of all proportions and trying to reach all existing niches of the market, it is threatening a number of smaller retail businesses. Having started with trading in books and stationery, Amazon these days dispenses everything, with the possible exception of aircraft, hydro turbines, surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank grenades (albeit I do not completely exclude the possibility that those ‘goodies’ might soon be available for drone delivery to holders of the Prime membership, and I am one of them) – the fact which probably breaches some mysterious competition rules. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favour of giant corporations’ domination of the world, not at all. But thinking as an average consumer – let’s be honest – Amazon is miles ahead of all its competitors in quality, reliability and versatility of its services. If as a Prime member I order a book, or, say, a laptop, or a tin of Moroccan spice ras el hanout, I can be sure it will be with me the next day - no excuses and no drones involved (yet). They’re also pretty good with accepting back the gadgets you didn’t like. In short, it’s hard, if not impossible, to compete with the amazing Amazon, and the new ‘Just Walk In’ technology we reported on this week is more proof of that. You go into a shop, stuff your trolley and pockets with all the things you fancy, and instead of proceeding to checkout simply leave the store without paying! By the time you arrive home, however, the clever chips and sensors embedded in the stuff you have acquired will have alerted your uncomplaining bank account – and your honestly earned money will have ended up in Amazon’s coffers. Sounds ‘amazing’, doesn’t it? The important thing here is not to rush and wait until this ‘Just Walk In’ technology walks in, or rather gets set in motion. In the meantime, to avoid disappointment and/or detention, I wouldn’t recommend proceeding straight to the exit after shopping in your local Asda, Lidl or Waterstones, no matter how tempting that may appear.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Uber launches AI lab to boost driverless car research

Pilotless aircraft trialled in British airspace

Self-driving cars put to work at Nissan’s factory

The investment and activity around driverless vehicles is now coming so thick and fast that it makes their adoption inevitable – eventually – as evidenced in several stories this week. One of the major obstacles though is the law that governs them – or rather lack of it. This is an issue that Apple raised this week with the US authorities. There’s no international standardisation yet of the rules governing driverless vehicles. Much of the development work is taking place in the UK and that’s thanks in no small part to the UK’s liberal regime for trialling unmanned road and air vehicles.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Facial recognition enters world of mobile with augmented reality app

Keen-eyed readers of the print version of E&T may have noticed the experiments we’ve done in the past with Blippar, an app that when installed on a mobile device allows the user to point their camera at an image or object to link automatically to related online content. A step beyond the QR codes that are already starting to look like yesterday’s thing, it’s the sort of experimental augmented reality tech that could one day see us connecting through pictures and things rather than by typing on a keyboard. One avenue unveiled by the Blippar company this week is image-recognition technology that lets you find out more about someone you meet simply by scanning their face. Sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, and some will have concerns about security, but for now users can control how private their details are and maintain complete control over what others can see. A new kind of social media though, and something we’ll all have to think carefully about before we start engaging with it in earnest.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Amazon Go’s high-street store lets you walk in‚ take items and walk out

This is a pretty cool concept, but I have my reservations. One step on from contactless payment, Amazon’s new ‘Amazon Go’ high street store will be equipped with ‘Just Walk Out’ technology to allow customer to pick stuff up off the shelves, and walk straight out of the store without confronting queues or checkouts. An accompanying app has to be used to enter the store, which, once the customer leaves, adds tracked purchases to their Amazon account and charges their bank account. A definite blow to high street thieves, but presumably a win for everyone else, right? I’m not so sure. As intriguing as this all sounds, could you imagine the havoc it could cause if your phone was lost or stolen? It would no longer be a simple case of changing your Amazon account password and cancelling orders if some sneaky so-and-so got into your account. A quick-footed thief could cause absolutely carnage in your bank account with open access to all those goods, and no security guards waiting to pounce on non-paying customers. I’m unconvinced.

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