Best of the week’s news 16 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.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
This wonderful piece of news is nothing short of a Christmas miracle! A new electrode stimulator developed by researcher at UCLA has allowed a paralysed man to move his hands again. The patient, a 28 year old who suffered a broken neck from a motorcycle accident five years ago, was paralysed from the neck down, but has been able to regain some movement in his hands, after having an electrode planted in his spine alongside the damaged nerves. This year has been really tough on the old news front, with a lot of fairly terrible things occurring across the world, but there's also been a fair few fantastic medical developments - case in point, this little chap. It seems like most weeks there is a new piece of kit developed to help out those with reduced mobility, whether it's a high-tech low-cost prosthetic, or something as mind blowing as this. Medical research like this fills me with hope for a brighter, happier, more mobile future.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Thunderbirds are Go! Well, perhaps not. But wouldn’t it be cute if the rockets had little people inside, controlling the ship to get to the bad parts of the body and fix them? A bit like the 1966 American sci-fi Fantastic Voyage? I love that film. I used to imagine zooming through the arteries in a ship, combating all the diseases that looked like gross, slimy monsters with dagger teeth. Good times. This nanorocket thing is pretty cool, too.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
The private sector is often much derided, but when governments and public institutions fail us, we can sometimes be appreciative of the apparent generosity of people much, much richer than most of the planet's inhabitants, who are prepared to put their private money where their public mouth is. With world governments dragging their Big Oil-shackled feet on clean energy initiatives, it looks like very good news that a group of tech billionaires, led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has announced a new $1bn fund to help finance research into innovative emissions-free energy technologies.
If nothing else, you should check out this story for the wonderful image accompanying it and the sly look in the cow's eye. "Methane emissions? Moi?"
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
The latest issue of E&T is a seasonal celebration, looking at the future of food and drink. What will your Christmas dinner or in fact any other meal look like in 2050? It may have changed beyond recognition. Find out why turkeys one day would vote for Christmas. If only they had the vote of course.
Engineering can change a life for the better. Engineering combined with empowering technology like 3D printing can change many more lives for the better – fast. The problem with prosthetics is that they have to be custom made in small quantities which makes them expensive and out of the reach of many of the poorest in the world. People also outgrow them and have to wait for another. That’s no problem for 3D printing. 3D printing has already changed dentistry and it’s going to be huge in medicine too – for modelling, making prosthetic parts of organs as well as limbs like this – even custom one-off instruments for operations.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
An X-ray machine that can detect different shapes and types of matter has been developed by University College London engineers. They are now working with Nikon Metrology UK on two separate applications - a security scanner to detect weapons and explosives hidden in baggage, and a system that would let surgeons scan people with breast cancer and see immediately which tissue is malignant and which is not, so they can remove as much as necessary and no more. The technology even detects tissue that doesn’t normally show up on X-ray images, such as cartilage.
Unicef and the government of Malawi are investigating how drones could be used to assist in disasters such as droughts or floods. The project will look at using drones to gather imagery of affected areas, deliver emergency supplies and provide mobile phone and Wi-Fi coverage in cut-off regions. There’s a lot of talk about potential uses of drones, so it’s worth remembering here that they are only valuable as components of wider systems, and it’s likely that different kinds of vehicle will be needed for different purposes (in terms of range, endurance and load-bearing capacity). If this project helps with understanding what’s most useful that’s a good thing. This is still a very new area, and there’s a lot to be learned.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
There’s nothing new in the idea that today’s kids are unlikely to have jobs for life. Through necessity rather than choice, accelerating changes in technology mean they’re going to have to be adaptable, shifting to a new line of work when the one they’ve been employed in gets reassigned to a robot or simply becomes obsolete. One expert has predicted that around two-thirds of youngsters just starting out in school will one day work in careers that don’t even exist yet. Scary, but smart parents will be doing less worrying and more thinking about how they can equip their offspring to survive and thrive in this brave new world, and one way of doing that is by ignoring the shiny plastic junk that’ll be broken by Boxing Day and putting something more challenging under the Christmas tree. This year, Santa has s choice of kits that teach coding, and the sort of adaptable thinking that’s going to be a huge asset in years to come. Raspberry Pi and the BBC micro:bit will be familiar to some recipients from school, others like SmartGurlz, which adds a robotic element to traditional feminine favourites like dolls’ houses, are less overtly educational. Give them a look if you’ve left it late to pick up gifts. And don’t worry too much about your kids spending time on this sort of plaything. As one educational researcher reckons, they’re likely to be inventing their future jobs based on playing with Minecraft.