Comment

Best of 2016: comment and analysis on the year's news from E&T’s editorial staff

As an eventful year ends and the world looks ahead to 2017, E&T’s editorial team pick their highlights from the technology news over the past 12 months.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

AI takes centre stage in Google’s Pixel smartphone and Home speaker

2016 was the year that AI-powered virtual assistants finally became viable. Whether it’s Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant, AI is now advanced enough that these services are useful and genuinely improves users’ interactions with their devices. Microsoft and Amazon first launched their assistants in 2014, Apple in 2011 and although Google only introduced its version this year, it was a really just a rebranding of functionality that had already been present on a number of Google products for some time. But 2016 is the year that they became a joy to use rather than a hindrance. A large part of this success is down to the rapid improvement in voice-recognition technology. Only last year, shouting queries at devices was an exercise in frustration simply because the success rate of interpreting the command and the actual words used was too hit-and-miss. When it worked it was great, like something from Star Trek, but the failure rate was high enough that one was always questioning whether it would have just been easier to type the commands instead.

Deep learning initiatives have seen voice recognition improve in leaps and bounds in recent years to the point where it’s almost second nature to talk to one’s devices without worrying that it will mistranslate a word or two and misinterpret the entire command. Major tech companies have realised this fundamental shift in usability, which has resulted in Siri being added to MacOS for the first time this year and Google releasing ‘Home’, its Amazon Alexa rival. Coupled with the addition of Cortana to Windows 10 in the latter half of last year, virtual assistants have finally become ever-present, device-agnostic services that can be accessed whether at home or out and about.

Contextually the services have improved too; not only do they understand what you are saying, but they understand what you are actually asking. This is really where Google stands out; its assistant is arguably the most well rounded of the bunch, featuring probably the most accurate voice recognition and really nailing it when it comes to understanding what information you are actually looking for. As the search engine with the largest number of users in the world, it has access to a wealth of data that even the huge behemoths of tech, Apple and Microsoft, just don’t have access to. It will be interesting to see how, or if, their assistants keep up with Google’s as time goes on but one thing is certain, the virtual assistants are here to stay and will only become more prevalent in the future.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Brexit and the EU referendum: the big four issues

Trump and Clinton pledge billions to fix US infrastructure

In years to come, we will all have our own personal and family memories of 2016, but in the wider world two things are likely to stand out: Britons voted for Brexit and Americans voted for Donald Trump. In both cases we made an effort here at E&T to live up to our name by looking at the particular engineering and technology concerns that might contribute to voters’ decisions. In my opinion, we did rather well.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Book review: ‘Head in the Cloud’ by William Poundstone

Perhaps you will think me a little big headed for commenting on one of my own stories for my ‘pick of the year’ but really this is just an excuse to mention how wholly chuffed I am that, with the launch of the handsome new E&T website, all the wonderful book reviews written each week were finally given their rightful place, alongside all the other news. Obviously, there are any number of top-notch reviews that I could have picked from for this – my personal favourite is actually Technology in the Country House - but it seemed more fitting to just hijack one of my own, rather than besmirch the hard work of one of my colleagues. To be sure, Head in the Cloud is a cracking read, and I would recommend it to any one of you, but so too are all of the books that we feature. The good news for you, and all of us, is that you can now find them all under the simple tag ‘book reviews’ rather than digging through all manner of E&T paraphernalia. So let me make it my Christmas promise to all of you, dear E&T readers, that next year will be another great year for engineering and technology in literature. My final count on our last day before the festivities begin is 25 books read and reviewed for E&T in 2016 – a number I am determined to beat for next year.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Deer antlers inspire nano-tech damage-resistant materials

If you know anything about me, you’d be aware that if I see any living creature (not human, and not arachnid) I don’t want to cause them harm. Most of the time, I want a quick cuddle before they escape. Perhaps not a poisonous or dangerous animal though because, you know, the death thing. Anyway, animals are awesome. So it’s no surprise they pop up every so often in our news stories, giving us humans some much-needed inspiration to help us along in a quest to be better. Like this story about researchers developing nano-structured damage-resistant materials inspired by the structure of deer antlers. Pretty cool, right? I think Prancer would agree.

Or the cute one about the 3D-printed Labrador nose that improves chemical sniffing, making explosives easier to detect. This is a major plus for sniffer doggos, which are at risk every day in hostile environments to make our world a safer place. And what about the self-healing materials coated in a substance which comes from the ‘teeth’ that line squid suckers? The rip in your best Christmas jumper from a drunken festive fall may end up repairing before your eyes, all thanks to our squiddly pals.

Let’s face it guys, without animals, a lot of tech revolutions wouldn’t happen. I hope that you have a little think about that this Christmas. As we covered a heck of a lot on climate change this year, you should be aware of all the disastrous stuff happening around the world which affects our environment, and our precious wildlife. We have to remember that we’re the ones destroying their lives, and animals have no control of the situation. And as most don’t have opposable thumbs, it’s up to us to protect them, not dawdle along like idiots and expect them to evolve and adapt faster than the changing world, or perish. So do the little things to make a difference.

Be aware of your rubbish this festive period. Recycle and reuse what you can. Don’t leave the lights on or make your house a sauna with too much heating. But remember, have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year. Oh, and don’t pass wind too much (methane = ozone damage). MERRY CHRISTMAS! WUBBA LUBBA DUB DUB!

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Ukraine’s power grid 'likely hacked by Russian cyber attackers

The news of Russian hackers’ alleged attack on Ukraine’s power grid reached me early this morning. It is not very pleasant to be reminded of the ongoing war in one’s mother country several days before Christmas. My festive mood was therefore spoiled, yet such is the sad reality of modern times; wars, conflicts and terrorist attacks do not recognise holidays.

To me, 2016 was largely defined by my return to Ukraine after 22 years of absence. My previous trip there was in 1994, when I was making (as a writer and presenter) a Channel 4 documentary on that country. The film, called ‘The Train to Freedom’ (my small crew - cameraman, director and myself – travelled to and from Ukraine by train from Berlin), was shown in August 1994 and became a TV pick-of-the week in many a national broadsheet. The final sentence of my voiceover was: “Ukraine has boarded a train to freedom passing through the stations of Crisis, Corruption, maybe even War… Freedom is a destination which is hard to reach, but one has to try to come close…”

When the conflict with Russia began in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, I could not forgive myself for not touching wood when mentioning ‘war’ in my film in 1994. More than 10,000 of my compatriots, both military and civilian, have already died in that treacherously low-key proxy war in Donbass.

And yet, Kiev, Ukraine’s beautiful capital, looked and felt very peaceful during my short visit in July 2016. Pedestrians in its wide tree-lined streets were smiley and relaxed. The city’s famous parks were full of unhurriedly promenading families and of chess-playing OAPs on shady benches under acacias. On weekends, Khreshchatik, the city’s main thoroughfare, would get entirely pedestrianised, the traffic blocked by police so that children could play unhindered in all its ten traffic lanes.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the new technologies the city has embraced: an Uber-like local taxi app on people’s mobiles, new state-of-the art street banking machines and so on. What pleased me most of all, however, was the disappearance of that peculiar Soviet I-am-waiting-to-be-hurt expression from people’s faces – a new dignity, gained, as friends explained, after the Maidan revolution of 2014, when residents of Kiev demonstrated on one of the city’s central squares against the corrupt government and the growing Russian influence. A hundred people, the so-called ‘heavenly hundred’, perished in the protest.

It is this new dignity that is helping Ukrainians to cope with Russia’s continuing aggression, which they are trying to take in their stride. Dignity is any person’s or nation’s most effective weapon against a bully or aggressor.

It was almost physically painful to me therefore to learn about the blackout in Kiev, claimed to be due to a cyber attack by Russian hackers. What can I say? Last July, Kiev was basking in bright sunlight, and this is how I remember it. The new dawn in Ukraine is not far away. May light triumph over darkness everywhere in 2017!

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

2016 wasn’t all bad. The ups and downs of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg signposted the major events and trends for the technology industry. Here’s how it went, moth by month.

January: Zuckerberg announced he would program an artificial intelligence system to manage his home. AI became a hot topic in 2016 as scientists and leading business thinkers warned about its long-term effects on real peoples’ jobs and the economy.

June: Hackers claimed they’d got into several of his social media accounts using surprisingly primitive passwords. The hack was just one in a growing trend during 2016, culminating in security breaches that even extended to high street banks.

July: Facebook test-flies solar-powered drones to deliver internet access to poorest parts of the world. 2016 was a big year for drones, in the news for everything from near-misses with aircraft to flying over prison walls.

September: Inventor Palmer Luckey, made a multi-millionaire when Facebook bought Oculus Rift, gets into trouble for party political ‘s**t-posting’ ahead of the Presidential election. Social media trolling was a growing issue in 2016, especially in the context of referenda and elections. Social media platforms found themselves under pressure to take responsibility.

November: Facebook is one of the signatories to a letter to President Elect Donald Trump urging him to support better encryption and make it easier to hire foreign skilled workers. Encryption and skills shortages were important issues for the technology industry in 2016 but Trump hasn’t shown much support for either. Zuckerberg is one of the key backers for a new $1bn fund to support renewable technology. The political tide turned against renewables in the US this year, making charitable efforts like this even more crucial to meeting environmental targets in the Paris agreement.

December: Facebook agrees to crack down on ‘fake news’. Towards the end of the year, there are growing concerns about how ‘fake news’ may have swung the EU referendum in the UK as well as the US Presidential election. Facebook also faced a fine in Europe over its WhatsApp merger.  The EU got tough on tech companies in 2016, especially over Apple’s tax liabilities in Ireland.

Tereza Pultarova, news reporter

Solar Impulse 2 completes record-breaking round-the-world flight

The successful completion of the historic solar-powered round-the-globe flight was certainly good news in the year following the Paris Climate Change negotiations, which committed countries to slashing greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent global average temperatures from rising beyond 2°C. Although still decades away from being able to power commercial passenger jets, solar energy generation alone was enough for Solar Impulse 2 to circumnavigate the world. It wasn’t exactly a smooth ride. The journey began in 2015 and was expected to end the same year but the plane sustained battery damage during a record-breaking crossing of the Pacific Ocean. Due to worsening weather and the time needed for repairs the two Swiss pilots and innovators behind the project, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, decided to leave the plane in Hawaii over winter and continue in spring. They reached Abu Dhabi, the place where they journey started, in July this year.

Brexit: what will it mean for...?

The result of the Brexit referendum was certainly not good news for the engineering community, according to many in the profession who wanted the UK to stay part of the European Union. But Brexit it is and questions about the future remain. Will the UK's leaving of the EU affect the ability of the country’s innovators, engineers and researchers to take part in European research projects, which they so much value? Who will replace the European funding, which the UK’s research institutions were so able to win? What about the ability of high-tech firms to hire foreign talent in an obstacle-free way? There are also questions about access to markets and the loss of chance to influence and shape the EU’s regulations while still having to comply with them. Brexit certainly will remain in the spotlight in 2017. By the end of the year, we may have more answers.

Have a good Xmas!

Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor

The trouble with quantum computing

Cloud computing is working. Big Data is delivering. Voice recognition has come on in leaps and bounds. But quantum computing? Not so. For years we've been promised an imminent breakthrough for the most mysterious computing set-up of all: machines powered by the physics of quantum mechanics. But like Schroedinger's Cat, we don't quite know whether quantum computing is dead or truly alive. But as Benjamin Skuse reported for E&T, we are seeing progress, albeit in nano-scale baby steps.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Engineering students failed by ‘sausage machine’ UK education system

After years of following the debate over skills shortages and what schools and colleges should be doing to address it, I got a more personal insight into this aspect of Britain’s economic performance this year when one of my own children started the process of applying to study engineering at university. The sheer scale of debt graduates are left with at the end of a four-year MEng course to set them up for chartered engineer status makes it a big decision that needs to be as well informed as possible. Despite a steady trickle of letters into the E&T inbox from disillusioned IET members highlighting the lack of recognition they get compared with other professions and saying they would actively discourage their own offspring from following in their footsteps, I didn’t try to exert too much influence other than helping to negotiate the often complicated range of different courses on offer. Not to mention the combinations of BEng, MEng, industry placements and foreign study options that are par for the course. The good news is that admissions staff are doing an excellent and enthusiastic job – in my experience at least – of explaining the exciting range of careers a degree can lead to for anyone who accepts it’s just the start of a lifetime where they’ll be continually learning and adapting to new developments in technology. Particularly pleasing was seeing the cover of one of E&T’s most popular issues of 2016 appear as part of a Powerpoint presentation illustrating what ‘engineering’ is in the 21st century. The missing link though is still getting this across to schools who can influence their top students doing A levels or equivalent in maths, physics and the like to look beyond just taking the same subjects in higher education. There’s a lot of great work going on, not least by the IET, but my hope for 2017 is that this is one area where there will be real progress.

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