Engineer Barbie, Trump tweets, Boeing spacesuit: E&T editors comment on the week’s tech news

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

Barbie becomes engineer – but only for fixing washing machines

I don’t really have any issue with this story, or the manufacturer’s decision as to what Barbie the engineer should help to repair. It seems like that particular chip is more on the shoulders of people who object out of principle to such things on the basis of their own projected feelings. A lot of young girls - as well as plenty of older girls and fully grown professional women - do actually like the colour pink, enjoy wearing short skirts and generally celebrate being ‘a bit girly’ in all aspects of their lives. At least now any young girl that wants to play with Barbie but wishes the plastic role model could at least be a bit less useless around the home and actually contribute something constructive has a doll they can finally engage with. And what’s to stop that little girl’s imagination elevating that washing machine to be an integral part of the International Space Station or that shoe rack to be the control panel for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN?

Ms Pac-Man gobbles up new high score using AI algorithm

Despite the concerted, sustained efforts of Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde for over 30 years, Pac-Man and his main squeeze Ms Pac-Man refuse to die. Now, arcade lady legend Ms Pac-Man is being used to test artificial intelligence algorithms, to find out if the pink-bowed (like all good girls) relentless pill-gobbler can be programmed to learn how to evade her pursuers. A new AI high score was recently set, although it turns out that humans can still outscore the AI player at the more advanced, intuitive levels, when the real-world player truly gets ‘in the zone’.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Cost of power from UK offshore wind facilities drops by a third in just four years

In these northerly islands, the idea of harvesting offshore wind was always going to be worth exploring, especially given our existing experience with offshore oil and gas installations. It's therefore encouraging news that the cost of producing electricity from UK offshore wind farms has fallen by 32 per cent in the past four years. Schemes making final investment decisions last year were based on a cost of energy of £97/MWh - which is still more expensive than nuclear, but the industry says it is now “well on the way” to being cost-competitive with other sources of power generation, thanks to the adoption of larger turbines, increased competition and lower cost of capital. That’s important, because in the end the case for renewables can’t just be based on dogma and subsidy; it has to make economic sense in its own right.

Trident malfunction ‘was kept secret at Obama administration’s behest’

Just a week ago, prompted by my reading of Compton Mackenzie’s 1957 novel ‘Rockets Galore’, I wrote on these pages about the risk that a nuclear false alarm could lead to disaster. Only days later, The Times broke this latest story of a missile that went off course during a test. I suppose the fact that it was then brought down by its own safety systems ought to be reassuring, but somehow it doesn’t inspire confidence.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

App uses Trump tweets to predict stock performance

The fact that an app like this exists, the whole purpose of which is to inform traders when Donald Trump has made yet another inflammatory comment that could bring stocks crashing to ground, demonstrates how toxic the combination of social media and a loud-mouthed POTUS can be. Trump tweets like an insecure teenager, constantly worried about what others think of him while putting on a (rather transparent) hard man front to overcompensate when he gets upset by someone.

Because he has failed to comprehensively outline his administration’s stance on many major issues, his tweets are sometimes the only indication of the direction he might take over the next four years. Take North Korea for example, arguably the most volatile and dangerous country in the world at the moment. Trump’s sole comment on the issue since becoming president-elect was a tweet that he issued just after the New Year: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen!” That’s so far the sum total of US Government policy on how to deal with Kim and his fellow psychos. His assurances aren’t particularly comforting when no further details are offered; the world is simply left to interpret “It won’t happen!” in whatever way it can.

Based on the fact that he tweets at 3am, often shows massive insecurities about any personal criticism of him and is frequently mudslinging at his rivals, it’s clear that there is no huge PR team analysing what should be written and when it should be said, it’s just a very raw outpouring of who Trump really is. While this is probably true for millions of Twitter users, none of them are POTUS. The impact of his tweets reverberate globally, but they lack forethought and are often based on spur-of-the-moment emotional reaction. Trump tweets are like a loose cannon, ready to explode at any moment, in any direction, and no one, not even the Republican Party, has any indication of when he might start firing.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Autofocusing glasses do away with swapping eyewear

A quite interesting fact I picked up from reviewing a book last year about some the more obscure links between significant developments in technology is that poor eyesight wasn’t a significant problem outside of the educated aristocracy until the invention of printing made books available to the general public. At that point, people who’d spent their lives up till then living with an inability to focus on things as close as the page they were trying to decipher realised they needed some kind of corrective device to enjoy all the benefits of widespread literacy. Centuries later, reading glasses are almost a disposable commodity, but it’s an everyday experience to see someone who doesn’t get on with bifocals switching from them to another pair when they want to look at something in the near distance. Until we get the kind of self-adjusting contacts that are still the stuff of science-fiction, here’s an answer in the shape of adaptive glasses developed by the University of Utah that are equipped with glycerine lenses in a flexible container. Via a system of actuators and pistons that sounds a bit like a Victorian patent invention the membrane is pushed back and forth to change the shape of the lens and its focal length. Might sound clunky, but it’s this kind of prototype that eventually ends up as an elegant product which changes people’s lives.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

The Future of Manufacturing

I couldn’t choose just one story this week, so I’ve opted for a whole supplement’s-worth instead. It’s our first supplement of 2017, and we’ve started the year off looking to the future, of manufacturing! Alongside the IET Design and Production sector we bring you 10 articles from experts across government, industry and academia to look at the different themes and processes that are revolutionising the factory floor. It’s a dynamic mix of articles focusing on connectivity and digitisation alongside traditional ideas of being lean and staying green, combined with new and innovative ideas and concepts including robotics, autonomous systems and virtual reality. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d highly recommend giving Peter Ball’s ‘Sustainability: more and more, not less and less’ a read to discover how modern corporations are transforming ideas of sustainable manufacturing to think in terms of doing more, rather than simply using less. To illustrate the example, we look to furniture supplier Rype Office – specialist in transforming tired, uninspiring office spaces into dynamic work spaces using sustainable means.

Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

Boeing unveils comfy lightweight spacesuits for future astronauts

Astronauts traveling to the International Space Station aboard Boeing’s new Starliner capsule in 2018 will be wearing lightweight spacesuits designed for levels of comfort and mobility their predecessors could only dream about. The trendy CST-100 Starliner spacesuit weighs only 5.5kg compared to the 14kg of the space shuttle line of spacesuits – what will this mean for the future of space travel? So many space films are scuppered due to faults with the spacesuits (or even when Matt Damon goes full-on Iron Man by piercing his suit so he can zoom all over space like Wall-E). The film industry needs to take note!

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