Comment

What caught our editors’ attention in this week’s tech news?

E&T staff pick their favourite stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Satnavs ‘switch off’ parts of the brain used to simulate different routes

I've long held the belief that satnavs make us stupid. We've all heard the apochryphal tales of drivers plunging off the quay and into the sea in their cars, or becoming wedged in narrow lanes, because "the satnav told me to go that way", the hapless driver blindly following instructions that should have clearly been erroneous just by looking out of the window. Yet if you study a map beforehand, to at least familiarise yourself with the journey ahead and make a mental note of key towns or landmarks along the way, you'll usually have an idea of the route you're about to take committed to memory. Things should then feel 'right' or 'wrong' as you're driving along. At the very least, it will be absolutely clear in your mind that at no point does your journey involve any underwater routes. A blind, unquestioning faith in technology is never a wise approach to life, so satnavs are best treated as an adjunct to your own cognitive process, a helpful prompt to remind you of something you've already learned for yourself. The news that scientists have now determined that people using satnavs effectively switch off parts of the brain that would otherwise be utilised to simulate different routes and boost navigational skills should be proof positive of the detrimental effect of investing too much trust in a device that actually doesn't know for itself the geographical difference between East Ham and Oldham. If you're heading for one and you end up in the other, something has clearly gone wrong!

Arctic sea ice falls to lowest levels on record

It's seems hard for anyone to attempt to deny that the world is getting warmer, that our climate is changing, when each successive year sets a new scorching high for the hottest year ever (2016 beat 2015, which itself beat 2014). One major natural side-effect of these sustained temperature increases is that there is less and less sea ice around the North Pole, year after year. Ice melts when its warm. That's a given. Basic science fact. Even Donald Trump couldn't deny that. If the planet continues to heat up at the prevailing rate, it is estimated that there will be no sea ice at all by 2050. So what, you might think? Without sea ice, more water is exposed to the sun’s rays in summertime, which in turn accelerates further global warming because dark blue water soaks up more of the sun’s heat than white ice or snow, which reflects it back into space. The world needs sea ice. Ergo, the world needs to come up with more effective ways to curb global warming. It's as simple as that.

Josh Loeb, Associate Editor

Trump bill adds Mars exploration to Nasa remit

“America First” is, of course, the questionable motto of one Donald Trump (questionable because it happened to be the slogan of the aviator turned Hitler sympathiser Charles Lindbergh). But despite being suggestive of a more isolationist and inward-looking America, Trump’s doctrine has not curbed the lure of space. If America can be said to be psychologically withdrawing from its role in the world, the same cannot be said of its attitude towards the final frontier. Just look at the bill signed this week into law by the President updating NASA’s mission to include exploration of Mars. It authorised spending of $19.5bn (£15.2bn) by NASA in the current budget year. Quite a sum, but Elon Musk was still not happy. He took to Twitter to complain that the bill would not help his company, SpaceX, get its mission to the red planet off the ground. Trump has also ratified support for using the International Space Station through to at least 2024. Quite a few people are asking, then what? NASA would like the ISS to be given a stay of execution until 2028, but its lifespan can’t go on being extended forever. At some point it will have to be shut down, dismantled and de-orbited – which will take many years and will cost an absolute bomb. All of which is to say that that putting America first is not, in Trump’s mind, incompatible with a generously publicly-funded space programme.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

VR vibration simulators set up to study effects of working in a skyscraper

The only people most of us would think of whose health is at risk from vibration at work are those who spend their days handling heavy duty power tools like pneumatic drills. There’s plenty of legislation in place, based on years of research, to limit how long workers can be exposed to this sort of risk. Now researchers are highlighting a hazard that could affect many more people for whom the only manual element of their job is usually lifting a box of photocopier paper – the oscillation of tall buildings in the wind. That swaying back and forth, which is probably more extreme than you’d expect, can cause problems like motion sickness as well as more subtle changes in mood and motivation. The physiological causes are poorly understood; after all, humans haven’t been spending long periods of time in this sort of environment for much of their history. Bath and Exeter aren’t famous for their skyscrapers, but are doing some groundbreaking work in this area with the help of simulators that can replicate the experience of working in a high-rise office block down to temperature, humidity, noise and even – if you want - smell.

Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

Pluto could be granted planet status again, along with the Moon

Pluto could once again become a planet if a team of scientists is successful in their plan to restore its former classification. Six scientists from institutions across the United States have launched a campaign to broaden the astronomical classifications which led to its demotion to a “dwarf planet” a decade ago. They argue that Pluto deserves to be a full planet, along with some 110 other bodies in the solar system, including Earth’s moon. If Pluto is re-declared a ‘planet’ again, it must be a permanent decision! Poor Pluto.

Satnavs ‘switch off’ parts of the brain used to simulate different routes

Scientists studying what satnavs do to the brain have found that people using them effectively switch off parts of the brain that would otherwise be utilised to simulate different routes and boost navigational skills. Researchers said that when volunteers in an experiment navigated manually, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex brain regions had spikes of activity. This isn’t the first time technology has been accused of being ‘too good’ and in the long term affecting our brains. Nowadays, conversations or debates in bars and pubs are quickly defused by a swift Google search. Decades ago, it was calculators that apparently stunted our knowledge. It’s not surprising that map reading skills are on the way out thanks to sat nav. However, when the satnav goes wrong and makes you accidentally drive into the wilderness, at least your survival skills may be put to the test.

Rebecca Northfield, acting features editor

Child cyber-bullying and abuse law to be pushed through despite Tory opposition

I’m so glad the Tories didn’t win this one. Cyber-bullying is a huge thing, and it’s great the world is recognising that the internet is a vital line for bullies who want to harass their victims, without the need for face-to-face interaction. So many kids and young adults were let down by a system that only now has just got a rocket up its bum to fix the problem of harassment and bullying online. The effects of cyber-bullying are massively detrimental to people on the receiving end, with many-a-case reported to have affected individuals so badly that they require treatment for mental or physical illness. There’s even been issues of suicide, all helped along by social media and its impact. I remember the days before social media, when you could sort of avoid the bullies after school. Sure, they’d call your Nokia 3310, but you could always hang up, or delete the texts. But kids these days are so hooked to social media, and others can see what’s put online so easily, that children can never escape from bullying. Your home was a sanctuary from kids that tormented you. Now the abuse can even reach you in your ‘safe place’. The amendment to the Digital Economy Bill will hopefully help hundreds of thousands of children who need protection and their sanctuary back again. We will see. I’m hoping it works out.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

London Taxi Company approves £300m car plant to build electric black cabs

Britain’s first new car plant for more than a decade has opened in Coventry, where it will build an electric version of the famous London black cab - though London Taxi Company (which is now under Chinese ownership) plans to sell the vehicles around the world too. At the plant’s official opening on Wednesday the firm also announced its intention to build electric light commercial vehicles - ‘white vans’ for polluted cities. It’s worth pointing out that both vehicles will be equipped with range-extending petrol engines, which drive generators to charge the batteries, so there’ll be no need to take such heavily used vehicles out of service to recharge, but they’ll still be far cleaner than the conventional counterparts they replace. I suspect they’ll also be more expensive, but as more and more big cities introduce bans on the most polluting vehicles there’ll be a growing market for compliant alternatives.

Drones used to map rapidly developing Third World urban areas

Drones equipped with suitable cameras are proving to be a remarkably cost-effictive tool for mapping fast-growing urban areas in the developing world. Public authorities need this information to document land use and ownership, plan the supporting infrastructure and - significantly - produce up-to-date tax rolls so they can raise the money to pay for it.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Imagine work travel without your laptop

What on earth would you do without access to your laptop on your flight? Paul Dempsey this week suggests it could be a particular problem for engineers, especially those whose company policies dictate they have to keep their data with them or locked up. Passengers will simply have to find something else to do. "Mum, I'm bored, what can I do?" is a question we parents have heard a lot and our answer is just as familiar to our children: "Well, you could read a book." It's a bit of a nuisance for employers perhaps but for employees it could be an excuse to do something else, at least.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Pluto could be granted planet status again, along with the Moon

For more than a decade I have outright refused to accept that Pluto is not a planet. As a child, I used to love reeling off the planet names in order, remembered with ease thanks to super simple mnemonics such as ‘My Very Easy Method Just Shows Us Nine Planets”, or, “Make Very Easy Mash Just Squash Up New Potatoes” – neither or which make any sense when Pluto is removed from the equation. You can’t make mash without potatoes and you can’t make our solar system without Pluto, dimwit. I don’t fully agree with the promotion of the Moon to planet status and I have little to no opinion on the other 110 bodies selected by the group of scientists who want to see Pluto regain its planetary status, but I think it would be a small price to pay to set things right again. In an ideal solar system, Pluto would never have been demoted. To think of something having its title, the very lifeblood of its existence, taken away because it is deemed ‘too small’ is horrifying. In a world where robotic workers may soon be awarded some of the same rights as human workers I find it appalling that anything would find itself demoted in the demeaning manner in which Pluto was treated back in 2006. After enjoying 76 years as a planet, poor Pluto was stripped of its rights and left floating, dejected, in the far reaches of our solar system. Each Christmas, when I inevitably find myself watching the 1991 seasonal classic, ‘All I want for Christmas’, I shed a single tear to hear Hally declare that when she grows up she wants to be an actress on Pluto because it’s her favourite ‘planet’ – it takes me back to simpler, kinder times. A planet is for life, guys, not just for Christmas and I sincerely hope that Pluto does find itself reclassified this year, putting an end to a decade of cruel injustice.

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