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Mars potatoes, Neuralink, new pound coin: our picks of 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.

Tim Fryer, Technology Editor

Elon Musk’s new sci-fi project Neuralink hopes to connect the human brain with AI

Saviour of the technology press and chattering geek classes, Elon Musk announced this week he is backing a start-up aiming to create computers that will be embedded in the human brain. Such a venture opens the door to classic sci-fi scenarios of a master race controlling the masses – a mere tweak of the dial turning rational humans into subservient zombies, instantly intent on going about the unpleasant business their controllers desire. The company, Neuralink, could develop computers that could link human brains with greater processing power in the outside world, potentially integrating artificial intelligence with the normal workings of the mind. Or enable all such computations to be conducted within the brain itself. I can’t see it myself. It’s one thing consciously knowing that third-party information or intelligence is available, for example through Google Glass-type devices, but it would be another to have it processed subconsciously. For one thing, how would it affect memory – how could you remember something that you didn’t think of in the first place? We just don’t have that level of understanding of the human brain. Where it could offer exciting possibilities is in the treatment of disease. People don’t like their conditions to be described as psychosomatic but the link between stress and conditions like depression, IBS, ME and fibromyalgia is familiar to all sufferers. What’s more, these sufferers often rely on brain-altering drugs that can have undesirable side-effects. Would their overall mind and body health be better served by a more physical and less chemical solution – a tiny computer capable of telling the nerve endings that things aren’t so bad after all? Maybe, but it will be a brave person who steps up for trials!

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Super-secure £1 coins to cause havoc with vending machines and shopping trolleys

The new £1 coins boast advanced security capabilities and a different 12-sided design in comparison to the circular coins of old. Tiny lettering, a hologram, and a physical layer embedded within that can be detected by coin-counting machines are all new features of the coin that is said to be the most secure in the world. But the complexity of the manufacturing process to produce these coins surely didn’t come cheap. In a world where physical currency is becoming increasingly irrelevant, the vast majority of my purchases are done via my phone or contactless card, one wonders whether the cost associated with the new design is really worth it. We’ve coped with the old design since the 1980s and the majority of financial fraud has moved online; this new design feels like a waste of time and taxpayer money.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

‘Use of commercial wharfs should be subsidised by government to cut pollution’

It’s no exaggeration to say the Thames made London. It was thanks to this great river that the city founded by the Romans became such a flourishing hub for international trade. Though too often ignored by Londoners nowadays, it’s still striking how so many of the most vigorous symbols of power in Britain’s capital are located at or near the river’s darkly swirling waters. Yet even as the streets around its banks heave more than ever with the human industriousness it helped spawn, the Thames itself is sleepier and freer from traffic than it has been for nearly all London’s two thousand year-long history. This is odd but far from unique. In many other Western cities that once were genuine ports, the situation is identical: the most obvious byway, which for hundreds of years carried people and goods, has fallen virtually silent. Now, no less an organisation than the Institution of Civil Engineers (no antediluvian technophobes they) has said this must change. More freight, such as construction equipment and the spoil from building sites, must be transported by river barge, and the government should incentivise this. There are sound environmental and public health reasons why the renaissance of our waterways as transport routes for freight but also passengers is a clever idea. Congestion on roads is undeniable. In fact, the renaissance is already underway – albeit slowly. I’m told that if you live in Putney and work in Docklands, by far the most pleasant way to travel to work is by using Transport for London’s morning riverboat service. Of course, it’s up to politicians to lead and really reboot the river, but those of us who work in offices near the waterfront could start by using a commuter boat as part of our journey to work at least once, as a token gesture if nothing else. (Embankment Pier is very convenient for the IET’s Savoy Place premises!) More than just providing a break from the daily grind, going to work by boat could inspire us to reconnect again with our timeless waterways.

Rebecca Northfield, acting features editor

Potato plant successfully cultivated in replica of Mars’s climate

It's a shameless plug for one of my own features, but a few issues ago, I wrote a neat little number in E&T on farming in extreme environments, and one of the subjects was farming in space. Potatoes were grown in simulated Mars and Moon soils provided by Nasa, and the taters looked pretty different. Link to the article in case you want to get clued up on everything XTREME about agriculture.  Now in Peru, they’ve successfully grown a potato plant in a simulated Mars environment. Congrats! This means we’re one step closer to getting Matt Damon all Martian-y in that film I can’t remember the name of.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Book review and giveaway: ‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’ by Siva Vaidhyanathan

It’s Friday, which means it’s time for me to draw your attention to one or more of our wonderful news offerings from the past week, and as luck would have it this week that includes another spectacular E&T giveaway. We have a number of OUP Very Short Introduction books lined up to give away to lucky news readers and website visitors in the coming months, beginning with ‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’. This all-encompassing beginner’s guide to the wonderful world of patents and copyrights is the perfect pre-Easter treat to get you through the last few weeks of lent – especially if you have endeavoured to give up coffee. The giveaway runs until next Wednesday (5 April), so head on over to review to be in with the chance of winning.

Potato plant successfully cultivated in replica of Mars’s climate

There are few things I enjoy more than potatoes, but, as you will know if you regularly read my contributions to E&T’s weekly review of technology news, I also get quite excited by the idea of life on other planets, throw a little sustainability into the mix and I am anyone’s. Well this week we have a story about a potato that has the potential to not only feed future Martians, but also benefit arid regions of the earth which are already feeling the effect of climate change. Swoon! That’s right, scientists in Peru have announced that they had successfully cultivated potatoes in a simulator designed to mimic the harsh, carbon dioxide-intensive, conditions found on Mars. I’m still holding out hope that 2017 will be the year that we find alien life and somehow nip climate change in the fast-blooming bud once and for all, but in the meantime, progress towards forming a colony on Mars, and innovative methods of continuing to cultivate our increasingly wrecked home planet is the next best thing.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

UK roads left resembling ‘Swiss cheese’ after years of neglect

With concerns about how thinly NHS funding is being stretched vying with even Brexit for national headlines, complaints about the state of Britain’s roads seem a tad curmudgeonly. Also, the warning comes from the Asphalt Industry Alliance, an organisation that would presumably benefit if the millions of pounds of extra funding for pothole repair that it says is urgently needed was to be found. Yes, a bumpy ride is a minor inconvenience compared with the challenges faced by thousands of people whose medical conditions are painful enough to affect their daily life but not bad enough to bump them up the waiting list. This is a long-term issue though; the longer the problem is left the worse it will become and the more it will cost to solve in the future. Couple that with the cost of repairs to damaged suspensions and punctured tyres, not to mention the safety aspects of poor quality road surfaces, and the call for funding doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

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