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Smart meters, autism, self-healing phones: our pick of the week’s tech news

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In case you missed them: our editors’ thoughts on the stories that caught their eye in the news this week

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Autistic personality traits possibly linked to cyber crime – new study investigates

Are people with autistic personality traits more likely to get drawn into some form of cyber crime than their counterparts without the condition? Anecdotal evidence would suggest yes. Certainly autism can go hand in hand with a particular type of intelligence and an ability to focus – relentlessly – on discrete subjects or passions. All highly useful attributes, one might think. The problem is that in extreme cases, autistic obsessiveness can lead to big trouble for the individuals concerned. Take Gary McKinnon, the computer programming prodigy who notoriously found himself embroiled in a long-running legal battle to try and halt his extradition to the US.

McKinnon, who has a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome, was accused of hacking into and damaging American military computer systems. Though the implication of the charge was that he somehow harboured malevolent intentions towards the US, his family and friends said he had acted through “naivety”. He had basically just been mucking about looking for proof of UFOs when he managed to burrow into Pentagon and Nasa systems from the bedroom of his girlfriend’s aunt’s house in north London. He was, you might argue, a victim of his own brilliantly obsessive enthusiasm.

Academics at the University of Bath are now – to their credit – exploring the apparent links between autism and computer hacking. They are not alone in suspecting that traits like those exhibited by McKinnon could be harnessed for the betterment of society. The Israeli Army is among those organisations which are ahead of the curve in this regard. It has started a programme specifically aimed at recruiting people on the autistic spectrum to work as military intelligence analysts – a role which the new recruits are said to excel at. One told the BBC he enjoyed the feeling of “purpose” that the job gave him. Perhaps other countries should follow suit.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Cassini to explore uncharted territory beneath Saturn’s rings on probe’s final mission

I was surprised to read that so little is still known about Saturn’s rings, in as much as no space probe has thus far passed between them to analyse their makeup and origin. Given that ‘Saturn is the one with all the rings’ is probably the one planetary fact that everybody knows from childhood, it’ll be fascinating to learn more about it from the new data gathered as Cassini begins its kamikaze final scientific mission through said rings before plunging to its final resting place in the heart of the gas giant.

Self-healing phone screens a possibility with new stretchy polymer

Here’s bad news for the financial bottom line of mobile phone repair shops everywhere: self-healing phone screens could soon be a reality. The lucrative repair and replace of shattered phone screens could evaporate entirely, if this new stretchy polymer were to be adopted in the future. There are many self-healing materials emerging from laboratories around the world: the difference with this one is that it is conductive, thus making it ideal for use in electronic devices and batteries. The research continues.

London congestion charge extension to become more restrictive and expensive

“The air in London is lethal and I will not stand by and do nothing,” said Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. ‘Nuff said. Air pollution is becoming a key issue around the world, with the major cities ever more crowded and overrun with fossil fuel-powered vehicles. It’s clearly time to clean up our act.

Tim Fryer, Technology Editor

Autistic personality traits possibly linked to cyber crime - new study investigates

There are too many labels these days. Sometimes a label can be to the detriment of the person being labelled and sometimes that label is difficult to shift once you have got it. A while ago I worked in a youth club and people would take me to one side and tell me the boy having an argument over a pool table had Asperger’s, ADHD or were autistic. No mention of the other one involved in the fight who had not been labelled as such. I share the belief stated in this report that we are all on the autistic spectrum to a certain extent, but most of us don’t tick enough of the boxes to make us certifiable. The perceptions that come with the labels are all negative and that can only be reinforced by such studies as this one at Bath. Whether it is going out to try and find a link between autism and cyber crime, or if it going out to prove that there isn’t one, is immaterial. Just by conducting the study it reinforces the prejudice against people who have been given the autistic badge – the implication is that autistic people not only have behavioural difficulties, they are also left wanting when it comes to morals. And what could it possibly hope to achieve? If a link was found would every autistic teenage boy be monitored to make sure his computer habits were on the straight and narrow? One step out of line (and all teenage boys will step out of line at some point) and the ‘psycho-babblists’ would pipe up with the “I knew he would go this way”. It is the world of the self-fulfilling prophesy and that is to no-one’s advantage.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Software engineers in race against time to make smart meters work properly

I agreed to having a smart electricity meter installed and I don’t really know why. It seems I’m not alone in finding it hard to see the advantages. One advantage is supposed to be the ability to monitor how much electricity your appliances are using but who has the time or the patience to work that out? That could be done using plug-in monitors on sockets anyway. Another benefit is supposed to be making it easier to switch suppliers but now it seems that’s still further down the technology road. What are E&T readers’ experiences and insights on smart meters? Do let us know by contacting associate editor Josh Loeb via the email link in this story.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Self-healing phone screens a possibility with new stretchy polymer

Broken phone screens are a cause of huge irritation to me. I don’t personally have one, and haven’t done since my drunken university debauchery proved too much for the so-called ‘unbreakable’ Motorola Defy. That said, I can’t help but notice the sheer quantity of people on public transport with shattered phone screens, going about their daily business without a care in the world, and presumably completely unaware of how furious they make me. It doesn’t take much not to break a phone screen. You just have to, you know, not break it. Get a phone case or be more careful, or, at the very least, replace the screen if it’s broken and stop annoying me by carelessly browsing Facebook on your wreck of a phone. It strikes me, too, that these people always seem to have iPhones, some of the most expensive of all smart phones, and yet still seem nonplussed about the fact that their carelessness has destroyed the extortionately priced piece of kit.

Soon this could be a thing of the past, though, as a new self-healing polymer that is stretchy, transparent, and conductive, has been developed by a team of US scientists. Self-healing polymers have been around for a few years now, but this is the first to boast the conductivity required for incorporation into electrified components, therefore making it an ideal candidate for use in developing the first ever self-healing phone screens. Rejoice! Simple observation has taught me that the majority of people with broken phone screens don’t seem to care about broken phone screens, but this development will, at the very least, stop me being quite so furious all the time.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Driverless car race sees only four vehicles complete the course unaided

I’ve never had any trouble resisting the appeal of Formula 1, or even motor sport in general. Yes, the technology that goes into the cars on display is fascinating, and getting the tactics right can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing, but all too often it can look to the casual viewer like a high-speed procession in which the best designed vehicles win regardless of who’s at the wheel. The only competition involving cars I’ve ever attended in person – and quite enjoyed – was a banger race that culminated in beaten-up vehicles towing caravans around the track with the apparent intention of smashing into each other as hard and as often as possible. The resulting destruction was what the spectators had come for, and the competitors knew it. The ‘race’ reported here in which self-driving cars proved singularly unsuccessful at even getting around a two-mile course in California bodes well for the future of driverless motor sport. Manufacturers get to pack as much tech as they can into vehicles that bomb around a track without any risk to human drivers. And if any do complete the race we’d have the benefit of seeing some engineers getting their work recognised with a champagne-spraying podium place.

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