Building bridges, fighting hackers and more: best 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.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Bridge design: reaching higher, longer and taller

Bridges have a romance about them that other structures lack. At their most aesthetically pleasing they are soul-stirring monuments to civilisation. Even at their ugliest they are still often great feats of engineering, which at least serve a very useful purpose. Tunnels lack that symbolism. They don’t inspire the same level of fascination. A local newspaper covering the area where I live recently printed a photograph of people standing by a wall next to a canal and holding sheets of paper with the words ‘Build bridges not walls’ written on them. Apparently this was a protest against Trump and Brexit, but the waterway-plus-wall backdrop confused me slightly. Anyway, a ‘Build tunnels’ slogan wouldn’t have had the same power. Perhaps tunnels are seen as boring (forgive the pun). However, a tunnel could equally well traverse the Rio Grande and join the USA with Mexico. And there is, of course, an actual tunnel already linking Britain with continental Europe.

In this excellent feature from the latest issue of E&T, Lawrence Jones notes that the Channel Tunnel could have ended up as a Channel Bridge under the so-called LinktoEurope plan presented to Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. That reminded me of imaginative proposals for a bridge linking Europe and Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar, and the still more dreamy idea for a pontoon bridge stretched across the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean.

Bridges aren’t always shorthand for harmony and cohesion. Witness the vicious row still rumbling on about the proposed new Garden Bridge in London, or recall the blowing up of that bridge in Mostar amid ethnic slaughter during the civil war in Bosnia. That one was later rebuilt though, so perhaps we can live in hope after all.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Three-quarters of UK businesses neglect to test cyber defences, survey reveals

According to this government-commissioned survey, only one in four UK businesses tests the strength of its cyber security defences. The same survey found that nearly half of British businesses found cyber security breaches or attacks in 2016, doubling on the previous year. So there’s no security without cyber security, but cyber security feels like a more advanced, intimidating concept than simply locking your shop door at night. How can businesses – especially small businesses – take measures to protect themselves? It seems the majority of cyber security breaches come about thanks to human mistakes, such as opening scam emails. These problems are far more common than sophisticated operations such as distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. Ensuring that all employees understand how to spot and bin a dodgy email would be a good start.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

3D-printed cartilage offers hope for arthritis sufferers

As a member of the ‘dodgy knee’ fraternity, I read about the development of 3D-printable knee cartilage with considerable self-interest. While it is possibly too late to resurrect a mediocre sports career, it would be nice to amble, pain-free, around a squash court once more. So will this research from Duke University in the USA give me this lifeline?

As with everything medical, anything that looks promising needs a good decade before it is deemed fit for application, so it is nothing for me personally to get too excited about. However, it is interesting how the blend between the technologies of materials and 3D printing is providing such potential solutions. I am not sure that it would be possible with current technology to print that piece of cartilage with a £230 printer as the article suggests, but the technology is already available in top-end machines to mix input materials to produce parts with varying physical properties.

So if the material is considered suitable, and a way of printing replacement knee parts is possible, what is standing in the way? Well one thing that occurred to me, given that every knee is unique – how do they design a new part? The cartilage that is being replaced is worn down or even non-existent, so how do they size a replacement? A small detail, I am sure. And if it could be resolved before my squash racquet crumbles of old age, that would be fantastic.

Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

Driverless cars learn road safety from ‘Grand Theft Auto 5’

I figured that seeing as so much this week is going to be general election-focused, I thought I’d comment on this particular story. The popular driving computer game is being used as a simulation platform to train driverless cars to respond to obstacles, different weather conditions and chaotic driving. In the world of virtual reality becoming reality itself, it makes sense that we’re turning to successful fiction to see what we can learn from it in new innovations. However, if you’ve played ‘GTA5’ (which I have, and I got laughed at because I waited at a red light like a good citizen), then you’ll notice it’s a bit more brutal than our everyday roads. If you see a driverless car whizzing past you at 120mph in a 30mph zone, it may have been generated from ‘GTA.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

AI systems learn to be sexist and racist from the internet

We all carry a set of cultural assumptions and prejudices that we’re largely unaware of – at least until we are given a reason to view things from a different perspective. We tend to assume, though, that computers are rational and neutral. Now researchers at Princeton University are challenging that belief. They’ve found that machine-learning systems pick up patterns and word associations in text and end up ‘learning’ subtle and unintended biases from the human authors. Food for thought.

Google Earth redesign unveiled with focus on 3D locales and education

The point of this blog is to talk about things that attracted our attention this week, and this story ticks that box. It certainly sent me off to explore what the update has to offer: it correctly detected my location in Stevenage but then zoomed in to a motorway junction on the edge of town. I had some fun playing with it (it’s legitimate work, honest – I had to write this piece) but I’m not convinced about the ‘education’ claim.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

The connected police officer: smart public safety

Law and order has always been a centrepiece of party general election manifestos and this June’s will be no different, except that the focus has shifted in response to public perception of risk from bobbies on the beat to tackling terrorism. The recent Westminster attack, whatever motivated it, showed how quickly the police need to be able to respond to an incident. Even in one of the most heavily patrolled urban areas of the UK, the perpetrator was able to wreak havoc in a relatively short period of time. One aspect of addressing this is identifying potential culprits, and surveillance is likely to get a mention in passing during the election campaign.

Another, though, is the extent to which emergency services can use communications technology and artificial intelligence to help them swing into action as quickly as possible. In this age of austerity and greater awareness of how personal privacy is being threatened, how we view the trade-offs between spending money on staying safe and the unease we might feel about every interaction with the police being filmed on a body camera should be significant issues. The old argument that the only people with anything to worry about are those who’ve got something to hide doesn’t hold water any more.

Many of the techniques described in this excellent review of how not just the police but all emergency services are investing in tech sound like brilliant ideas, but perhaps we should think carefully about where they might lead before adopting them in response to a unique situation.

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