Hate speech, Hyperloops, space balloons and more: best of the week's tech news
Image credit: Dreamstime
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
Live streamed footage of a man murdering an 11-month-old girl was this week broadcast on Facebook. The horrendous footage was allowed to remain online for 24 hours and was watched by hundreds of thousands of people before the social media behemoth finally got around to removing it. This followed revelations in the Times that Facebook’s oh-so-sophisticated algorithm promoted content depicting young girls being violently abused.
The world’s fifth-largest company (which three years ago famously managed to pay less in corporation tax in the UK than the average British employee paid on their salary) initially neglected to remove some of this material even when notified about it by the newspaper.
As Hilary Lamb reports, EU bureaucrats are now talking tough on fake news and jihadist propaganda – both available on Facebook. This is not before time, though tackling the live-streaming of child murder and sex abuse should surely be a higher priority than policing speech, however hateful.
Apologists for Facebook argue the company merely acts as a platform and is not a publisher. This is the equivalent of a glib shrug of the shoulders, as is Zuckerberg’s arrogant assertion that better artificial intelligence will somehow save the day.
In allowing people to live-stream videos on Facebook, Zuckerberg has created a TV studio with a global audience but nobody on the door to stop maniacs walking in. The assumption among the kings of Silicon Valley was that only nice people would walk in. That is worse than naïve - it’s negligent.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Hyperloops sound cool - especially the premise of hailing an electric taxi in London, dropping into a hyperloop tunnel just off the M25 and then emerging 20 minutes later in Edinburgh to have lunch with your Scottish friends, the electric cab (presumably autonomous) navigating the short distance from the hyperloop terminal to the restaurant, the whole trip booked with nothing more than a few taps on your smartphone. This idyllic future transport vision may or may not become a reality in my lifetime, but one of the key issues will be the cost of each hyperloop trip. It’s not going to be a few quid, like going over the QEII Bridge every day; it won’t be like paying the London congestion charge; and it won’t even be akin to commuting to work by train, despite current escalating season ticket prices. It’s surely going to cost more like the same as a plane ticket every time, so all the hyperloops might save us is time, not money. Time IS money, we’re always being told, but actually persuading people to pony up their hard-earned dough to save a bit of time is a different matter entirely. It will take the entry into the market of easyhyperloop or Ryanhyperloop at rock-bottom prices to trigger mass adoption.
Talking about music may be, as Frank Zappa once remarked, like dancing about architecture, so where that leaves reading about the acoustic science behind Berlin’s new Pierre Boulez Saal concert hall, I have no idea. Still, it’s a good read, if you’ve ever wondered why one room sounds fantastic but another room sounds boxy, or found yourself staring at the walls and ceiling during the interval of a performance and wondered to yourself why there’s so much wood used in these grand musical spaces and who decided what shape the room should be.
Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Nasa has launched a pressure balloon the size of a stadium to begin collecting space data during a 100-day mission. The balloon was finally launched in New Zealand, after several earlier launch attempts were thwarted by storms and cyclones. Whenever I see a space story on E&T I always take interest in it. There’s SO much we don’t know yet. In years to come the innovations we’re making today will seem like child’s play and the films that have been released (like The Martian) will look primitive and laughable. A space balloon to collect data about the earth’s atmosphere may lead to bigger and better things. Watch this space (literally!).
Tim Fryer, Technology Editor
I read with some concern that Mexico is to be the official partner country for next year’s Hannover Messe. This is quite an honour and opportunity for countries not just to present their best companies, but also establish an industrial momentum for the country itself. Poland had the role this year and last year there was much fanfare about President Barack Obama’s visit, as the US was partnering. Clearly the US will not get another opportunity in President Trump’s term in office, while Mexico, the home of rapists and drug dealers according to Mr Trump, will be in a position to flaunt its wares. Not only will said Mexicans be free to roam the halls at Hannover, but visitors will be allowed to go into the Mexican area, bypassing the American exhibits along the way. This combination of Obama being popular where Trump cannot and free Mexican access can only have one logical solution. Build a wall around the Mexican pavilion. And make the Mexicans pay for it!
Rebecca Northfield, acting features editor
I wonder whether if you filled it with helium, what sort of weight could it float into space? Probably not an elephant, despite the colossal size of the balloon. Because, as I found out after perusing the video-sharing site YouTube, you need about 72 ‘Happy Birthday’-type helium balloons to float a Chihuahua, which weighs about five pounds. Also, hot air balloons need a lot of, well, hot air, to get a measly basket off the ground. Basically, I had dreams of a Dumbo “when I see an elephant fly” moment and that’ll probably end up taking 10 stadium-sized Nasa space balloons. Anyway, cosmic particles are cool. Have a great bank holiday weekend, people! I will be attempting to find a small animal to float into space and spending a ridiculous amount of money on equipment.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
There's one technology that could improve bank holiday Mondays for millions of innocent householders for ever more. Augmented reality (AR), a little like virtual reality, has sat for long enough on the hype curve to be in danger of falling off it. Superimposing virtual images or other information onto real images on smartphones is an ingenious technology with a novelty wow factor on the first few viewings that soon wears off to leave questions about what it's really for. Is it just another technology looking for a problem? However, those in the industry have long known what that problem is, but it's a back-room killer application: maintenance and repair. Just point a tablet or phone at an object and the AR software will overlay what you see with easy to follow instructions and information about what needs to be done. Industry knows it makes sense for maintaining everything from motorbikes to manufacturing plant and, as our story covered this week, now even astronauts. Now it's time to put AR to work on a really tough task faced by millions every holiday weekend. If AR can be used to help repair mission-critical failures in orbit around the earth, then why can't it show us how to put together flat-pack furniture?
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
The huge balloon, which was launched from New Zealand this week, is designed to detect ultra-high-energy cosmic particles from beyond the galaxy as they penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. It is expected to circle the Earth two or three times over the course of its 100-day mission, at a height of 34km. Will we be able to see it without a telescope? I don’t know, but I intend to find out.
You might think this is just another run-of-the-mill news story. After all, engineers have been laying underwater communications cables since the 1850s, though back then they only carried telegraph signals. It’s a reminder, though, that while everyone’s talking about IoT, 5G and all the other new technologies coming over the horizon we still need to put effort into the core infrastructure. And surprisingly, there’s currently only one direct cable link between Europe and South America.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Yet another ludicrous statement by America’s most ludicrous president. Trump has asked Nasa to get people to Mars preferably within the first term of his presidency, at worst the second. Judging by the fact that he’s currently the least popular president of all time for his first 100 days, I doubt he’ll reach a second term. At the rate things are currently going, with evidence of collusion with Russia slowly emerging, he might not even make the end of his first. Trump has no idea how complex a mission to Mars is. Even with the brightest minds in America, the current plan of stepping foot on the red planet by the 2030s is optimistic. The challenges faced are immense and attempting to speed up the process against Nasa’s better judgement could result in another Challenger disaster. Trump’s statements on the Mars mission bring to mind a widely mocked TV appearance in February, prior to his failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, where he said: “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” Who would have thought interplanetary exploration could be so complicated? Literally everyone except Trump.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
News that the Spanish and Brazilian governments are hoping to build on efforts to route communications around the USA with an undersea cable comes in the same month as the 40th anniversary of the start of the first technical trials of optical-fibre communications on link between Stevenage – where E&T is based at the IET’s Michael Faraday House – and my own home town up the road in Hitchin. It was an excuse for an unusually technical article in our local paper this week that made fascinating reading. Even in this age of accelerating technical change it’s hard to believe how quickly communications have progressed from a short link across the Hertfordshire countryside to infrastructure that’s at the heart of the Internet.