Cricket farms, smart meters, Pirate ransom and more: best of the week's tech news
Image credit: Credit: Afton Halloran
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.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
So this story is technically from last week, albeit from Friday, but as this week is National Vegetarian Week, and I am insufferable, I felt it warrants a mention in our weekly roundup. Research has found that farming crickets for food is far better for the environment than farming chickens. As someone who follows a predominantly plant-based diet for largely environmental reasons, this story troubles me. I won't argue with the fact that producing crickets for food is more sustainable than chicken, pork or beef, but I doubt it measures up as well against a plant-based food system. The researchers are excited about the prospect of a new animal production system, but having no animal production system at all would be a much better thing in my book. Plus, I really don't see this taking off – the majority of people who like meat do so because it tastes good, rather than being a good source of protein, and have you ever tasted a cricket? They are so gross. Under extreme duress I tried one in Mexico last year and it was indescribably awful. If you want my opinion (you probably don't but I'll throw it out anyway), we’d be much better off leaving the chickens and crickets to their own devices and investing in a little #plantpower!
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
This is a “wake-up call”, says Microsoft, as world recovers from “largest ransomware attack in history”
Round about the time that last week’s ‘pick of the news’ was published, I overheard people in the office saying that our local hospital in Stevenage was turning away ambulances because of a cyber attack. It soon became clear that the problem was affecting large parts of the National Health Service, but it was only the next day that I heard news bulletins reporting that organisations across the world had been hit. Yet the story has already dropped out of the headlines, overtaken in the UK at least by the release of political manifestos ahead of the general election. Even so, it really is time to wake up. This might be the first attack on this scale, but it certainly won’t be the last, and any organisation large enough to employ its own IT specialists has no excuse for failing to keep security measures up to date. There’s a message too for all the small businesses where cyber security is seen as just another distraction from the core activity - and that message is that even if you think you’re not important enough to be targeted you are still vulnerable to an indiscriminate mass attack. There’s plenty of advice available on protecting yourself: don’t put off doing something about it.
On a lighter note, this story brought a smile to my face. All over the country there are people who spend their spare time restoring old machinery and get great satisfaction from preserving what would otherwise be lost. This is one example. I couldn’t have told you what an Otto engine was for, but now I know that this one was installed around 1907 to provide electricity to Brownsea Castle in Dorset. Today Brownsea Island is in the hands of the National Trust, which hopes to run the engine at scheduled times during 2017 so visitors can see it in operation.
Rebecca Northfield, acting features editor
This is how my brain registered that headline: T-Rex interior designer in my living room. You know, the one from Jurassic Park. The iconic giant dinosaur, which I’d only see in magazines and cartoons, was brought to life on the big screen and it was awesome! It made me obsessed with prehistoric animals – the bigger, the better. But I got over the whole velociraptor thing when I realised they were the size of turkeys, not the big baddies in Spielberg’s film. I didn’t trust the filmmaker’s knowledge of dinosaurs, especially when I discovered that Tyrannosaurus Rex was from the Late Cretaceous Period. Then again, ‘Cretaceous Park’ sounds more like somewhere you’d pick up a disease. Anyway, back to the VR stuff. Imagine a giant T-Rex in your house, wearing a business suit and telling you what should go where to make your dilapidated bedroom into something that pops. King of the Lizards shows you how to create the house of your dreams. Day. Made.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
Despite the technological glitz that surrounds us, we still have to kill pigs, cows, sheep, chickens and the like on a massive scale for food. That’s strange when you come to think of it. It’s also unsustainable. We don’t have to eat animals, of course - we can be vegetarian or vegan - but if we want meat, a real, living and breathing creature somewhere has to be zapped, clobbered and cut up. In that sense, and despite revolutionary changes occasioned by the demise of hunter-gatherer lifestyles and rise of agriculture in Neolithic times, we are not so different from the Stone Age brutes who were our ancestors. Sure, we’ve got artificial intelligence and driverless cars, but in terms of eating, a lot of the time this is dependent on the bloody, messy business of taking an actual sentient organism and… well, you get the point. There’s no denying it, it’s strange! My hunch is that in a century from now, meat produced from living animals will be considered taboo. Lab-grown meat might by then be considered normal. Scientists have already made hamburgers from cow stem cells grown in a petri dish. If this were to catch on, I think it would be wonderful – for the environment, for land use and for a multitude of reasons to do with the ethics of rearing livestock (for the record I am not vegan, I eat fish and I wasn’t above consuming the odd McDonald’s hamburger in my youth, so I’m no paragon of saintly virtue). Conversely, however, there is one type of livestock I would like to see being farmed to the hilt. When I spoke to Afton Halloran, lead author of a study about cricket farms, she predicted that in a generation or so, six-legged livestock will be big business. I’m inclined to agree. Now if only the futurologists in our midst could look beyond the gadgets in our pockets now and again and focus their tech-inclined minds on the hunks of meat on our plates!
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Smart meters are a desirable part of the UK's electricity supply infrastructure in the long run as they will help to keep the lights on while saving energy. As part of the smart grid, they will help to balance supply and demand by allowing consumers and producers more choice about how electricity is used and where. They could also help to grow supply by allowing microgeneration installations to feed more power into the grid. However, at £11bn the smart meter programme is an expensive project, and an investigation by E&T shows there are numerous problems with it, from meters not working properly to a shortage of installers. This week’s exclusive story for E&T shows the programme has unfortunately not got off to the best of starts.
Hilary Lamb, news reporter
It hasn’t been a good few months for Facebook. The company has just been fined €110 million for “misleading” the EU over its takeover of WhatsApp, and it is facing increasing scrutiny over its role in exacerbating poor mental health, accepting advertising money from dubious sources, cyberbullying, and the spread of fake news and violent or exploitative videos. Now the use of targeted online ads is being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office. These ads allow political parties to direct campaign spending towards marginal constituencies (while bypassing election campaign spending regulations) and tailor messages according to what their targets care most about. My young peers in London, for instance, may expect messages about help for first-time buyers, while my old schoolmates in Gloucestershire will surely find their newsfeeds packed with impassioned messages about fox hunting. The practice throws up questions about whether these targeted political ads breach data protection policies; they are based on personal data collected from users’ activity, which are analysed to suggest our likely occupations, interests and opinions. While some would call this morally dubious, the major political parties cannot afford to not indulge in Facebook advertising. Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have allegedly dished out £1 million each for Facebook ads during the run-up to the general election.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
Balancing energy supplies is tricky business. If we take a big step back to look at a large map of the world, the UK is in a remarkably favourable position even ignoring its geological advantage of being sat on a nest of oil, coal and gas. Turbulent seas surround our windswept shores, while we still have a passable amount of sunshine (although that’s hard to believe looking out of the window of the IET’s Stevenage office this morning). Compare it to India, which this week announced it is committing to half a dozen more nuclear power stations on top of a similar number already in the process of being built. The problem with nuclear, apart from the massive cost and nuclear waste issues that is, is that it still strikes fear into the hearts of many – either the bad guys are going to snaffle all the bomb-grade material (which there isn’t any of in practical terms) or things will go wrong and meltdown ensues. But if we insist on meeting carbon emissions targets as agreed by the international community, something must be done. A few years ago India and China, the two countries that were developing fast and relying largely on coal to fuel this growth, didn’t seem that enthusiastic about carbon emission control. Now that they do we should be suitably grateful and applaud this move to nuclear rather than condemn it, as some environmentalists instinctively do. Blessed we are in the UK – there is an increasing exploitation of wind and there are promising tidal and wave technologies starting to come through. Meanwhile Switzerland is pledging to remove nuclear from its energy mix. It doesn’t have the natural resources we do, but does have some chunky mountains to use for hydroelectricity generation –and it already generates 60 per cent of its energy in this way. Another E&T article this week looked at the environmental effects of dams – does this mean Switzerland shouldn’t use its mountains to make electricity? The bottom line is everything has consequences and something has to give.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
In the style of apparently every Hollywood movie these days (good or bad) or perhaps more appealingly akin to the Sugarhill Gang’s classic Rapper’s Delight, E&T this week published a Part 1/Part 2, feature-with-a-sequel pair of related posts from our View From Washington correspondent, Paul Dempsey. Paul was analysing the recent Kapor report on how ‘mistreatment’ fuels tech staff turnover. The Tech Leavers Study by the Kapor Centre for Social Impact claims to be the first representative analysis of “what drives engineers and other technology workers out the door”. Surprisingly, what mostly does the driving is a sense of unfairness and frustration in the office, how the employee feels he or she is being treated, and it carries a hugely significant cost, one frequently overlooked or disregarded by companies. Both articles are well worth reading – particularly for managers of key departments and also for HR representatives – to gain a better, more holistic understanding of how many employees feel. You may have no inkling of their frustrations and unhappiness until “suddenly” they walk out of the company for good. If you’re still ignorant about their reasons for leaving, you’re likely to dismiss them as the cranks, complainers and crackpots. The problem for the company is that such people may well be the rule, not the exception.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
One of the more esoteric jokes doing the rounds of sixties music fans on Twitter this week was that Paul McCartney’s cameo in the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’, due for release next week, is a rare case of The Beatles doing something The Rolling Stones have done already rather than vice versa. (Stones guitarist Keith Richards has appeared in two episodes of the blockbuster franchise as the father of Johnny Depp’s character Captain Jack Sparrow.) Guffawing fans of the Fab Four won’t be the key target demographic for the film; in fact many of them will remember the days before home entertainment when once a new movie had finished its run at the local cinema that was the last chance to see it until it turned up on television. Another thing that’s different these days is how studios have become the targets for real-life pirates like the hackers who claim to have hijacked a digital copy of the film and were threatening to release it in segments unless Disney pays a hefty ransom. Presumably they’ve sent the studio credible evidence that they’re in possession of something that’s worth paying for. Either way though, I wonder what leverage they’ve got. How many people who would have paid to get their fix of buccaneering high jinks at the local multiplex would think again just because they’ve seen half an hour on a laptop? The thing that seems to be in greater jeopardy in commercial terms is the follow-on home entertainment market where Disney would be expecting to sell millions of discs and downloads in the run up to Christmas 2017. These days it’s so easy to dump the contents of even a 3D high-definition film somewhere that anyone interested and without even much technical savvy can grab and burn it themselves. That’s surely a recipe that makes studios an irresistible target for the hackers, and McCartney and shipmates surely won’t be the last to fall victim.