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Pet wearables, shapeshifting food and more: best of the week's tech news

Image credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

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

Pet wearables market to expand up to 25 per cent every year

I’d love to know how many calories my cats expend in the average day. With all the play fighting, romping, door climbing and floor scratching they do in the midnight hours I feel like they should be the picture of feline athletic health. Somehow, though, one of my furry friends has more than a little overhang around the belly area – maybe it’s down to her love of Dreamies and extra virgin coconut oil, or perhaps she’s not getting as much exercise as I think. Does she spend the entire day snoozing, only to wake up and sing me the song of her people as soon as I get into bed? How will I ever know? With a pet wearable of course. Apparently these devices are proving quite popular these days, as more and more people want to keep an eye on their pet’s wellbeing, and perhaps understand a little more about their strange animalistic behaviours. There’s only one thing which is stopping me rushing out and buying an activity tracker for my fur babies – the look on the cat’s face in this news story. That is one unhappy kitty. Four years of cat ownership, and multiple heart-breaking veterinary cone experiences, leads me to believe that neither of my little guys would be particularly chuffed with having a giant piece of plastic attached to their necks.

Programmable, shapeshifting pasta created by MIT researchers

This is gross, this is so, so gross. Not only am I really struggling to comprehend why anyone would want their food to wriggle around on the plate – I’ve never even understood the appeal of bonito flakes – but I am slightly horrified that something comprised of starch and gelatine has been labelled pasta, or even food for that matter. I’m all for making food fun, but do you really want to have you dining experience jazzed up by the addition of squirming structures made from the boiled remains of farm animals?

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Engineering degrees should be open to arts and humanities students, says professor

Clearly, I’ve not been paying enough attention to the entry demands of certain higher-education qualifications, as the idea that a student couldn’t apply to go on an engineering degree course simply because they’d pursued predominantly arts and humanities subjects at A-level came as a surprise to me. It’s even more black and white than these students being discouraged from applying, or that they’re less likely to be accepted on to the course – they are actively barred from applying full stop. Why couldn’t a person who excels at fine art or urban geography not also excel at engineering? Who really knows what they want to do with their life at 17, anyway? I’m willing to bet that a significant percentage of recent engineering graduates gradually drift away from the profession within a few years, so what good did the stringent entry demands do for them or the industry? If a person actively wishes to follow an engineering path and expresses that desire, why stop them on the grounds of them having studied ‘non-traditional’ subjects for engineers? Thankfully, this tide appears to be turning, on the basis that engineering – like all disciplines – needs creative thinking as much as it needs applied maths and physics. There is no ‘engineer type’, so it makes sense not to exclude potential engineering stars on the basis of their early years predilections for the arts.

AI taught to write Irish folk music, independently and with human collaborators

There may be more or less truth in Dr Ben-Tal’s assertion that “technology and creativity have been interconnected for a long time and this is just another step in that direction,” but the pleasures of a robot pianist learning to write original folk music by studying thousands of songs, picking out the key repeated elements and then reassembling these to produce an entirely new work isn’t a million miles away from the Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building school of human songwriting. A robot might just be able to do it much quicker than, say, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Years of absorbing music done in a day. What the robot will definitely lack, though, is that human panache, the unpredictability of the individual, someone doing something wholly unexpected within the confines of a traditional form that moves and elevates a composition from something acceptably run-of-the-mill to the level of inspired genius. No robot is going to come up with a new ‘Bitches Brew’ or ‘A Love Supreme’, just by processing jazz music. Well, at least not until robots start taking heroin, anyway.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Book review: ‘Mars: The Pristine Beauty of the Red Planet’

When it comes to Mars, our reviewer Mark Williamson is on something of a mission – and he’s not alone. Delivering his verdict on ‘4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars’  by Nicky Jenner last month, he pointed out: “If ever a planet could be flavour of the month it would have to be Mars. On BBC Radio 4, programmes on Mars are almost as common as the shipping forecast.” As if to underline that we have all become infected with Mars fever, Mark has now served up his two pennies’ worth on ‘Mars: The Pristine Beauty of the Red Planet’, a “slab of publishing excellence” containing images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment which captured the planet in sumptuous detail. He’s right. Mars is very ‘in’. Wasn’t it ever thus? Yes, but what with Nasa being pushed to send humans there and China getting in on the act too, we do seem to be witnessing the start of a present day equivalent of the European great powers’ race to map and colonise ‘new worlds’ in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. Suffice to say, the idea of human colonies on Mars excites and frightens. Would we be able to finally wave goodbye to petty nationalisms with a fresh start on another planet? If not then, surely never. Europeans who first settled in north America (a move which at the time would have been akin to relocating to another planet) did try, and in a way succeeded, in forging a new type of society – but in the end it turned sour. But the lure of leaving behind our emotional baggage and starting again afresh in a new and pristine land remains irresistible. Our tangled past holds many lessons that any humans – be they explorers or refugees from Earth - who sally forth to Mars and beyond would do well to learn from.

Rebecca Northfield, acting features editor

Nokia 3310 leverages “nostalgia marketing” for “PR stunt”

But can it be hit with a hammer and come out unscathed? I remember my 3310, with a purple ‘Top Totty’ case and teeny screen. I had no idea what Top Totty meant, but I really liked it, so my parents got it for me. And Snake. Snake was the best game. Obviously. This new ‘nostalgia’ version doesn’t look like it used to. I doubt it can last against my butterfingers. Back in the day, my 3310 went through so much. I dropped it 10ft from a climbing frame. Survived. It got chewed a wee bit by the dog. Survived. I jumped in a river and forgot my Nokia was in my jeans. Survived. These days, I need to have a ridiculously expensive super-durable case for my iPhone, because that thing is the most sensitive little bit of tech I’ve ever had. Like, it touches a floor and explodes.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

AI taught to write Irish folk music

OK, this is a quirky story, but I happen to like folk music and dancing, so this one caught my attention straight away. Researchers at Kingston University London have taught a machine-learning programme to produce compositions based on Irish folk music and have demonstrated that music can be written collaboratively between computer and composer. I listened to the set that’s been put online and found it surprisingly convincing, but it’s never going to be a substitute for real musicians playing live and adding their own character to what they play. On the other hand, machine-generated compositions might appeal to people who want a bit of background music for a video or TV documentary instead of paying for the rights to something created and performed by humans.

Programmable, shapeshifting pasta created by MIT researchers

Here’s another odd story. MIT researchers have developed flat printed food that spontaneously bursts into 3D structures when submerged in water. With their shape-shifting food, they hope to make dining more fun, “democratise the design of noodles”, and reduce the cost of food shipping. Back in 1973, one of my first attempts at student cooking was a Vesta Chow Mein (you can still buy it; I’ve just checked). It came with flat noodles that, when dropped into a frying pan of hot oil, turned into puffy 3D curls. I learned some cooking techniques from Vesta meals, but it was hardly haute cuisine, and what the MIT team have come up with sounds about as appetising as those rigid squashed sponges that swell up in water but are never as good as the ordinary version. It strikes me that dining should be enjoyable for the quality of the food and the company of the people you’re eating with. ‘Fun’ is probably the antithesis of that.

Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

Engineering degrees should be open to arts and humanities students, says professor

This suggestion that the gateway into a career in engineering should no longer be barred to students who opt to study arts and humanities A-levels came at an event organised by the organisation that is the voice of the profession in UK higher education. The premise here is that students who study the arts have a wider imagination than students who study more logically driven subjects. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to turn towards students who may not be studying the exact subject that correlates with industry need – but to draw upon the skills other students will have. The whole ‘transferable skills’ thing isn’t new. I myself am a Bachelor of Arts and humanities was sold to me because of the transferable skills it offered. The IET’s 2016 annual survey of skills and demand in industry showed that, despite a rise in demand for engineering staff, 62 per cent of UK employers found many new engineering graduates had significant skills gaps. I’m slightly sceptical of the ‘skills gap’ argument myself. I think the talent is out there and there’s lots of it – but the salaries aren’t. You can read my piece on the issue here.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

British motorists say driverless cars can’t be trusted - vast majority express concerns

With the UK about to bask in an uncharacteristically sweltering bank holiday weekend, I’ve got to say the idea that driverless cars could be out and about on the country’s roads adds nothing to my sense of foreboding about the hours of motorway driving in store for me over the next few days. In fact, if I thought that a good proportion of the traffic on the M25 was being piloted by rigorously tested software rather than hot, tired and impatient humans I would probably be a more optimistic about reaching my destination in time. At the moment though, we’re at the point where the public just don’t have enough confidence in handing control of their vehicle over to the car itself to see themselves buying one in the near future. I’m probably in the 17 per cent who would seriously consider it, but at the same time am struck by the dilemma revealed by this piece of research. People don’t really trust tech firms like Google to design a decent car, but have the same qualms about established automotive manufacturers being up to the task of developing artificial intelligence. Unless there’s a significant shift in behaviour over the next few years I guess we’ll end up with joint ventures – no Google-branded car, but a Volkswagen maybe that emphasises it’s got Google tech on board. An interesting prospect that no one’s really discussed though is the potential for DIY driverless. Are we going to see the return of the days when enthusiasts actually tinkered with their own cars, but this time using a laptop? Judging by how resistant today’s vehicles are to letting owners do pretty much anything, I suspect not. It’ll be interesting watching them try though.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Pet wearables market to expand up to 25 per cent every year

What we treat ourselves to one day is, for animal lovers, what we’d buy for our cats and dogs the next. So it’s perhaps not that much of a surprise that the pet wearables market is set for huge growth. We would like to know who else is feeding puss-puss when we’re not looking. We are pretty sure there’s a well-meaning cat lady somewhere near our house who is overstepping the market. I know these wearables work anyway because I tried the FitBark a little while ago. It told me I needed to go out for walkies more often for example. We don't have a dog you see. Just a cat.

Brexit could doom UK science funding, warns Royal Society chief

Science and technology research, along with technical standards development, is one of those less visible but surprisingly important areas of European activity that will inevitably be affected by Brexit. Anecdotally, we have heard about UK partners being left out of research project proposals because their European collaborators fear their involvement would jeopardise their applications. Government promised to make up any funding shortfall in EU research but it’s not just about the money. The collaboration is in itself the really important thing here. Let’s hope we can negotiate that for universities but it will be a lot harder outside the EU research frameworks.

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