Hazard of silent electric cars, reading sheep emotions and more: best of the week’s news
Image credit: Julia Herzog
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
I must confess I hadn’t given much thought to the sounds that hybrid and electric vehicles do, or rather don’t, make until I started looking into this subject. It turns out this is a big deal for blind and partially sighted people who navigate the streets mostly using the sense of sound. They are well attuned to the hum of the internal combustion engine, but as take-up of green vehicles has risen, many blind people have reported run-ins with the new ‘silent’ menaces. This is an example of an unintended consequence of technological change. Most people assume the quietness of EVs to be a good thing, as indeed it is if you like quietness, but even the anti-noise brigade admits blind campaigners have a point. The solution would seem obvious: fit EVs with some sort of artificial noise to act as a warning. The question then is, what kind of noise? Current regulation in this area is just too vague to be of much use, and is it cynical of me to imagine car companies will be loath to pass up the opportunity to create esoteric, brand-specific noises to act as roaming adverts for their products? Just think of the range of different mobile phone ringtones and you can see why this would create confusion among those lacking in the sense of sight. As autonomous vehicles come on stream, another, more radical option in future could involve giving blind people some sort of special device or app that could sense – and warn them – when a car was near at hand. But why should someone be forced to adopt technology that they may not wish to have merely as a consequence of being disabled? Isn’t this itself a form of discrimination?
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement has put the US in the same basket (of deplorables?) as Syria and Nicaragua as the world’s only non-participants. Whether Trump still believes climate change is just a massive Chinese plot or not is unknown, but at this point the decision to leave the agreement feels like it’s based on an ideological stance rather than an evidence-based one. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels and other renewable tech is plummeting. Companies like Tesla are paving the way for a future where electricity will ultimately be generated by renewables for close to nothing, without the effort, expense, and climate implications of digging fossil fuels out of the ground. We’re reaching the point where renewable energy just makes sense no matter what your political stance is. Trump’s continued opposition is unexpected and is clearly within character, desperate to never admit he was wrong and never to back down on anything despite overwhelming evidence and opposition.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
I wonder if either of the lambs pictured in this story is in pain. From looking at their facial expressions I would assume not, although the one on the right does look like he has something on his mind. Look at the way his jaw sticks out slightly to the left, like he’s in the middle of a thoughtful chew, or speaking to his brother out of the side of his mouth: “Hey Clarence, that guy over there keeps staring at us – what do you think he’s up to?”. Well soon, any lamb-based queries you have could be a thing of the past, as a new system powered by artificial intelligence has been developed which is capable of understanding the facial expressions of sheep and determining whether they are in pain – and it could pave the way for further animalistic emotional analysis. Imagine being able to tell if your cat is hungry, in pain, or just annoying – the possibilities are endless! The system analyses the animal’s face, and compares it with a standardised measurement tool developed by veterinarians for diagnosing pain – in which the eyes, cheeks, ears lips and nostrils are scanned for standard signs of distress. In the future, the system could be used to improve sheep welfare in farms, by helping farmers to recognise common, painful diseases such as foot rot and mastitis in their flocks, and could also be applied to the study of other animals including rabbits and horses.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
With all due respect to visually impaired people, I do not see much logic in increasing the din of our traffic even further. To me, it is loud enough, and noise, as we all know, can be stressful and can negatively affect pedestrians with all kinds of mental disorders. It can also cause mental disorders on its own. True, electric vehicles do not make a lot of noise, and this is one of their advantages. I’ve just returned from Budapest which boasts of a sizeable fleet of electric ‘trolleys’, or ‘trolley-buses’ as we used to call them in the Soviet Union where they were perhaps the most popular means of urban public transport after trams. I could see for myself how efficient and popular they were – largely due to their noiselessness, it has to be said. Just imagining all those multiple electric vehicles of the future beeping and squeaking to outshout the squeakiest of trams makes me feel uneasy. There must be other technological ways to alert blind people to their presence.
This news item interested me largely due to the words of Brigadier Khalid Nasser Al Razooqi, director-general of the Dubai police’s Smart Services Department, quoted in it, to the effect that some people would prefer interacting with robotic policemen rather than with ordinary flesh-and-blood cops. To my mind, that largely depends of what kind of cops we are talking about. In Britain, I would opt for a human policeman without thinking, whereas in some other countries, like the now-defunct USSR (particularly in Stalin’s times), or say North Korea, any robot would definitely be preferable to a human guardian of law and order, for the latter is likely to be also a robot, yet programmed (read brainwashed) in a very limited and one-sided way. Not sure about Dubai, for I have only been there once and did not have any encounters with the local police force.
I love the idea of being propelled from Paris to Amsterdam (or from Amsterdam to Paris) – over the distance of 322 miles - in half an hour (glory to Elon Musk and his Hyperloop!), but cannot help thinking of a much less plausible futuristic scenario, whereby I will be able to get from Letchworth (where I reside) to London - distance 38 miles – in under 30 minutes by an average commuter train. Dreams, dreams…
Tim Fryer, Technology Editor
When Donald Trump won the Presidential race, much to many people’s horror, there were consoling noises from Washington along the lines of ‘the American system won’t allow a maverick President free rein’. Now, with ‘oil men’ in relevant back-up posts, it is not so clear where these safeguards are coming from. Having spent years persuading India and China to take global warming seriously, is the rug going to be pulled from under the collective feet of the international community just because Trump wants to try and recreate some coal jobs at home? I think one reality check may come when it comes to assessing the cost of reopening a closed coal mine – for safety reasons it is not just a case of unlocking the door at the pit head. But the bigger picture is obviously the important one here. The Paris Agreement was worked out for the benefit of the global community, for this and future generations, and if one of the world’s big two polluters was to pull out, with all the technology and financial advantages it has, where would that leave the Agreement? And why should any other country bother to adhere to it if the USA doesn’t? Trump doesn’t seem phased by making the big decisions, in fact he revels in it, but I do hope in this case that the safeguards work to stop him making the wrong decision here.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Some books make you glad you’re old enough not to have to worry about dealing with the issues they make a case for humankind having to get to grips with in future. If climate change wasn’t worrying enough, the Transhumanist movement is doing its best to make us all consider that prospect of one day having the choice of whether we want to grow old gracefully and deal with our mortality or become part machine and stave off mortality. They refer to it as ‘solving death’ and many proponents are the sort of tech industry movers and shakers for whom you can imagine their own mortality is the ultimate problem to be defeated with enough number crunching and innovative thinking. Elements of this have been around for decades, of course. There are people at remote sites around the world even now who had their physical bodies cryogenically frozen at the point of death in the hope that they can one day be revived. It’s a gamble – not least on the companies they’ve put their trust in not going out of business – but presumably one they could afford and thought was worth taking. It’s still an option only for the wealthy, but increasingly the rest of us in the affluent areas of the globe are being offered the option of at least staving off physical decline with the help of robotic technology. And once we get used to replacing worn out body parts with mechanical spares, where’s the line between being human and machine? The ultimate goal for some blue sky thinkers is the prospect of existing simply as an electronic consciousness in a mechanical host. No doubt people will gradually get used to the idea if and when it becomes possible. For now, though, I’m glad it’s just the stuff of speculation and not a choice I’m likely to have to make.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
It’s a pictorial celebration of animals for me this week, with two of the cutest lambs you’ve ever seen, a smiling dolphin and what looks like the rabbit from Donnie Darko in a story about the Pentagon.