Snakelike robot on the surface of Mars

Snake robots in space, corn biofuels and more: Best of the week's news

Image credit: SINTEF/ISS and NASA

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.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Robotic snakes could perform housekeeping work on ISS

Doesn’t the idea of snake-like robots – no matter how technologically efficient put you off a little? I wouldn’t blame you if it does. I would have felt the same and actually did feel the same until yesterday, when I – rather coincidentally – was invited to attend an Intel panel event on artificial intelligence in London. The panel included such distinguished robotics experts as Jeremy Wyatt, Professor of Robotics & AI at the University of Birmingham, Sabine Hauert, member of the Royal Society machine learning working group and to the audience’s delight, Sam Vincent, writer and producer of the popular Channel 4 series ‘Humans’. The lively discussion was chaired by delightful Georgie Barrat, presenter of Channel 5’s Gadget Show. Without getting too much into the details of the event, which was, rather aptly, conducted not on ISS, but inside the famous and beautiful down-to-earth (or rather down-to-water) Engine Rooms under Tower Bridge – a masterpiece of late-Victorian engineering, I can confirm that it substantially altered my and other participants’ views on robotics. I grasped that to understand AI better and stop the robots from becoming a threat to our environment, jobs and humankind as a whole, we have – first and foremost –  to change not the robots themselves (their appearance, behaviour and technical characteristics), but our own perception of them and our own attitudes to them – both ethical and aesthetic. When we come to grips with the fact that AI carriers do not necessarily have to look and behave like us, that they are not mere copies of humans (pace Channel 4’s ‘Humans’), but mechanical creatures in their own right (and even have their right to privacy, as one panel member asserted), then we’ll move one step closer to embracing the robots (in more than one sense), to not perceiving them as a menace and not being put off by even the most bizarre looking snake-like ones.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Software reviews: Wellbeing, stress and self-care apps for your phone

If you're feeling the need to chill out on Friday, after a long hot week at work, these apps might help you achieve some degree of calm and inner peace. Health and wellbeing solutions wellness, as the sector is being called is a burgeoning area for technology and gadgets, as more people look to their devices to help them in every aspect of their lives. With more sensors crammed in, capturing a wider range of biometric data, what a smartphone or smart watch can do for us in five years’ time could be amazing.

Environmental cost of using corn as biofuel “much greater” than corn as food

People got to eat. People got to move. The fact of corn being able to fulfill both human requirements is quite special in and of itself. However, a comparison of the economic and environmental benefits and costs of using corn as a fuel have demonstrated that the plant may be more effectively used as food. I'm not convinced how definitive these figures and calculations are, so further analysis may be required. Surely there is also an offset cost for the reduction in carbon emissions of vehicles powered by biofuels, rather than fossil fuels? Either way, plant power still points the way to a greener future, in one respect or another.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

End-to-end encryption and ‘backdoors’ ban demanded as mandatory by EU committee

An EU committee has decided that the content, no matter how trifling, of all our communications must be regarded as de facto confidential. It must be shielded from prying eyes and ears and afforded the same protections as the most basic of our fundamental rights. While many people are rightly concerned about data protection (see the news this week of a leak of personal information affecting 200 million US citizens), this draft legislation drawn up by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs takes things too far. It contains baffling phraseology about securing information on ‘emotions’ and preventing EU citizens from experiencing embarrassment. Since when was it the job of governments to ensure our emotions stay under wraps? Confusion abounds because of a misconception that all data is created equal. But data can mean any information, and while some types are undeniably sensitive, others are not. Personal privacy is also highly subjective. I know of people who happily post information on social media showing in real time their precise location at a particular moment, but who in the next breath will argue without any irony against CCTV cameras, saying they are a step towards Big Brother-style policing. There are people who (strangely, in my view) feel terribly embarrassed about nudity, while others regard the human body as nothing much to be ashamed of and would not particularly care if strangers happened to see them nude. When women openly and without anonymity chronicle online their experiences of a miscarriage, or of breast cancer, or of having an abortion, or of sexual harassment, some people feel this is brave while others complain about “oversharing”. All of which is to say that the idea of what constitutes personal data is clearly not set in stone. Strange as it may seem to some, there are plenty of people out there who actually want less privacy, not more.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Book review: ‘Time Machine Tales’ by Paul J Nahin

The trouble with great films whose plots rely on time travel is of course that they never stand up to much scrutiny. It’s a phenomenon parodied brilliantly in ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (one of my personal top ten time travel favourites) when the eponymous heroes find themselves in a jam and realise the solution is to decide that once they get out of it they’ll immediately travel further back into the past and set things up so they can extricate themselves. The fallacy is obvious, but asking too many awkward questions rather than just suspending your disbelief and enjoying the ride is what sucks the fun out of so many books and films. I’m tempted by Jade Fell’s review to take a look at this attempt to unpick the theoretical difficulties about hopping around in time by looking at them from both a philosophical and a scientific point of view. Then again, there’s always someone prepared to ruin an evening by coming out of the cinema and immediately pointing out the flaws in unquestionably entertaining blockbusters like the Terminator series, and I don’t want to be that person.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Rebranding engineering for women: choose your favourite campaign

It's here at last! Women in Engineering Day! So what better day to vote for one of our campaign ideas to encourage more women into engineering. Engineering has long had an image problem in any countries - geeky in the US, for example, or hard hat and greasy spanner in the UK. So we asked some of London's top creative advertising agencies how they would go about 'rebranding' engineering to make it more attractive to women. You can see the ideas they came up with and vote for your favourite online.

We've already had a great turnout and plenty of reaction, both positive and negative, on Twitter. They are just concepts, not real campaigns, but we're pleased to say they are attracting some attention and sparking some debate, which has got to be a good thing.

Give engineering a new image to attract more women

Good luck to the Women in Engineering Society's first International Women In Engineering Day and let's hope everyone's efforts today raises the profile of the problem that only nine per cent of the UK engineering workforce is not enough. Today I am at the #9PerCentIsNotEnough conference in the IET's Austin Court building in Birmingham. Read my own thoughts on why the nine per cent problem matters.

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