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Google fine, Gaza island, Boaty McBoatface and more: pick of the week’s tech news

Image credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

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.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Google’s €2.4bn fine opens the door to legal action from rivals and an EU clampdown

Google’s hefty €2.4bn fine was criticised in some quarters as stifling innovation, but really it’s Google itself that is doing the stifling. The EU has begun treating the search giant like a monopoly company; wholly appropriate when considering that in Europe at least it’s where 95 per cent of all internet searches take place. While the US has traditionally favoured business interests over all else, an ethos that will only ramp up under Donald Trump, the EU has recognised that Google’s business practices are dangerous, and ultimately bad for consumers.

How can the argument be made that the EU is stifling innovation when Google’s rivals have such a small user base that any new or original search feature from them will be largely ignored by the vast majority of internet users and probably copied by Google in the long run anyway? The Big Three - Facebook, Google and Amazon - already have a dangerously high level of control over the internet and breaking their stranglehold is almost impossible because they have all the users. Their huge user bases bring both money and vast treasure troves of data to improve their services beyond the capabilities of anyone else who is trying to compete.

To make a real-world comparison, if Amazon’s online retail presence was replicated on an average high street, nearly 50 per cent of the shops would be bearing its logo. With competition being the supposed driver of both innovation and lower prices for the consumer, huge dominance in the virtual space will only be a bad thing in the long run. Facebook and Google have the ability to determine all of the information that the average Joe has access to, giving them immense power. With this power they can swing elections and alter the prevailing opinions on virtually any issue they want. Sure maybe there isn’t much evidence that they are actively abusing this power yet, but the internet is still in its relative infancy, these companies are barely 20 years old and yet their potential significance in the geo-political mix is arguably larger than that of any country.

The EU is right to start the clampdown now, keep Google in check, scrutinise its every action carefully and do as much as it can to prevent it from becoming the internet dictator it so clearly wants to be.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Gaza Strip artificial island to feature airport, seaport, electricity plant

The word ‘intractable’ is often used to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discussion of it tends to become bogged down in a history which can seem impenetrable to the uninitiated. Do you want to go back 50 years to the Six Day War and the start of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, 70 years to the establishment of the Jewish State and the Palestinian ‘Naqbah’ or two thousand years to the Romans’ destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem?.

One interesting question is whether technological advances could ever banish, or at least neutralise, some of this deadly historical baggage. Given the non-existence of the peace process at present, don’t hold your breath, but as someone who takes an interest in events in this part of the world, I felt heartened to read about Israel’s plans for an artificial island port to serve the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Doubtless there are ifs and buts about the scheme, but at the most basic level it seems like a bright idea. The offshore geography and ease with which the island could be policed would help allay Israeli fears about security threats emanating from the Hamas-controlled enclave. At the same time, the proposed airport, logistics facility and power plant to be built on the man-made outpost would solve some of the dire problems (some of which Israel bears responsibility for) afflicting the Strip.

As should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is basically all about territory. Land, in other words. Bear in mind that this land is very small, and, for various reasons, both peoples want all, or most, or many of the same bits, of it. As a result of this disagreement over who should have what, large numbers of people have died in a vicious cycle of raw emotion and violence. Could technology help transcend that by enabling more land to be built? What if cities could be extended miles up into the sky or onto the sea itself? With the right shift in attitudes, could such an extension of the land ever help to bring about peace? Or would human emotions overwhelm that?

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Engineering CEOs commit to tackling gender crisis

International Women in Engineering Day, held a week ago today, has really taken off. Although it didn’t show up in all measures, the #INWED17 hashtag trended on Twitter - top in London for some of the day and up to fourth in the UK. Industry bosses called for ‘action from the top’ to address the problem at the IET’s #9PerCentIsNotEnough conference in Birmingham on Friday, which I attended. The conference heard that the percentage of women in engineering has crept up just a couple of percentage points in the last 20 or 30 years. Our last issue focusing on the lack of women in engineering attracted an unprecedented response from readers, which we’ll sum up in our next issue. It’s becoming clear to me that while some organisations are doing more to address the problem, many in the engineering profession still don’t get it. Treating everyone the same, as some throw out as a solution as if it speaks for itself, means continuing discrimination and inequalities for women and fails to raise diversity in other ways too. The theme of this year’s INWED was ‘Men as Allies’ and I would urge more men to take part next year and go and listen to the experiences of their female colleagues. If they listen with an open mind they might be surprised by what they hear. Our poll on the best ad campaign concept to attract more women into engineering has also had an unprecedented response for an E&T poll. We’re closing the poll on Sunday evening so you have just a few more days to vote if you haven’t already. See the ideas and vote at https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2017/06/rebranding-engineering-for-women-choose-your-favourite-advert/.

Jade Fell, supplements editor

Boaty McBoatface completes first mission

Boaty McBoatface is my favourite autonomous research submarine of all time, and not just because he has quite literally the best name in the history of all named things. Also known by the much less exotic ‘Autsub Long Range’, Boaty has a total range of 6000km, an endurance of six months and a depth rating of 6000m, making him the most advanced of all the BAS autonomous research vessels. This handsome little chap can travel more than ten times the distance of the boring Autosub3 and the Autosub6000, and can be deployed for over a hundred times the duration. With stats like this, it’s a dead cert that this is the first of many successful missions for Boaty.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Cyber assault wreaks havoc on Ukraine and infects major global companies' IT systems

I was relieved to see this news story on Wednesday, for on Tuesday night they announced on the news that the cyber attack originated from Ukraine and could even be government inspired. I was very surprised: with all its new democratic freedoms and institutions, my native country was an unlikely aggressor – cyber or other. On the contrary, it is at the moment trying to fight an aggression against itself by Russia, the country that has become notorious of late for its imperialist policy (annexing the Crimea, for example), both on the ground and online. From the E&T report, it transpires that Ukraine, rather than being an organiser of the vicious cyber attack that has so far affected a number of countries including Britain, was in fact one of its victims. So where should UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon “send troops or authorise air strikes in retaliation for any future cyber attack”? We can only guess. Remembering that the latest cyber threats originated mostly from three countries - North Korea, China and Russia – I don’t see Mr Fallon sending troops or authorising air strikes again any of them in the near future.

Spider-like graphene ‘robots’ crawl with no external power source

What is it about snakes and spiders that fascinates the creators of robots so much? This time last week I highlighted a story about the plans to use snake-like robots on the International Space Station. Do creepy crawlies carry some kind of perverse attraction for engineers and scientists? I bet none of the people behind those two robot types have lived in Australia, where both snakes and spiders are among the world’s most poisonous and are unlikely to inspire many artists or designers, let alone scientists and engineers. With all the negative publicity AI creations are getting these days (robots are going to take over the world; our jobs, our houses etc), why can’t they think of flower or bird-shaped robots instead?

Tim Fryer, Technology Editor

Gaza strip artificial island to feature airport, seaport, electricity plant

I saw this story and my first instinct was “it ain’t happening”. When I read it through fully my thought had progressed to “it definitely ain’t happening”. It would be a great project and the technology behind its construction and infrastructure would be considerable. However, if Israel was serious about giving the Gaza strip better access to the outside world then should it not just allow Gaza to open a land-based port, rather than build an offshore one connected by a single, vulnerable and controllable bridge? Conceptually the problem in the UK is we still can’t fully accept a completely polarised argument, despite the Irish troubles and the recent rise of Middle East based extremism – it is equally unfair to connect and blame any particular region as it is with any religion, but we do have to have some label. I have heard so many debates with both Palestinians and Israelis instinctively adopting an attitude of arguing black was white rather than concede any quarter to the enemy. Anything that could have a genuine hope of resolution or co-operation is no more than empty words aimed at appeasing the international audience. And that is where I think this scheme fits. I hope my perceptions are out of date and that I am completely wrong – I really would be delighted to see the evidence of my error being built in harmonious waters off Gaza.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Security fears loom over police force’s continuing use of Windows XP

The fact that anyone is still using Windows XP in 2017 is baffling enough, given that the developer Microsoft abandoned it in 2014 and made it very clear that there would be no more security patches. How the Met comes to still be using XP on 18,000 PCs at a time when a cyber-security attack is one of the most prevalent crimes threatening us all is even more perplexing. Why wouldn’t you update your software to the latest version - or at least move on from a version known to have been deprecated by its manufacturer? It’s like the police coming round to your house after a burglary and telling you to change the locks, only you then decide to leave the front door wide open for the rest of your born days. I’m sure the lack of computer updates is absolutely nothing to do with budget cuts and a government crackdown on public spending as part of its austerity measures (which naturally don’t include rejecting 10 per cent annual pay increases for our hard-working MPs). At least the Met can comfort itself with the thought that it’s not the only frontline national defence organisation still running the Stone Age ‘Swiss cheese’ operating system. Apparently, HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy's new £3.5bn aircraft carrier, is also running Windows XP in her control room. “Hey, who fired those torpedoes?”

China and Canada governments commit to ending economic cyber espionage

Well, this is nice. The governments of China and Canada have signed a deal promising not to target each other with particular types of cyber attacks. Not all cyber attacks, just some of them. The two countries have vowed to no longer commit state-sponsored cyber attacks aimed at extracting trade secrets or confidential business information, although they will still engage in a bit of state-sponsored cyber espionage now and again, presumably just for the LOLs. I can’t help feeling this is a good wheeze dreamed up by the Canadians and the Chinese in order to have a laugh at America’s expense. Canada is widely perceived as being a lot like America, only better, cleaner, classier and smarter and I’m sure the Chinese are well aware that befriending America’s more refined neighbour in this way will get right up Trump’s nose. Next week: North Korea buddies up with Mexico, signing an agreement not to bomb each other with nuclear weapons.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Boaty McBoatface completes first mission

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Shakespeare. That’s true, but names help us create associations and connections in our minds. I don’t really have the skills for a successful career in marketing, but I doubt if I would have looked at a story headlined ‘Autosub LR completes first mission’.

Lidar system able to penetrate foliage and map obscured environments

This really is a technically interesting development, but again - as with Boaty McBoatface - it’s the associations that caught my attention. Partly the word ‘lidar’, because I’ve written about this myself in the past, and partly the accompanying picture. The pink and purple flowers are of a plant that has been happily self-seeding in my garden since the 1980s, but it was only a couple of months ago that I posted a photograph on Facebook asking if anyone knew what it was called, so now I know, thanks to a former IET colleague, that it’s aquilegia. And while I’m musing about connections, you might like to know that the phrase ‘only connect’ appears at the start of EM Forster’s novel ‘Howard’s End’, which was based on his childhood home of Rooks Nest House here in Stevenage. One thing leads to another.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Self-driving vehicle brings groceries to scores of customers as part of £8m scheme

Unfortunate that Ocado is the delivery company involved in this trial of using driverless delivery ‘pods’ because it gives me an opportunity to gripe a little. We’ve been using them for our family shopping a couple of times a week in recent months and found online ordering with an hour-long arrival slot a great alternative to slogging around the supermarket – as long as things go right. A couple of weeks ago, with a busy weekend ahead we got an hour’s notice that due to some unspecified ‘operational reasons’ the load of food we’d been expecting on a Thursday evening wouldn’t be there after all. We could arrange an alternative delivery, but who wants to take a chance on that failing as well? An unexpected trip to the shops Friday evening trying to remember what we’d been expecting wasn’t the best end to the week and will be a persistent memory every time we think about using Ocado in the future. You can’t help suspecting that robot deliveries are at risk from the same effect – they’ll be an entertaining novelty and welcome convenience until the first time they drop shopping off at the wrong address or get lost and will then be forever tainted by the idea that a human would never have made the same mistake. There’s one potential benefit to other road users though. Supermarket delivery vans are always in such a big hurry, presumably to hit tight deadlines, that they can be a menace. Self-driving versions will presumably be the best behaved traffic around, obeying every rule of the road as if they were taking their driving test. Can’t help wondering where they’ll park up in the situations where drivers currently just pull up onto the pavement at the moment, oblivious to the inconvenience they’re causing everyone else.

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