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Sex robots, new Tube map and more: pick of the week's tech news

Image credit: Dreamstime

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

Social implications of sex robots scrutinised in new report

There are a great variety of sexual fantasies out there. Some are weird but harmless. Others, for example those involving extreme violence or children, are dangerous to individuals and society. In Britain there is still a rather Victorian reticence around discussing matters pertaining to people’s sexual desires. Could this squeamishness be putting vulnerable people at risk?

According to the National Crime Agency, as many as one in every 35 adult males in the UK may have some form of sexual interest in children. Just think about that. It’s staggering. If correct, it means everyone in Britain probably knows at least one person who could justifiably be described as a paedophile. Senior police officers have already openly admitted that there are so many people downloading child sex abuse images it would be a practical impossibility to arrest and charge them all. As horrible as this is to acknowledge, there is clearly extremely high demand for this sort of material. The authorities are right now drowning in cases, some involving horrific sexual abuse perpetrated against very young children. On a somewhat similar note, there is also a thriving sex slave trade worldwide. In places where prostitution has been brought out of the shadows and regulated, the worst abuses have diminished, but the moral questions refuse to die.

So, what’s the answer? Should the health service offer some form of treatment to people diagnosed as suffering from particularly dangerous categories of sexual desire? Could technology solve some of these problems, or has it exacerbated them? And how should we, here in Britain, even discuss these things?

A senior MP once told me privately that he believed the government should commission research to determine whether allowing paedophiles to view sexual images showing computer-generated avatars of children reduced or increased the likelihood of them harming actual children in the real world. Leaving aside the practical question of quite how such an experiment might be conducted, I think his point was that if it were possible for these people to fulfil their disturbing fantasies safely, in an environment where no actual children were hurt, well, maybe an accommodation of sorts could be made. This is incendiary, but it’s worth investigating the connections (if any) between viewing pornography and crimes like rape. It would also be good to know whether allowing people to fulfil or partially fulfil fantasies through sex robots tends to sate or inflame their desires. I don’t know the answer, but my suspicion is the latter. In which case, some might argue, the solution is castration.

Tim Fryer, Technology Editor

Ubuntu Core software now available for Raspberry Pi

When the press release alerted me to this latest stage in development of the Raspberry Pi, I had a quick check back to see when the first of these development boards was launched. For all that I remember the launch well, I was surprised it was only five years ago. In that time it has shifted over 11 million units (as of the end of 2016) making it the UK’s biggest selling computer of all time – more than double the number of Sinclair ZX Spectrums sold. Launched as an educational tool to get children into coding, it has become an established development tool and, especially with its beefed up quad-core ARM processor and trimmed-down dimensions, the latest Compute Module 3 is a viable system component. Now with Ubuntu’s operating system it is ideal for development of interconnected products – the Internet of Things. As the young people of today accept IoT as a fact of life, rather than the astounding technical achievement that some of us longer in the tooth might regard it as, the latest advances in the Raspberry Pi platform bring its initial concept up to date. Getting kids interested in electronics is a major goal and it is logical to allow the enthusiastic ones to take their projects into an IoT environment. In this environment they are now competing head to head with professional product developers, which is pretty exciting territory. Maybe it could encourage a whole new generation of school-age tech entrepreneur

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

New map of London Underground tailored to claustrophobia sufferers

If only they could get the air conditioning sorted out. Every time I use the Underground I need a detailed plan of where I’m going to go, which stations I need to get to and how long each journey is. But it’s a guarantee that I turn into a hot mess. I avoid the Tube as much as possible because it’s not good for me and my state of mind. And I think that’s the same for many people. I get so jealous of commuters who look completely relaxed in the carriages, while I’m silently losing it. So passengers who have claustrophobia or anxiety can use this new map, which details routes that avoid long stretches of tunnels. Apparently, more than half of Tube stations are overground, which is a surprise to me. This could really help some people, including myself, because it’s always better to be in the fresh air, and the whole impending doom feeling could be reduced. Thanks TfL! I might actually not dread going into London next time.

Jade Fell, supplements editor

Scorpion-milking robot aims to end manual venom collection

“You don’t f**k with scorpions” – this is a little piece of advice I was given by my future father-in-law this week, and it seems to sum up this story quite nicely. Granted, we don’t get many scorpions in Cambridge; the advice arose from an anecdote in which my significant other, then a baby and living in Mexico, was found attempting to befriend one of these beasts, pudgy hand hovering mere inches away from absolute disaster. Scorpions are aggressive little things and liable to give you a really bad day if you get on the wrong side of them, so they really are best avoided. Unfortunately, their venom is said to be the most expensive liquids on earth, owing to its use in medical research and diagnostics – not to mention the creation of anti-venom – but until now collecting the venom has been somewhat difficult. Conundrum! How do you get a scorpion to hand over its venom while still giving it the wide berth it well and truly needs? With a robot of course. Enter VES-4, stage left. Traditional methods of venom extraction are not only harmful to the scorpions themselves, but also require whole teams of experimenters, and run a high risk of deadly scorpion stings or electric shocks from the stimulators used to extract the venom. The new, state-of-the-art, VES-4, has been designed to put an end to all dangerous, and unethical methods of venom extraction or ‘scorpion milking’ (gag!). The lightweight, portable robot clamps the scorpion’s tail before stimulating the animal with electricity, causing it to release droplets of venom which can then be stored securely. Safe, secure, and requiring just one researcher to complete the task.

Social implications of sex robots scrutinised in new report

A new report has been launched that discusses the social implications, and overall appropriateness of humanoid sex robots for use in brothels, sexual therapy and to reduce sex crimes. I won’t give you my personal opinion on humanoid sex workers, but this story does make for an interesting debate – particularly when it comes to providing sexual robots to would-be offenders. Should people with illicit or unlawful sexual desires be allowed to satisfy their sexual urges in a way that does no harm to other? Could this reduce crime, or allowed forbidden desires to run rampant and further exacerbate the problem?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

European parliament pushes to make gadgets easily repairable

From the department of things that’ll need to be resolved during the Brexit process comes an issue that was sidelined during last year’s referendum – the benefits EU citizens enjoy as a result of the ability to collectively pressure companies into making their products more consumer-friendly. I was thinking about this last weekend as I screwed the last bit of bodywork onto my car having spent Saturday morning taking a large section of it apart. Unbelievably, this particular model from a well known continental manufacturer has such a compact engine compartment that changing a failed, or in this case just misaligned, headlight bulb requires the whole bumper section being removed and lighting unit unbolted to be able to access it. It’s not the sort of thing you’d think about before buying a car and a nasty surprise the first time a bulb needs changing, as I found a few years ago. Having been quoted over £100 for the job by a local garage I had a crack at it myself and with the help of other owners on the internet who’ve had the same experience have managed to get the whole process down from a couple of hours to under 30 minutes. Turns out that having put this design on the market for a couple of years it was EU legislation dictating drivers had to be able to change a bulb at the roadside which pressured the manufacturer in question to make the necessary changes. Now the European Parliament has turned its attention to the equally vexing issue of gadgets that are apparently designed to be hard to repair; the ones that it seems their makers want us to stick in the bin the first time they fail. Components shouldn’t be permanently fixed in place and consumers should have the option of using an independent repairer, among other proposals. It all sounds like common sense. Once we in the UK have opted out of measures like this on a Europe-wide scale, though, is it the sort of thing we’ll be able to go it alone with?

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

AI could lead to “cliff-edge” scenario of mass unemployment, PWC warns

Artificial intelligence is becoming the net doomsday technology for employment. The computers and robots will get much smarter than us and throw us all out of work, is the fear. It has some foundation. It is a technology that's moving fast. This work apocalypse isn't limited to low-skilled jobs this time either. This latest report cites doctors, accountants and, most worryingly of all, journalists as at-risk professions. PWC and others are right to raise it as a real concern because we can plan for it with education and retraining. We all like to think we're way to clever to be replaced by technology but no doubt it will get smart enough in time, and its development will probably be close to exponential. There will be life beyond AI but it's hard to see what it look like from here. After our next issue out next week, E&T is taking a break from issues for the summer but we'll be back with a special on the future of work in the autumn.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

New map of the London Underground is tailored to claustrophobia sufferers

I remember how during my first ever visit to London nearly 30 years ago, I was intrigued by the frequent “Mind the gap” announcement at some Tube stations. I was sure then that it was a plea to the Tube passengers to keep some distance between each other inside the crowded carriages (a very English thing to do) – a task they seemed to be copying with beautifully, for no matter how packed the carriages appeared, a strict no-contact rule appeared to be operation. It was in stark contrast to the Moscow Metro of the late 1980s where passengers were literally sitting on top of each other during rush hours. Well, 30 years on it looks like Moscow Metro attitudes have come to London too. No one seems to mind not minding the gap any longer, and the Tube carriages increasingly have that peculiar Moscow-style packed-like-sardines feel. Probably even worse, for Moscow Metro – unlike its ageing London counterpart - was at least nicely air-conditioned. The new map for claustrophobia sufferers is a welcome development of course. Those afraid of closed spaces will now be able to able to avoid long tunnels (if they opt for longer alternative journeys that is). But I doubt that they will be able to avoid stuffy and tremendously overcrowded trains where temperature in summer often exceeds the highest legal maximum for transporting cattle (as was the widely reported case during the recent heat wave). This is where the main danger of claustrophobia kicks in. It is of course much easier to come up with a new map than to improve the Tube services in general, introduce air conditioning (which is technologically possible as an E&T reader survey several years ago proved), mend the track, signals and cables to avoid constant delays. And, yes, reduce the exorbitant and permanently growing fares too (although that sounds like a fairy-tale scenario at present). These would be the proper ways to tackle claustrophobia and lots of other mental and physical conditions, which regular London Tube passengers are prone to be suffering from.

Shark! Technology to help prevent ocean attacks

Well, forget about Australia, from where all this amazing shark-fighting technologies originate. A couple of weeks ago, I shuddered when I saw a photo of the man-eating shark luxuriating in shallow waters near a popular beach in Majorca! I spotted it on the front page of The Sun and, for the first time in my life, actually bought a copy, simply because the beach in Illetas, near Palma, was very familiar: I use it often during my annual holidays on the island. Well, not any longer. Unless of course the Majorcan authorities urgently import these electrified shark shields from Oz. In any case, they do not seem to be working very well down under where, according to this news story, the number of shark attacks keep increasing steadily.

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