Grumpy blue chameleon

Chameleons, carbon capture, Crossrail and more: best 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

Colour-changing electronic skin could make human chameleons a possibility

I recently attended an equality and diversity course which is compulsory for all employees of the IET. There was discussion about unconscious bias towards people with particular skin colours or gender identities. This got me thinking about people’s insatiable interest in the categorisation of themselves and others based on things like colour, and whether there might possibly be some way of transcending this tedious human tendency towards obsessive classification of people and things. In terms of racial categorisation, one solution would seem to be for everyone to just breed with each other to the point where all our genomes are so mixed that the very concept of race becomes meaningless. Alternatively, we could all take to wearing colour-changing electronic skin, the likes of which my colleague Hilary Lamb reported on this week. Then white people would be freed to turn black and vice versa. No doubt there would be howls of “Cultural appropriation!” or some such outrage, but this could genuinely help torpedo unconscious bias based on skin colour. If people were genuinely able to change colour at whim, like a chameleon, what would that mean for the troublesome concept of race? It would, surely, render it utterly irrelevant.

Grayling criticised for backing Crossrail 2 while cutting Northern electrification

Northerners are fuming that infrastructure investment is being pumped into London and the south-east of England while their region is once again starved. But there is more to this Crossrail row than the North-South divide. Firstly, it’s no secret that relations between Tory Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan have hit the buffers. The apparent breakdown in communications between the pair could stem from Grayling’s vetoing of plans for Transport for London (TfL) to take over the running of more lines around his Epsom constituency. Equally, the bad blood could have arisen when Khan, then an MP, was shadowing Grayling on the Ministry of Justice brief a few years ago. Whatever the cause of their falling out, however, is it is encouraging that they are now at least on speaking terms again on the subject of Crossrail 2.

Crossrail 2, as its name suggests, is the successor project to Crossrail 1, the pan-London line that will become fully operational in 2019. While Northerners complained this week over Grayling’s decision to cut some rail electrification schemes there, the future of Crossrail 2 seemed cushty. But how secure is it really? Less so than one might imagine. That is because of a change in thinking about how the scheme should be funded. Basically, more money will now have to be stumped up by London’s City Hall (via a levy added on to business rates and various other arcane mechanisms) than had previously been thought. Money for the project will also have to be forthcoming faster. In all, half of the total funding for the scheme will probably have to be paid over by the Greater London Authority during the construction phase. Is this achievable? Quite possibly not. Meanwhile, TfL has identified 17 London Underground stations that will buckle under crowding pressures from thousands of passengers arriving at Euston on HS2 unless Crossrail 2 is built – so perhaps it’s time for a rethink of the extremely costly HS2 rail project.

In any case, it’s not quite as simple as London being given a free ride while the North is told to take a hike.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Mail Rail: driverless underground postal railway opens to the public

While at meeting in London yesterday, I spotted a number of posters in the Underground advertising the forthcoming re-opening of the historic mail railway – one of the gems in my collection of London’s well-kept secrets. I felt both thrilled (for finally that amazing engineering landmark of London will be accessible to the public, and, come September, one will be able to take a ride along the 6-mile-long underground track for £15 or so) and proud, for I was one of the first magazine editors to commission – as far back in 2008, five years after the railway’s temporary (as has just transpired) closure – a story about that largely forgotten railway.

Another reason for me to feel proud at the news was the fact that the struggling freelance writer, whom I had commissioned to do this story, was no one else but Mick Heron, who since then has become a best-selling author of thrillers, won a number of awards, and his ‘Spook Street’ series of spy thrillers have been noticed by filmmakers too. 

I love this kind of nice coincidence that life sometimes presents. In this case, it was not just the mail rail that had – literally – come out of the dark, but also a talented writer. And it is pleasing to think that E&T (and yours truly) may have played a little role in those two small (on the global scale), yet very positive developments.

Russian national charged over Bitcoin ‘money laundering’ exchange

Plus ca change… No one gets surprised any longer by yet another Russia-related case of corruption that has become the most distinguishing feature of the country’s aggressive Wild-West-style capitalism. As my former colleague and friend Alexander Kabakov, now one of Russia’s most respected novelists, once wrote paraphrasing Marx’s and Engels’s ‘Communist Manifesto’: “Mafia is the inevitable last and final stage of communism”. Some of my few remaining contacts inside Russia report that it is now practically impossible to achieve anything without becoming part of the well-oiled black market economy, the only structure that seems to be functioning very well in the country. As Vinnik’s Bitcoin money-laundering case demonstrates, Russian black market economy has been increasingly exported to the West and operates here rather successfully. The reason for that seemingly ineradicable spirit of corruption may lay in the fact that the present generation of Russian ‘businessmen’ had, for the most part, still been educated in the Soviet Union, where any kind of private business or enterprise was automatically branded criminal and immoral. And that's what most of them became after the collapse of the USSR – criminals.  

There’s a sad post-scriptum to this story. A couple of weeks ago I was saddened to learn about the premature death in London of Artiom Tarasov, the first Soviet millionaire. Tarasov was unique in having made his fortune by entirely honest means in the late 1980s. That was why he was forced to leave Russia and had lived mostly in London ever since. I had a chance to meet him on a couple of occasions and he invariably made a very good impression on me.

Here I have to refrain from calling Tarasov Russia’s last honest businessman. I am certain that the country has lots of honest young entrepreneurs, whose mentality has not been infected with the hypocritical Soviet doctrine. One day they are going to have their say in Russia’s politics and life. The recent massive anti-corruption demonstrations in Moscow inspire hope.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Musk and Zuckerberg argue over whether AI poses a threat to humanity

We journalists are often accused of alarmist headlines by the rich and the powerful in business and politics. Yet this week it was Tweets from one of those that wrote the headlines who set the alarm bells ringing – and it wasn’t @POTUS for a change. Tesla chief Elon Musk and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg got into a very public Twitter spat over the dangers of robotics and artificial intelligence. Musk said they posed a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation”. While I think this doomsday danger level is overdoing it a bit, there are real issues that society will have to learn to handle. But they are less about the risk of robots rampaging down our streets murdering everyone in sight, as Musk talks about, and more about aspects of our lives being governed by self-learning algorithms and the affects that could have on equal opportunities, privacy and other aspects of a fair society. These dangers are more subtle but they are still scary.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Petrol and diesel cars to be banned in the UK from 2040

European diesel bans face criticism by EU Commissioner

Well, they say there are two sides to every story, but this one is quite puzzling. France and the UK both say they want to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, and several German cities are considering bans on diesel vehicles now, but the EU commissioner responsible for industry is warning that a collapse of the market for diesel vehicles will deprive the manufacturers of funds to invest in developing cleaner models. Meanwhile, the spate of comment that hit my inbox focused on the likely impact of a ban not only to all the parties in the supply chain (from manufacturers to dealers to forecourt operators) but also on small businesses reliant on diesel vans and, crucially, on the ability of the national electricity network to cope with a wholesale switch to plug-in vehicles.

The devil will be in the detail – so I went looking for the detail in the government’s policy document. It’s called ‘UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations’ with the sub-heading ‘Detailed plan’.

I can tell you, though, that in 103 pages I found just a single sentence about the vehicle ban. This is it: “The government will end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040.” Not very informative, you might think, but do note the word ‘conventional’. Market forces may mean that plug-in electric vehicles achieve a total take-over by 2040 with or without government diktats, and assuming someone sorts out the grid problem, but my bet is that we’ll also be seeing vehicles running on some mix of fossil and manufactured equivalent fuels (notwithstanding that the biofuel market has been just as slow to develop as that for electric vehicles), and – probably – battery-powered cars and vans where a small internal combustion engine drives a generator to top up the battery. We’ll still be consuming fossil fuels; it’s just that what’s ‘conventional’ today will have been superseded by something cleaner. Good news, then, but I’d say that the government’s attempt to grab a green headline doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

Wind turbines generated 118 per cent of the energy required by Scottish households last month

Here’s another story that isn’t quite what it seems. Yes, Scotland has been investing heavily in renewable energy generation, and I’ve no reason to doubt the simple truth of the headline statement, but the latest UK-wide figures show that in 2016 domestic electricity consumption was only around 35 per cent of the total, with the rest taken up by industry, services and – to a much lesser extent – transport. The use of ‘households’ to exaggerate the impact of renewables does no one any favours. Meanwhile, Scotland can tell a much more straightforward good-news story in that renewables are now sourcing over half of gross electricity consumption. That shows what can be achieved, and without obfuscation.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Carbon capture project could contribute to carbon cutting targets

I chose this story because it highlights the scale of a problem that most people can’t or won’t accept. Most of us, US presidents apart, believe that human activity is having some effect on the earth’s climate. But at that point a lot of the consensus is lost – how much damage is being done, and how much we are prepared to do to limit this damage, comes in very many shades of grey. What is important is that there are people forcing the agenda. Climeworks have produced a plant that will take 900 very expensive tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by the end of the year. The total annual production of CO2 is around 1000,000,000,000 tonnes, which would take the Climeworks plant about 1.1 billion years to shift. I suspect that carbon capture from the atmosphere is probably not a realistic solution, while carbon capture at point of emission might be part of the mix. But experimenting with a variety technology is a must. Nay-sayers sometimes mention the now apparently healthy ozone layer as an example of environmental scare mongering – we were, after all expected to fry in the sun’s rays without the protective ozone blanket around the earth. Although understanding of the annual cycle of the ozone layer is now better, and the problem was perhaps exaggerated at the time, it was actually an environmental triumph as it was the banning of CFCs that saved further damage to the ozone layer. So why can’t we bring ourselves to forgo the temptations of fossil fuels? Simply because it is too difficult. We are really waiting for some clever people in lab coats, maybe even the ones at Climeworks, to come up with the killer solution to solve the greenhouse gas problem. It’s hard to see Climeworks’ 900 tonnes per annum making too much difference but it is a step in the right direction. However, I did wonder why they decided to conduct this trial in the Swiss countryside – the epitome of healthy freshness. There may have been more carbon to capture if it had been moved somewhere more urban or industrial – I’m vaguely aware of the effects of Brownian motion in distributing gases but there must be density differences.

Jade Fell, supplements editor

Microsoft Paint saved from chopping block after outpouring of support

This week, after momentarily announcing that its most basic graphics program, Paint, was to be phased out, Microsoft faced an outpouring of support from paint-enthusiasts around the world, and very quickly slammed on the brakes, promising to continue offering the much-loved program free of change. I never thought I would say this but thank goodness for social media. Do you know how many times I have used Microsoft paint in the last week? Three. Three times. Not all of which involved placing a crudely extracted image of a friend’s face into a mildly embarrassing or incriminating photograph. Sure, it’s basic and hugely limited compared to other graphics programs, but it’s free, and much easier to get your head around than the likes of Photoshop. If social media is anything to go by, there is just as much demand for pixelated collages of Nicholas Cage’s awkward facial expressions as for beautifully edited photographs, so Paint needs to stay.

Government to create Battery Institute for energy storage technologies

This week it was announced that the government would launch a £246m investment into the development of new battery technology as part of its modern industrial strategy. The aim, according to Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is to ensure that the UK leads the world in the design, development and manufacture of electric storage devices, one of the cornerstones of a low carbon economy. So far, it looks as though renewable energy and electronic vehicles markets will be the first to benefit, but there are still questions surrounding the work that needs to be done to ensure that such developments do not go to waste – including ensuring that any energy storage plans are compatible with current renewable generation networks. You can read more about this over at the E&T Energy and Power Hub.

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