Spendy smart kettles, Voyager 1, chatty robots and more: best of the week’s tech news
Image credit: Mayfield Robitics
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.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Those of us of a certain age are going to look at this gadget and wonder whether it’s a step backwards from the 1970s, when the ubiquitous Teasmade that so many people seemed to own but so few actually used was allegedly capable of waking you up with a piping hot cup of tea. I have to admit I was surprised that if you want to wallow in nostalgia you don’t even have to track down an original ’70s survivor on EBay – shops like Argos will sell you a brand new ‘vintage’-styled one and even have a video demonstrating how it works. The reviews section which so often gives the lie to extravagant product claims is brimming with five-star praise for this retro wonder. What it lacks, though, is the sheer sexiness of the iKettle’s ability to respond to instructions from your phone, tell you how hot the water is and generally convince you that your home is a well-established part of the Internet of Things. Not to mention the fact you can bark voice commands just as you would to any family member who happens to be heading to the kitchen at the wrong time, without having to remember to also say please and thank you. Looks like the inevitable next step for 21st century beverage technology will be a combination of the two: a gadget that will not only know when you’re ready for a brew and serve it up without being asked or require the hassle of tipping hot water into a mug, but will respond to any special requests. I think for now I’ll stick with the traditional technique and just do it myself.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
I want a cup of tea. I walk to the kettle, put in water, switch it on, it boils and I make tea. Ta-da! The process is so beautifully simple and idiot-proof. What could be easier? And why should the internet have to intrude into what, in Britain anyway, is a kind of sacred domestic ritual?
Why would I pay £100 only to have to then waste time fiddling about with my phone downloading an app, before configuring things so that my phone “talks to” my oh-so-smug-and-smarmy Smarter iKettle 3.0, then finally adding voice control so it connects to some sinister listening device, all the while exposing myself to untold dangers involving the Cyrillic alphabet and IoT botnets with stupid names that nobody quite understands?
Never mind smart, this sounds more like a symptom of some arcane mental illness to me. Why on earth would anyone put themselves through this for a cup of tea?
That was my initial reaction upon hearing of the existence of the internet-connected kettle. I must not be going completely mad because our gadgets expert Caramel Quin has now confirmed that the iKettle is, in her words, “pointless”. It must be said that she did also describe it as “fun”, though I think that with my spare one hundred smackers I’d rather buy a couple of tickets to Legoland or Alton Towers and ride the rollercoasters all day with a close friend. Or perhaps buy 50 big bars of extra-dark chocolate, melt them down in my bath and wallow in them alone for a while. Or maybe I could book one of those exciting animal-related experiences, like feeding the sharks in the aquarium or the elephants at Whipsnade Zoo and spend any leftover pocket money on a penknife, a tent or a bunch of maps. Yes! Now that’s what I call fun.
Apparently there are people who think spending £100 on the Smarter iKettle 3.0 (urgh, such an ugly name!) is a marvellous use of their funds. Well, each to their own, I guess.
I’m all for technological progress for the general benefit of humanity, but sorry, I fail to see how so-called smart kettles – or, for that matter, internet-connected toasters, tampons, socks, spoons, bog brushes, toenail clippers, earplugs and the like – advance the human race in any serious and meaningful way. Especially when they are so darn expensive.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
You have to be impressed by the Voyager programme. As both Voyagers turn 40 they are now heading in opposite directions out of the solar system and have given us glimpses of the outer planets that have revealed environments beyond expectation – there are more to these planets and their moons than just frozen, sterile rock or gas. What I find inspiring in these projects is the vision and selflessness of the engineers and scientists who were behind the project in 1977. Presumably a good number of these visionaries are no longer with us and have missed the discoveries of ‘the first active extra-terrestrial volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europe, an Earth-like atmosphere on Saturn’s moon Titan and icy geysers on Neptune’s moon Triton.’ As one of these scientists, Ed Stone, is reported in this news piece as saying, “The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.” Presumably we all thought that beyond the heliosphere there was nothing – even the windy radiation Voyager one is experiencing surprises me – so anything new is going to be unexpected. Wouldn’t it be a joy for the project team if something did turn up before these spacecraft ran out of juice? There have been many rewards along the way, but an unexpected insight into interstellar space would be the icing on the cake and well-deserved for the foresight they all showed in the first place.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Before writing this story I’d seen some ‘oBikes’ on the street near Elephant and Castle and wondered who was just leaving them there without being locked up. Well, it turns out they’re an alternative to Boris Bikes that aren’t hindered by the fatal flaw of having to be docked. The number of times I have rented a Boris Bike only to find that there are no docks available near my destination and having to cycle five minutes down the road (and a 10 minute walk back) to find an open dock space. Additionally, the oBikes allow riders to take them all over London despite the displeasure of some local councils.
There seems to be a naivety to this scheme that assumes the bikes won’t get abused/stolen. The deposit is only £30, which is surely not enough to cover the cost of replacement or repair should something untoward happen to them? Well, it turns out I was right: they have indeed been left obstructing pavements, hanging on railings and even thrown onto railway tracks. Londoners clearly can’t be trusted. While the flexibility of oBikes and the soon to be introduced Mobikes sounds great in theory, in practice you can never trust the public not to pointlessly vandalise or steal what isn’t tied down (or, in this case, returned to a secure dock).
Hilary Lamb, news reporter
At this point, Uber could be revealed to be planning the destruction of the world and I wouldn’t be surprised any longer. Week after week, we hear about new ways the company behind the ride-hailing app have found new ways to be loathsome, from attempting to hide sexual harassment in the workplace to sabotaging rivals’ business by hailing and cancelling thousands of Gett and Lyft rides. To be fair, in this case, it’s the Uber drivers themselves scheming and given how awful their experiences are (only four per cent are still working for Uber after a year), I’m unsurprised that they are playing the system for some extra cash.
There are so many intelligent, motivated scientists and engineers and no shortage of societal challenges which need their attentions. So how has the world ended up with this charmless, blooping adult-baby monitor, which surreptitiously films us at home? Donate your $799 to charity and be done with it.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Removing the chatbots for not carrying enough ‘love’ for the Communist party is the latest move in China’s ongoing attack on the Internet and freedom of speech which is now reaching the truly Soviet proportions (the previous move was cracking down on VPN apps in the Apple Store).
As a journalist in the USSR, I knew only too well the full absurdity of the press freedom restrictions, generated not so much by official orders from above, but, more often than not, by some laughable self-censorship attempts of frightened middle-level bureaucrats. According to the latter, for example, Moscow as an ‘exemplary communist city’ was, like Cesar’s wife – ‘above suspicion’ (read criticism), alongside, incidentally, with the city of Dnepropetrovsk – the birthplace of “our dear leader Leonid Il’ich Brezhnev”. The ever-so-vigilant self-censors would not allow even the tiniest hint of criticism towards the above-mentioned two cities. I remember trying to publish in a Moscow newspaper, where I was dealing with readers’ correspondence, a short letter (edited by me) to the effect that in Dnepropetrovsk they experienced chronic shortages of electric bulbs and men’s socks. I turned it into a little joke, whereby the reader was saying (with my help) that as long as there were not enough lightbulbs and the city was immersed in constant darkness, no one would care for the absence of socks, for they wouldn’t be able to see them sticking out of your shoes anyway. The letter was withdrawn from the issue (or ‘butted’ as we used to say in the direct translation of the Russian journalistic jargon word for ‘spiked’) with a scandal. On another occasion, I inadvertently named the main character of my humorous and purely fictitious short story Leonid – a very common Russian first name that happened to be Brezhnev’s, too. My editor was then summoned ‘upstairs’ and lambasted by his superiors who told him that if another ‘Leonid’ ever appeared in a humorous story on his pages, he would be thrown out and blacklisted straight away.
I was reminded of those times a couple of weeks ago when hearing on BBC News that because Chinese President Xi Jinping looked too much like Winnie the Pooh, the Chinese regime had to ban any mentions of the big yellow bear on the internet! Trying to compose a message mentioning the bear will now end up with an ‘error’ notification. Well, on reflection, I can see very clearly that when I said that China’s censors were coming close to the Soviet levels of absurdity, it was an understatement, for it seems to have overtaken the old USSR not just in technological prowess but also in the levels of paranoia - and, let’s face it, plain stupidity, too.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Given the tendency for massive public spectacles such as the football World Cup or the Olympic Games to balloon in cost and extravagance with every successive four-year iteration, it was very interesting to read this week that the head of construction for the Olympic Games is touting the possibility that future events should be organised more like a pop-up tournament in the host country, relying on intelligent use of existing infrastructure and greatly downplaying the building of enormous new white elephant stadia and displacing millions of local citizens. It’s hard to argue with the sense of this, embodying as it does the original spirit of the Games. Time will tell if the bigwigs of future host cities can resist the ostentatious urge to show off to the world.
In this century, it is now expected that deadly scorching sustained heatwaves will devastate swathes of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, making agriculture virtually impossible. These areas are home to a fifth of the world’s population and that’s a lot of people. Of course, as none of these people live in the relative comfort of the richer Western countries or in the splendid isolation of Donald Trump’s Paris Agreement-free USA, this news will probably not even reach or in any way affect the very people who are causing the problem in the first place. However, if the cause results in the effect of displacing millions of South Asian people, many of them may well end up crossing the Pacific Ocean in search of refuge on the cooler shores of America. The Land of Opportunity had best begin to prepare itself for a fresh influx of immigrants. The good news for everyone, at least, is that Donald Trump will be long dead by then, his Twitter account no more a toxic torrent of warped and dangerous lies, hate and bile, instead reduced by the passage of time to merely a farcical record of an arrogant, self-obsessed, prehistoric mindset in meltdown, his Presidential legacy (such as it is) studiously ignored by re-enlightened US citizens keen to suppress the horror of it all as a temporary country-wide aberration from which they have now largely recovered. Everything is going to be OK, sort of.