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Google’s diversity, Facebook’s Watch, museums’ dilemma and more: best of the week’s tech news

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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

Anti-diversity memo by Google engineer sparks gender row

Skimming through Twitter on Monday, I noticed it was engulfed in yet another flaming row between “alt right” keyboard warriors and whatever the army of left-wing equivalents is. Venom was being spewed by people who seemed to have an enormous quantity of spare time at their disposal. They were, uniformly, so absolutely certain of the rightness of their cause that it made me, as someone who changes his mind from one day to the next about most things, a wee bit envious.

Mostly I ignore these social media explosions of bile. They are extended versions of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”. I get bamboozled and struggle to keep up, I’m ashamed to say. If it’s not Mary Beard’s assessment of the racial diversity of Roman Britain, it’s the situation in Venezuela and what Jeremy Corbyn thinks about it all. The medium is exhausting and makes you want to scream. The best thing you can do, if you have a temperament anything like mine, is to settle for the role of an amused spectator, or, better still, simply log off and do something more worthwhile with your life. Which is what I promptly did.

Anyway, it seems Monday’s row was about gender (so much is these days). A male Google engineer had apparently suggested some inherent biological traits might explain why women were under-represented in certain areas of the workplace. Now safely off Twitter, I would observe the following: I can’t see how the merest suggestion of this would constitute sexism. I mean, it’s a hypothesis. I don’t know what the evidence is, if any. I’m certainly not saying this bloke’s viewpoint is right – I mean, how should I know? – and the fella seems like a total doofus. I also don’t know much about the context in which he expressed his views – were they actively sought by someone else or just spouted out on the hoof?

Apparently the guy was sacked for sexism, which at first glance seems somewhat of an extreme response. It seems a bit insulting to women to assume that they would automatically feel threatened or personally victimised just because this particular nobody has aired his opinion… but then I don’t know enough about the specifics of the case and whether he was fired just because of what he said about women or because of something else or because of a variety of things. Basically, now and for always I am more than happy to acknowledge that I could be wrong about things.

Anyway, the bloke at the centre of the storm is now banging on about being a martyr for freedom of speech, which seems like a manifestation of delusions of grandeur. And meanwhile, people on both sides of the debate are still very angry and fired up and convinced they’re right (though probably they have discovered some new, though similar, thing to argue about by now).

So, to summarise, I am happy to declare that I am not totally sure what I think about the Curious Incident of the Google Engineer and the Sexism. To be honest I’m not totally sure I care enough about it either.

I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow though.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Facebook launches ‘Watch’ video feature as challenge to YouTube and TV streaming

In the early days of the internet, there was a notable lack of options when it came to streaming TV and music. Piracy was rife, partly because free stuff is nice, but also because there just weren’t many (or any) legitimate services available. When paid music streaming took off, all of the major services (iTunes, Google Play Music, Spotify and others) offered largely the same catalogues with only things like curated playlists and interfaces to differentiate them. These services were so convenient and well laid out that many users were happy to start paying for them even though they could still acquire music for free.

For a while this was true for TV too, Netflix was the largest provider by far and had a comprehensive selection. But then companies like Amazon, NowTV, Hulu and now Facebook realised there was a lot of cash to made and entered the fray too. This saw the different services fighting over series exclusives; gone were the days where Netflix would have everything by default. Between 2012 to 2016 the number of titles on the platform dropped by over 50 per cent from roughly 11,000 titles to about 5,300. As other services gained more users, competition heated up, but not in a good way.

Now if one wants to watch Game of Thrones and Westworld, two of the biggest shows around at the moment, they can’t just be a Netflix subscriber, they’ll have to subscribe to NowTV and Amazon Prime as well. Disney announced this week that it too would create its own streaming service and will begin the process of removing all of its content from other providers in the coming months.

Far from having one, unified platform where most content can be accessed, like music streaming services, users are now faced with having to subscribe to multiple in order to watch all the shows that they like. The convenience and low cost of Netflix was precisely what drew users away from piracy and illegitimate streaming. But rising competition amongst providers is fracturing the market and making it more expensive and less convenient. This will surely prompt consumers to return to illegal sources in which case everyone in the industry loses out. In their desperation for control and market share, TV streaming services have now shot themselves in the foot.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Increased automation could mean trouble for developing countries, think-tank warns

South Korea considers amending tax laws to slow speed of automation

Industrial investment is usually considered a good thing - or even a great thing in those countries most in need of it. There's been some dire forecasts this year on the number of jobs that could be lost to automation in the years ahead, as robotics and artificial intelligence start to automate tasks assumed only humans could do. Increasingly, it's seen as not if but when and concerned organisations are starting to think about how to handle the social and economic change wrought by automation. 

For example, this week an industrial think tank called for education policy changes to cope with automation in developing countries, where stand to lose what little they have gained to automation.

It's a huge concern for the world's richest countries too. They have long sought ways to encourage investment but are now contemplating some unusual measures that seek to do the opposite - to slow investment in automation. South Korea is now considering adjusting its tax laws to reduce incentives for investment in robotics, fearing a sudden growth in technological redundancies.

We take a look at many of these issues in our next issue out in September, which focuses on the future of work. It's not all bad news though, we promise.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Battery-free smartphones could be available by 2018

The promise of a battery-free smartphone is the holy grail of the mobile comms industry - or at least, for every end user of these ubiquitous gadgets. Not being tethered to a wall plug and being free of the anxiety that the battery won't last the train journey home, thus depriving you of all those crucial social media notifications or the news from the frontline in your latest Clash Of Clans skirmish, is the dream for millions of people. This news is a small step in that direction. OK, at the moment, the device has no screen and you have to push a button to talk and then again to end communication - like a walkie-talkie - but it does take advantage of the radio frequency waves which are present around us at all times. With this working proof of concept in place, the team behind it are keen on ramping up the technology quickly, such that by next year they might have a commercial handset available. It might not run Clash of Clans, but you'd never have to worry about your phone dying on you as you stand on the hard shoulder of the M6 at 11pm on a Sunday night in the rain - which is the typical scenario in which technology lets us down the most spectacularly.  

Museums plead with government to exempt them from strict new privacy rules

This is a strange situation. I wonder if the cross-country quango that insisted on setting up the ultra-strict data privacy laws of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) considered all their labyrinthine ramifications. As the GDPR obligation hoves into view, museums are seriously concerned with both the expense and the administrative burden of compliance. There is a genuine worry that they'll be so bogged down in trying to keep on the right side of the GDPR law that they'll lose track of who they lent that dinosaur to, or where that priceless artefact went, or when that famous artwork was last seen. Given the ingenious and exploitative skills of the modern art and antiquarian artefact thief - and the clandestine lucrative market awaiting the output of said skills - I can easily see how nefarious types across the globe might find ways to exploit any confusion or data-driven catatonic fear created by GDPR at museums and art galleries and thus make certain key works of priceless antiquity vanishify into private collections, never to be seen again.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Museums plead with government to exempt them from strict new privacy rules

Some people ignore Big Data. Other people welcome Big Data. Other people have Big Data thrust upon them. This piece looked at just one potential sector that could be considered ‘collateral damage’ when it comes to the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is due to become law next spring. I think with the amount of spam and phishing and other shenanigans going on, the majority of us would welcome anything that keeps our data safe and solely for the use intended. However, there are obvious problems. Organisations like museums and charities (remember, your own IET is a charity) will have collected huge amounts of digital data over the years and the chances of it being organised into a database that can immediately determine who has opted in, rather than out, of receiving certain sorts of communications is limited. Many companies struggle to know what to do with the Big Data that is available about their products, services and operations, but at least there is a fighting chance when you are starting a system from scratch. For all that digital records are really small, rather than big data, it is still an awful lot of data. To try and retrospectively trawl through individual records to determine their suitability is a step too far for many organisations. IT is not what charities are set up to be good at. There should also be a degree of common sense. If someone has signed up to an organisation as specific as a museum, or even the engineering sector, then there has to be a reasonable amount of confidence that the information it distributes is relevant.

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