3D printer attacks, astronaut mice, Lego rockets 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.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
As a frequent traveller (at least, until my recent cardiac surgery), I got rather scared by the prospect of cyber attacks on 3D printers. Why? I don’t (and am not planning to) own a 3D printer and even if I did, I would probably leave it at home rather than take it with me on my travels. The reason for my fears is that my good friend, the futurologist Rohit Talwar, claimed at a conference recently that soon your luggage would no longer need to be carried around, wheeled, or even be checked in. It will be 3D printed at the airport of your destination and possibly even in your hotel room on arrival! Well, Rohit doesn’t normally mince his words and when I read in this news story that as a result of a cyber attack on a 3D printer the objects (read the contents of my suitcase) can be printed with defects like holes and fractures, I immediately visualised my favourite t-shirt emerging from the shoddily printed suitcase with three sleeves instead of two or – worse – no sleeves at all, making it look like some flimsy and ridiculous poncho! By the same token, the attacked printer could easily produce two left (or two right) shoes, instead of a proper wearable pair. I leave to your imagination what could possibly happen to your beloved toilet kit (a rusty flick knife instead of toothbrush?) and underwear. That is why - 3D printers or not – I’d rather stick to an old-fashioned luggage trolley and will never, in the language of airport security announcements, leave my luggage unattended. After all, my favourite Latin proverb (I know only three, to be honest) has always been “Omnia mea mecum porto” (“All that is mine I carry with me”).
Well, I have to admit that picking out one of my own book reviews may seem unusual if not cheeky, but believe me, this unlikely choice of mine has not been triggered by sheer chutzpah. Although I’m not particularly superstitious, I should have been touching wood and keeping all my fingers and toes crossed while praising in my ‘Smile Stealers’ book review “the two beautiful rows of my own shiny dental implants,” freshly installed in a Budapest dental clinic. Why? Simply because the other morning I woke up with a couple of small bits of porcelain in my mouth. Having spat out those mini-intruders, I ran to the nearest mirror and saw – with horror – two very fresh gaps in “the two beautiful rows” which, by all counts, were not at all beautiful any longer. It was most probably my own fault, for I forgot to wear a plastic night guard given to me in the clinic with strict instructions to stick it in my mouth every night before going to sleep. The truth is that many of us do grate our teeth in our sleep, and that was probably the reason why my two front teeth, made of porcelain, which had brilliantly withstood such new habits of mine as apple-eating and steak chewing, something that I had been unable to do for many, many years, began to crumble. What a shame! Yet I do not despair. Like most mechanically engineered objects, my new teeth are under warranty - in this case, it is a three-year guarantee of free repairs. So I should perhaps start preparing for yet another trip to Budapest.
I remember owning an alarm clock in Australia that could be stopped by shouting at it, so every morning on hearing the horrible beeps I would yelp: “Shut up, you idiot!!” – before going back to sleep. Forgive me for being curt, but as an inveterate alarm-clock hater my first thought on reading this story was: can that amazing Beddi be silenced by being thrown at the wall or tossed into a glass of water, like Mr Bean does in one of his famous slapstick comedies? I don’t think so.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
So we can all build an acoustic levitation device in our own homes. I had no idea that this could be in anyway useful except perhaps as the technology behind futuristic travel, but it appears this is actually quite handy for medical experiments. We could, for example, find out the viability of human reproduction in zero gravity, which probably isn’t on too many people’s bucket lists, but then maybe that’s because nobody has thought too much about it. There does remain a concern. It’s based on very high-pitched acoustic waves that humans can’t hear, but are they inaudible to anything else? Humans can hear up to 20kHz but for dogs it’s 40kHz, bats up to 212kHz and the Greater Wax moth tops the list at 300kHz. If these tadpole-levitating experiments were conducted across the land would it reduce dogs to nervous wrecks or over-excited pups? Could it damage protected bats or the moths that they feed on? Out of sight maybe, but not out of sound?
Jade Fell, supplements editor
E&T is full of stories that make me smile, but none more so than this one. This is, without a doubt, the greatest news story I have ever read in my life – and I’m sure you know by now I wouldn’t say such a thing unless I well and truly meant it. Exaggeration is not my forte. A team at Birmingham City University is currently working on a project to recycle office chairs into new, useful and, most importantly, fashionable items, such as rucksacks and bicycle panniers. The environmental warrior in me is impressed that someone has come up with an innovative way of recycling Britain’s unwanted office chairs, which amount to over 81,000 per year and often get dumped in landfill sites, but I must confess that I am mainly excited by the fact that someone has finally created a backpack that looks almost exactly like an office chair. Now, where do I get one?
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Having built, in recent memory, two Lego Ideas sets - the Ghostbusters ECTO-1 car and The Beatles' Yellow Submarine - I can personally vouchsafe for the playful wit, attention to detail and complexity of these specialist sets, as well as the ever-present frisson of impending frustration and silent humiliation should you wrongly attach a seemingly insignificant piece, only for the full horror of your casual mistake to be painfully exposed 38 pages later, when it transpires that the erroneous piece turns out to be some sort of fulcrum on which the entire success of the full build project hinges. This new set for the Nasa Apollo Saturn V looks like another beauty - although I do share a modicum of the writer's wistfulness about the Lego days of old, when all we could build was slightly wonky houses and peculiar vehicles, using only a bucket of random bricks and the power of our imaginations. Honestly, though, there is space in this world for both schools of Lego thought and God knows the children of today don't care either way. ECTO-1 has been supremely customised at my house since we first built it, the Ghostbusters themselves swapping heads and clothes with other random characters from entirely unrelated sets. It was only due to swift action on my part and a high shelf that saved The Beatles and their Yellow Submarine from a similarly atomised fate.
I can see how the idea of softly folding front ends on self-driving cars could reassure pedestrians to more readily accept the presence of these vehicles on our public highways, but for me the hidden nugget in this story was the previous idea of 'human flypaper'. The theory was that rather than being flipped up in the air and potentially run over again, anyone who got accidentally bumped by one of these cars would simply stick to the bonnet and be held there in place, arms and legs akimbo like a crime scene chalk outline, and carried along until the vehicle came to a safe stop. There was no suggestion as to how long it might be before the vehicle came to rest - maybe it should finish the rest of its route with the person still stuck to the bonnet? That would be a fantastic sight: hundreds of self-driving cars on the roads with people stuck to their bonnets, reading the newspaper, smiling and waving hello to each other, shrugging their shoulders (if they still could) and making rueful "What can you do, eh?" faces at each other as they passed. What an age we could soon be living in.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Forget pencil leads and sticky tape. The standard way of making graphene for lab use involves chemical vapour deposition onto a copper substrate, which is fine, but getting it off the copper foil is a bit trickier. Now researchers at the University of Illinois have demonstrated a delamination technique that they say will be both cleaner and faster, using carbonic acid, as found in sparkling water. If graphene is to fulfil its commercial promise, developing better production methods has to be part of the process.
I didn’t grow up with Lego. Nobody gave it to girls in the 1960s, though my family did eventually realise that I preferred books to dolls and over-ambitious embroidery kits. However, I played my part in helping my own children build Lego models, so I can understand Mark Williamson’s satisfaction at completing this 1969-piece space rocket - and the frustration of discovering that there was an error several stages back that could only be fixed by undoing all the subsequent construction. I did, rather belatedly, learn a bit about mechanical engineering from my sons’ Lego Technic kits (my daughter had lost interest before she advanced that far), but the big hit in our family was the Duplo trainset that, with the help of a lot of extra track components, could be rearranged into multiple layouts and carry all kinds of passengers and cargo. A generation later it's sitting in a box in the spare bedroom for the benefit of visiting children. The 'one kit, one model’ approach still needs to leave room for imagination.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
‘Biker Mice from Mars’ - does anyone remember that show? They were alien mice, but still. They had cool bikes. And attitudes. Anyway, 20 super-awesome mice from Earth have been rocketed off to the International Space Station where they will hopefully be greeted with cuddles and attention. They would have had a long journey and deserve some well-earned petting from people on the ISS. The reason behind this is to better understand how living in space can cause eye problems in some male astronauts. They will look at the pressure in the mice’s eyes and brain fluid movement. Hopefully, the little floofs won’t go blind and will enjoy a three-course meal courtesy of SpaceX.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
I noticed on a couple of peak-time train journeys into London recently that there are a few resilient commuters, mostly middle-aged men, who haven’t been deterred by public ridicule from persisting with speeding up their journey to the station in the morning and home at the end of the day a little with the assistance of a child’s fold-up scooter. It was eye-opening too, when on holiday in Budapest, to see how the traditional Segway have found a niche market ferrying groups of tourists too idle to walk around from place to place. There’s a big difference between the spacious streets and pedestrianised areas of the Hungarian capital and central London, of course. Try swanning down Oxford Street on a Segway and see how far you get - and how slowly. The imminent arrival of a new generation of models from the brand that’s become almost synonymous with personal transport could be a sea change, though. From the pictures released ahead of official unveiling the KickScooters look of a similar size to the ones favoured by commuters and are claimed to be portable enough to be an option for carrying on public transport. A range of over 40km helps, although top speeds of 30km sound a bit hairy for what’s essentially a skateboard with handlebars. Expect to see your more adventurous fellow travellers gliding self-consciously down the pavement on them later this year.