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Ford trade-in, robot funeral, AI critic: best of the week's tech news

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Ford to offer discounts on new vehicles for owners who scrap polluting cars

Ford’s four-month offer to take pre-2009 vehicles in for scrapping in return for a healthy discount on a new model seems to make sense for both buyer and the car maker itself, but will it reduce pollution? There will be an incredibly complex calculation, that would vary from car to car, as to how much pollution a 2009 car would create over the period of a few years compared to the cost of scrapping it, manufacturing a new one, and the emissions from the new car. Put like that, the old car would need to be very polluting to balance the equation.

However, it allows Ford to get more new cars onto the road and it possibly brings the cost of a new car within reach of more customers, particularly if they are the owners of big-mileage cars that are nearly ready for the knacker’s yard anyway. If it’s in good nick the deal isn’t so good – a bottom-of-the-range Fiesta from 2009 is worth about £3k, so a private sale is still a better option.

Ultimately it is the carmaker’s legal responsibility to take care of the car at end of life, with no cost to the owner, so that part of the deal should make little financial difference to Ford. I don’t see why Ford wouldn’t extend the scheme and for other carmakers to follow suit. What I find interesting is the amount of foresight Ford had in its design of its vehicles in the noughties. Environmental concerns and responsibilities were already in vogue at that time, but the focus was on direct emissions, which was why many people moved over to the ‘cleaner’ diesels (so we thought at the time). But what about recycling? There is now a greater focus on materials and if this dates back to a decade or more ago then there may be considerable value to Ford in those old wrecks. The End Of Life Regulations came in to force in 2003, so there should have been awareness of the consequences. It would certainly be a great environmental message if this became a recycling scheme rather than a scrappage one.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Planting trees could save megacities $500m annually, study finds

A study by the State University of New York found that planting more trees could save megacities more than $500m (£390m) a year by reducing air pollution, absorbing carbon and protecting people during heatwaves. It's well known that trees can mitigate the 'urban heat island' effect, and anyone who works in a big city will know that the streets aren't pleasant places in hot weather, but it needs this kind of financial analysis to persuade the planning authorities that there's a business case for spending tight budgets on something that doesn't directly bring in money.

George Osborne calls for HS3 in the North of England to boost Northern Powerhouse

High-speed rail links should be built across the north of England, according to former chancellor George Osborne, in order to support the 'Northern Powerhouse'. It's certainly true that London and its surrounding counties get the lion's share of England's rail investment and equally true that the capital couldn't function without good public transport, but that's no excuse for neglecting the rest of the country. Transport is crucial for economic development, and a good-quality fast inter-city train service (even if it didn't meet the technical definition of 'high-speed') would work wonders. Let's hope all the organisations that would benefit can get their act together and come up with a properly costed plan and some proposals for financing it.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Human life prioritised in Germany’s ethical guidelines for driverless cars

It’s been pointed out, with some justification, that the attention given to cyclist Charlie Alliston’s conviction this week for ‘wanton and furious driving’ following a collision in London in which a woman died is disproportionate when more than 400 pedestrians were killed on UK roads last year alone. Few of those tragic incidents reached the front pages of national newspapers – it’s the rarity of a bike-related accident resulting in serious injury that made it newsworthy and Alliston has become a pariah in a way that car drivers with similar convictions rarely are outside their local community. Even the language the media has used in reporting the case has been skewed, with Alliston being described as ‘mowing down’ the victim despite his claims that he’d done all he could to avoid her when she stepped out into the road.

Whichever side of the debate you’re on, it looks like this case could give us a taste of what’s likely to come when driverless cars are added to the polarising conflict between pedestrians, cyclists and drivers who share the streets of big cities like London. Principles being drawn up in Germany are one of the first attempts to create a legal framework that big manufacturers like Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW will have to take into consideration when putting artificial intelligence into their vehicles. That’s relatively straightforward when other road users are obeying the rules, but what about when something unexpected happens like a pedestrian stepping out without looking? It’s probably inevitable that there will eventually be an event whose novelty, like the Alliston case, generates a media firestorm and focuses attention on how self-driving vehicles are programmed to behave. The German rules prioritise human life – death or injury must be avoided at all costs, so if an accident is inevitable a vehicle must choose a course of action that damages property or even animals rather than the most careless of drivers or pedestrians.

These are early days and final legislation whether in Germany or the UK will have to be carefully fine-tuned. We can only hope, though, that whatever we end up with has a scientific basis derived from facts about how road users behave and isn’t driven by media hysteria.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Pepper the robot performs traditional Buddhist funeral service

Last month I had  a chance to interview Pepper – one of the quickly breeding generation of robots being mass-produced by the Japanese robotics company Softbank. You will be able to read the interview in the next issue of E&T. I won’t give you any spoilers, but will just say that ‘my’ Pepper was ‘working’ as a receptionist at an up-and-coming marketing company in London’s Silicon Roundabout area. It was the second Pepper experience in my life; the first encounter was a year ago at an international transport exhibition in Berlin, where German Railways (Deutsche Bahn, or DB) proudly demonstrated its own Pepper receptionist. The German Pepper was dead serious, if not to say boring, and hence very different from the London one which is prone to dancing and fond of cracking jokes. Unlike in Berlin, I did enjoy talking to the London Pepper, yet couldn’t help feeling that the robot itself was a bit of a joke – an impression confirmed by one of the company’s executives who  claimed that Pepper was more about entertainment than about technology.

In this respect, having the same jokey robotic model performing a Buddhist funeral service appears a bit … erm… tactless. But this is only if we ignore the word ‘Buddhist’. I’ve been doing a lot of reading in Buddhist philosophy of late and have even been attending a weekly Buddhist meditation class in the town where I live. As a tyro student of Buddhism, I am still far from coming to grips with all its very complicated rituals, yet may already safely assume that, with death often viewed as just a step towards reincarnation and the next life (I can’t remember who said that death for a writer was but a change of address), it doesn’t carry the same gruesome connotation as it does in, say, the Christian religious tradition, and a facetious master of ceremonies, robotic or human, would not be entirely out of place. I was slightly puzzled by the story’s original description of Pepper’s actions though, particularly the fact that during the ceremony, he (she? it?) allegedly “changed sutras”. Now, ‘sutras’  are effectively Buddhist scriptures, and I don’t understand how they can be easily “changed”. The word that was meant to be used here was, of course, “chanted”. Sorry for being the funeral party pooper… Or party Pepper, to be more exact (pun intended)…

Disney neural network performs basic literary criticism

Now, this is the news that I and my fellow men and women of letters have been waiting for, for as long as creative writing has been in existence, i.e. pretty much forever. With the appearance of the very first caveman author, who had carved a couple of doodles in the cave’s uncomplaining walls, there immediately came the very first critic, who scribbled unceremoniously (with a sharp stone, no doubt) next to them: “Pretentious, self-absorbed and tremendously underwritten!”, or something of that sort.

That was how the world’s third oldest profession (after prostitution and… you know what else) probably began. For all those centuries, it has succeeded in producing a peculiar breed of human literati who, with few exceptions, have never written anything themselves (except perhaps for an annual tax return), and yet earned their living by lambasting and slagging off someone else’s works, often without even reading them first.

By the end of the 20th century, the predominant opinion in London literary circles was that the only good critic was a dead one – the ideal to which the new Disney Research creation – let’s call him (her? It?) Mr (or Miss) A.I. Algorithm – corresponds entirely. No more bickering or settling literary feuds on the book review pages; A.I. Algorithm promises to be digitally impartial and electronically objective. As a writer, I was tremendously encouraged by the words of one of the algorithm’s creators, Disney Research vice-president Markus Gross, quoted in the news story, to the effect that “to evaluate quality [of a work of literature, no doubt – VV], the AI needs some level of understanding the text [italics are mine – VV]”. This ‘some’ does sound extremely promising, for, in all my 30-odd years as an author, I have never come across that high a level of ‘understanding the text’ among flesh-and-blood literary critics!

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