Cybercrime fight, AR battle, robot pleisiosaur and more: best of the week's news
Image credit: Robert Nicholls/University of Southampton
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
Remember the Millennium Bug? That was the name given to a kind of malfunction that we were told would cause computers to crash as the millennium dawned. It’s easy to laugh now, but I remember, in the dying days of the 20th century, seriously worrying that planes would fall from the sky at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999.
To this day I’m still not sure whether the whole thing was complete cobblers or if there was some underlying science to it, but suddenly, on 1 January 2000, everyone stopped worrying and just moved on. It was as if there was some unspoken agreement to never again mention the whole embarrassing episode.
There have been several, now largely forgotten, causes of technology-related media hysteria in my lifetime. When mobile phones first came out there were daily warnings that they would fry our brains. A few years ago there were stories in the media about how the Large Hadron Collider was going to open up a black hole that would swallow the entire planet. I’m sure others can think of their own examples.
I mention this merely to point out that new technology often occasions weird fits of the vapours. Cybercrime is currently the subject of just such hype and hysteria. While hacking, malware and scams are certainly problems, there is nothing wholly new about them, and far from being some unfathomably complex phenomenon that exists solely in the ether of cyberspace, this criminality is carried out by real people living in the real world with real vulnerabilities and problems of their own (think mothers-in-law, kids etc.).
Professor Federico Varese, an Oxford academic studying the human face of cybercrime, rightly argues that it needs to be demystified. Something similar was said to me by Dr Ian Levy, the technical director of the UK’s National Centre for Cyber Security, who regularly mocks supposedly high-tech products peddled by self-interested cyber-security firms, which he witheringly refers to as today’s version of the useless magic amulets sold during the Dark Ages.
In his research, Varese unmasks supposedly anonymous global cyber-masterminds by focusing on the highly specific local contexts from which they arise. In a similar vein, it was revealed this week that an influential right-wing Twitter user called @DavidJo52951945 could be a Russian agent. Analysts looked at his tweets and worked out that they were almost all posted between 5am and 5pm UK time, which is 8am to 8pm in Russia. Ta-da! Not rocket science is it?
The internet has undeniably made the world seem smaller, but dismiss local and regional contexts at your peril. As David Goodhart notes in his excellent book ‘The Road to Somewhere’, international internet traffic accounts for just 18 per cent of the total. On Facebook, normally only around 13 per cent of a person’s friends hail from a different country to them.
Whatever the internet might have led us to believe, most of us remain very firmly rooted and trapped in a specific geographical locale. We are not yet citizens of the world. That is good news because it means that no matter how hard criminals try, they can never truly hide themselves.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Google and Apple are betting big on augmented reality; it’s going to be the next major fad apparently, but I’m not so sure. Apple’s implementation, which is coming to all devices capable of running iOS 11 when it’s released in the next few weeks, is certainly impressive. Early preview videos from developers have shown 3D characters and objects merge seamlessly into real-world footage. Google’s latest video demonstrating its version of the technology wasn’t quite so smooth but it’s still very early days. Just like virtual reality, the jury is still out on how useful or ubiquitous this technology will become. Pokémon Go had a huge impact last year and was the first example of AR definitively hitting the mainstream consciousness. But its popularity waned quickly and nothing else of that ilk has captured the public’s imagination since. Undoubtedly AR and VR are here to stay but developers haven’t quite figured out how best to use them yet.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Leaf sensors that tell the farmer precisely how thirsty the crops are? Brilliant. No wasted water, no withered plants, a greater harvest, more food to go around. That’s what the world needs now. As well as love, sweet love, of course.
Drones: if they’re not delivering vital medicines to remote African villages, they’re monitoring the extent of damage caused by hurricanes for anxious insurance companies and local authorities. Is there no airborne task they can’t fulfil? Our skies are going to become increasingly busy in the coming years.
It’s widely accepted that we can learn useful lessons from history. In this story, we’re learning lessons from a long, long, long time ago - all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs in fact. A PhD student at the University of Southampton has created a basic robotic form of the Plesiosaur, that long-extinct prehistoric sea monster of childhood picture-book fascination, in order to study its unique four-flippered propulsion technique which in these modern times could prove surprisingly inspirational in designing stealthier, more easily manoeuvrable submarines.
Tipping point alert: electric vehicles have now become sufficiently ubiquitous and established that Renault and British energy-storage business Connected Energy have found a way to reuse pre-loved EV batteries, taking advantage of the good working life still left in them to create a network of battery-based quick-charge stations for electric vehicles at highway rest areas in Belgium and Germany. A neat working example of the crucial circular economy.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
I was so excited for a reconstruction of a sea monster, but alas, I was duped. At the University of Southampton, a PhD student with perfect eyeliner created a basic robotic plesiosaur to study the dinosaur’s four-flippered propulsion technique. Apparently, this flipper robot, which looks nothing like the Loch Ness monster, could help design more manoeuvrable, stealthy submarines. The reason why they chose a plesiosaur to model the robot on was because the creature’s front and back flippers were identical, unlike sea feet of turtles and sea lions, which use front flippers for thrust and back flaps for steering. A team from Southampton and the University of Bristol used palaeontology, robotics, fluid mechanics and biology to bring the basic plesiosaur to life. Just saying - if a full-size robot sea dinosaur was made it would be the best thing ever.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
It looks as if drones could really come into their own in the aftermath of Storm Harvey, particularly for surveying the damage. Telecoms giant AT&T has been using them to assess the state of its mobile phone masts in areas that are still unreachable because of flooding, and loss adjusters are apparently finding them handy for gathering evidence to help calculate the value of claims. I suspect, though, that all this activity will also show up the limitations of the technology - perhaps because some air vehicles won’t be robust enough or the battery life won’t be long enough, or maybe the insurance companies simply won’t have enough staff to assess such a large number of claims regardless of how rapidly the data was gathered. There are also concerns that with too many cameras flying about there could be problems managing all this aerial traffic. Despite the inevitable difficulties and failures, though, drone suppliers and users should be able to learn some useful lessons from all this. Maybe a year from now there should be a conference to assess what went well and what didn’t, so everyone's better prepared for the future.
In what they are describing as a global first, Renault and British energy storage business Connected Energy have installed battery-based quick-charge stations for electric vehicles at highway rest areas in Belgium and Germany. That might not sound terribly significant, but actually the project is interesting because it’s helping to address two separate problems at the same time. One is that when drivers need to recharge their electric vehicles away from their home base they want to do it quickly, but in some locations it would be difficult and costly to install a high-power connection to the grid. The other issue is that the performance of EV batteries degrades over time, so they have to be replaced while they are still functional, but these are expensive items so it makes sense to get as much value out of them as possible before they are finally recycled. In this instance, second-life batteries are charged slowly from a low-power grid connection and then used to deliver a higher-power (i.e. faster) charge to a waiting vehicle. In the overall scheme of things, this might only take up a tiny fraction of the used batteries that will build up over time, but it all helps.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Anyone who’s not a habitual player of video games but has reluctantly had a go to see what all the fuss is about will recognise a potential weakness in the otherwise brilliant idea of spotting early symptoms of dementia by picking up small weaknesses in spatial awareness. A well designed game has to be challenging at first, but engaging enough not to deter the casual participant who’s going to take time getting to grips with it from giving up in frustration. Personally, I’ve yet to find anything that’s held my attention for long enough to master even a straightforward motion sensor interface, let alone a complex control pad with multiple buttons that need to be pressed in the right sequence. And unless I’m going to be lured back over a period of time, how reliable will the data about how my performance might be changing as a result of small physiological changes be, compared with the fact I’ve got to learn how to play all over again? For the new version of Sea Hero Quest, virtual and augmented reality could mark a big step forward. No more fiddly keypads – navigating a game in VR ought to be more intuitive, as well as providing more detailed information. Being at an age where picking up signs of dementia could help minimise problems in 10 or 20 years’ time, I’m almost looking forward to a check-up with my GP that involves ten minutes on a games console. Just don’t expect me to sit and play these games at home.