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Police biometric trials, burger-flipping robots and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: CCTV camera

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

Biometric technology trials halted by police amid fear of public reaction

At one end of the spectrum are the privacy campaigners who view Britain as a Stasi-style Orwellian dystopia and abhor our surveillance state. At the other are the securocrats who argue they are fighting terrorists and predatory paedophiles with one hand forever tied behind their backs. The truth, though, is more nuanced.

First, the public often fail to realise the extent of police bureaucracy and its attenuating influence on their crime fighting capabilities. I remember writing a story a few years back about how new rules were being drawn up that would have meant police officers looking at a missing person’s final tweets in a bid to trace their whereabouts would be required to seek special surveillance authorisation to do so. I mean, these are tweets, remember. Tweets on the open internet that anyone can look at. It would have been the equivalent of having to fill out a lengthy form and ask for your manager’s permission just to Google someone’s name. Thankfully the policy was dropped.

That said, it is undeniably true that our privacy is being frequently invaded, even if most of the time we are oblivious to it. Forget tracking people’s smartphones, consider the humble car number plate. Automatic number plate recognition systems mean that the police can, when they need to, probably find us wherever we are – at least if we drive. And it’s not just when we are in our cars that we are being watched. Our cities are bristling with CCTV cameras (though they are normally much less good at recording useful images than people give them credit for).

My question – and I acknowledge this will lead to some pro-privacy types howling into their screens at my ignorance – is this: do we need privacy? I don’t mean privacy in the shower or toilet, but privacy in the abstract, academic, human rights-based sense. Or to put it another way, in a liberal democratic society like the UK, do you need the full-blown anonymity afforded by something like the Tor network and its complicated, military-strength encryption unless you are a) a journalist, b) a whistle-blower, or c) a criminal? You don’t – unless you do not believe that there are proper constitutional and legal protections for people’s rights in the UK and consider the country to instead be a kind of totalitarian dictatorship (something you have every right to believe, but I would suggest it jars somewhat with most people’s experience of everyday life). Anyway, if daily life here is such a living nightmare, why haven’t you fled to somewhere freer, like… er, I’m struggling to think of a place.

I’m playing devil’s advocate to an extent. However, I do think the Big Brother stuff is somewhat overdone. In that vein, I am thinking of setting up an anti-privacy campaign group. In the spirit of no holds barred transparency, I invite all readers who wish to view a naked picture of me to please email me requesting one and I will send them the image. What’s there to be ashamed of? It’s just the human body and I have nothing to hide.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Flippy and friends: should we care if intelligent robots take our McJobs?

Robot automation of jobs is a topic that frequently hits the news these days, typically followed by dire predictions about the future of employment and the damage this will inflict upon society. Flippy is a classic example of where a robot has been designed to do a highly repetitive, mundane task that is traditionally performed by a human. But concerns over how terrible it is that these jobs will be lost, which are typically carried out by students, foreign workers or those without any real career prospects, seem short-sighted.

After all, this isn’t the first time this has happened. The march of technological progress has inflicted pain and suffering on those worst off in society in the past too. Industrialisation is the most obvious example; by all accounts Victorian Britain was a horrible place to be unless you were relatively well off. But this wasn’t the fault of technology, more a failure of politicians to foresee and negate the impact that technological changes would have on workers and the nature of employment.

The importance of workers’ individual abilities was side-lined in the interests of efficiency. They became just a cog, a small part of the massive industrial machine and made to do repetitive tasks with no room for creativity. 150 years later these jobs are being replaced by robots, surely this is a good thing? Aren’t we freeing up human minds to explore more worthwhile endeavours? Mass production and the mechanisation of agriculture may have been disruptive at the time, but in hindsight no one believes we should go back to the days of subsistence farming.

The ravages that automation and industrialisation can inflict upon a working populace have been seen before. This time there is no need to fall into the black hole that Victorian Britain experienced in the 1800s (and many other developing countries are going through now). Many ideas are already being proposed, shorter working weeks, job sharing, a universal basic income to name a few. But it may require some wealth redistribution that our current leaders simply aren’t prepared to embrace. In which case some less conservative leaders (is this a pun? It’s intended if so) will be needed.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

‘Vincent’ AI completes sketches, inspired by history of art

What is it that makes a true artist? Is it the ability to peer fearlessly into the darkest recesses of one’s soul, plumbing the depths of despair or scaling the ecstatic heights of pure joy, and returning from that perilous mental and emotional journey with a unique and singular vision, using this experience as inspiration to shine the light of hard-won wisdom on life and its many facets, thus helping to illuminate the travails of the human condition? Or is it a machine-learning robot that has been fed the ‘digested sum’ of all post-Renaissance art and can now churn out a passable facsimile of something that looks a bit like some famous pictures you’ve seen before? Who can say? Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. All the same, I can’t help feeling that it seems unlikely that Don McLean would be as moved by any of ‘Vincent’s’ work as he was by that of the robot’s namesake, Van Gogh - at least, not until ‘Vincent’ has also suffered for his sanity. Of course, the robot’s creators at Cambridge Consultants might fairly argue that ‘Vincent’ is merely ahead of his time, like all great artists, and that his work will come to be recognised by future generations as a new artistic dawn: “They would not listen, they did not know how / Perhaps they’ll listen now”.

Flippy and friends: should we care if intelligent robots take our McJobs?

And now for a robot with much lower ambitions: Flippy, the burger-flipping robot. There goes the dead-end weekend job of millions of 16 to 18-year-olds - which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your views about millions of 16 to 18-year olds having even more free time and even less money on their hands. This will increasingly become a vexing question for us all. If robots can flip our burgers and create our art, what exactly are we going to do with our time? In the case of the burger kitchen staff, perhaps the humans still working there will be able to devote more time to actually making my burger order look like the seductive proposition portrayed on the glossy poster in the window and less like the sloppy, gelatinous, fourth-rate mess frequently handed to me in its styrofoam coffin.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Big data and diversity at heart of new BFI UK filmography

Any idea which character has made the most appearances in British films? You could try asking Google, but there’s always going to be someone who will dispute what it tells you, even if it gives you a definitive answer. Now the British Film Institute has come to the aid of cineastes and trivia lovers by setting up a ‘filmography’ stretching back to the first British made film more than a hundred years ago that collates information from the credits of over 10,000 movies. The resulting database will be kept up to date and available for the public to consult free of charge.

This is going to be a goldmine for anyone who, like me, has recently discovered the wonderful Talking Pictures TV channel, as well as those of us who have lapsed into the deplorable 21st century habit of watching any old film or TV show with phone in hand ready to check on cast trivia. That character who’s popped up most times, for example? According to the BFI it’s Queen Victoria, chalking up another credit this month as played by Judi Dench in ‘Victoria and Abdul’, adding to 25 previous appearances, just in front of Sherlock Holmes with 24.

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