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Fracking, smart city snooping and more: the week’s top 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.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Coal is up to 100 times more polluting than fracking, new study claims

I’m no expert on fracking. I’ll freely admit that I don’t know a lot about it except that it sounds painful. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that all the opprobrium heaped on it is maybe, just maybe, disproportionate. We already know natural gas is a lot less polluting than coal. A new study from America claims to have quantified just how much greater the overall ‘toxic load’ from coal is compared with shale gas produced via fracking. In other words, fracking is arguably a lot less bad (or a lot better, in other words) than other fossil-fuel extraction techniques.

Yes, there are valid concerns about the potential threat fracking poses to our waterways, but that is an argument for much tighter regulation of the process rather than an argument against fracking per se. A lot of people don’t want fracking in their back yards, which is understandable, but again, that is not necessarily an argument against allowing it. Environmentally speaking, wind and solar are, of course, better than fracking, but isn’t there something hypocritical about opposing fracking in the UK while the country remains so hooked on gas imports from overseas? Sure, oppose fracking if you like, but then don’t be silent about those gas imports from Russia and oil imports from Saudi Arabia that you doubtless rely upon to maintain your nice, comfy lifestyle.

Common sense would suggest that, in the current scenario, the UK has an energy security problem – and that means we have a geopolitical problem too, whether we like it or not. The countries we rely on for fuel could potentially hold us to ransom in a way that would just not be possible if we weren’t so dependent on them. It just so happens that many of these same countries are ones with rather questionable motives on the international stage. To my mind, the potential for self-reliance and energy security in the UK is a major argument in favour of allowing fracking to take place here. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a killer blow in its favour, just that it’s something our political leaders must seriously consider, knowing as they must do that no decision is without its consequences.

Speaking of consequences, several nature conservation groups are vehemently opposed to offshore wind farms on the basis that they tend to pulverise endangered sea birds. As a keen ornithologist, I love gannets and guillemots as much as the next man, but I recognise that our energy has got to come from somewhere. Though I hate to think of bird colonies being obliterated, I recognise that politicians must ultimately do what is best for the country (and the planet) as a whole, rather than bowing to pressure from certain special interest groups, be they nimbies or birdwatchers. Politically, the easiest decision is very often to do nothing at all – but that can end up being the absolute worst decision ever.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Baidu to launch China’s first self-driving bus in 2018

China isn’t first with autonomous buses but, if successful, the venture by the AI giant known as ‘China’s Google’ could mark a step change in adoption around the world. The company’s Apollo operating system for driverless vehicles is expected to undergo road testing before the end of the year. Importantly, it’s an open-source platform that’s freely available, which should encourage hordes of tech businesses looking to get a foot on the ladder of a market that’s set to grow massively in the next few years.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

View from Vitalia: Of maps, traps and mediums

FYI, I’ve just started a new blog – ‘View from Vitalia’ – which I am hoping to write and upload to the E&T website on Mondays. (Old habits die hard. For some reason, many of my print newspaper columns, apart perhaps from the one in the Sunday Herald-Sun, have come out on Mondays). As a taster for next week's instalment, here’s my tongue-in-cheek rant about ‘smartness’.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favour of ‘smart roads’ to ease up the traffic, but tend to take the frequently used (and often abused) concept of a ‘smart city’ with a grain of salt. That scepticism of mine originated a couple of years ago after attending an international public transport jamboree in Amsterdam. Or, possibly, in Berlin – I can’t remember. The thing that amazed me most was that every single city (or town) represented there – and there were literally hundreds of them – was referring to itself as ‘smart’. One could be led to believe that there were no more ‘unsmart’ settlements left on the map of the world. Indeed, which city or town (or human being, for that matter) would want to refer to itself/himself/herself as ‘dumb’?

It looks like the adjective ‘smart’ has itself become a fairly meaningless cliché, which is a shame because it is a really nice word – curt, quick and laconic, like the very concept it is supposed to denote. There’s definitely a growing need to introduce a kind of a less clichéd synonym to ‘smart’. How about ‘cool’, say? ‘Cool cities’, ‘cool houses’ etc. The only problem is that it can lead to misunderstandings, if taken climatically. Finland, for example, could be safely branded as a permanently ‘cool’ country, with the inevitable double-entendre involved. A ‘cool’ house may not be always taken as a compliment either, particularly in winter and in colder climes.

There’s also a Russian equivalent of ‘cool’ or ‘smart’ – krutoi, meaning ‘steep’. ‘Steep city’? Hmm... not sure it would suit a lot of places outside San Francisco. And the connotation is entirely different, for in Russian it is not unusual to refer to a person (if not to a city/town) as krutoi meaning ‘smart’. Imagine that: “He’s a steep bloke, isn’t he?”

Coincidentally, I read in a popular science magazine yesterday about yet another new Chinese initiative whereby Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, having gathered video feed, traffic information, social media and other data in the city of Hangzhou, came up with the so-called ‘City Brain Project’, which allows tracking down absolutely everything that happens in this or that particular city street. That includes drivers’ and pedestrians’ (if any) verbal, text and email exchanges. Alibaba can interfere with them under the pretext of helping drivers and pedestrians find their way and plan routes. The magazine quoted Alibaba’s spokesperson as saying that: “In China, people have less concern with privacy, which allows us to move faster.” Where to? Towards further control of people’s thoughts and behaviour? 

The article asserts that the trial of the City Brain Project was so successful that the company is now packaging it for use in other Chinese cities, including Shanghai. If you ask me, they should also try Russia (Mr Putin is going to love it!). And perhaps North Korea too.

Hangzhou is, of course, frequently referred to as a ‘smart’ city (like most other cities of the world – see above). Yet, with the City Brain Project expanding, it could soon be called ‘snoop city’ too.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Smart braces attach batteries and LEDs to each tooth to encourage bone growth

Researchers in Saudi Arabia have made a prototype ‘proof of concept’ device that apparently has the potential to reduce the time it takes to realign teeth. It involves placing two near-infrared light-emitting diodes and a lithium-ion battery on every tooth in a semi-transparent, 3D-printed dental brace. The dentist would program the system to provide individual light therapy to each tooth to encourage bone regeneration. It all sounds very clever, and I’m sure the teenage children of wealthy parents could have great fun creating illicit light shows in class, but somehow I can’t see it coming to the NHS for a long while yet.

Southend Council acquires social robot to assist with care

This is one of those stories that you look at just because it sounds so daft. A local authority in Essex has acquired a child-sized robot to help with social care. Apparently Pepper “displays an extremely high degree of socialisation” but my first instinct was to say, “Give me a real human being, thank you”. However, it’s worth pointing out that the council has taken on the robot under an academic licence, with the intention of investigating its usefulness in real-life situations. I do think that gathering evidence is better than making decisions based on gut instinct, so this project could be valuable. Pepper’s schedule of duties includes providing information to visitors, engaging children with physical and mental disabilities with games, music and “even teaching people to knit”.

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