Virgin cruising, Trumpbots, Google ‘sheep view’ 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

Virgin’s ‘adult only’ cruise ships equipped with green tech: maiden voyage set for 2020

So, Sir Richard Branson has shown some proverbial leg at a titillating ‘ship tease’ (oo-er!) event for his ‘adults only’ cruising venture. Virgin Voyages promises premium excitement for over 18s and boasts of ‘adult’ nightlife and ‘Virgin style surprises’. Hello, sailor!

The company’s logo features a nubile redhead mermaid with tresses blown over her naked breasts, her red-lipsticked mouth pouting suggestively as she bears aloft a flag emblazoned with the word: ‘Virgin’. Hubba hubba!

After a ‘keel-laying ceremony’ to mark the installation of the lengthwise structure along the base of one of the fleet’s ships, Virgin Voyages asked customers in a press release: “Getting laid we’ve heard of, but what on earth is a keel?”

Sorry, but am I alone at feeling a tad sea sick? I genuinely have no idea what is meant by the term ‘Virgin-style surprises’ or the references to adult nightlife, but the phraseology and imagery used to advertise this ocean-going experience smacks of a seedy Soho sex shop or, worse still, the UK’s Parliament. Do we really need this tacky appeal to our basest instincts? A social media campaign protesting at this example of the everyday sexual objectification of women must surely now be heavily in gestation.

The other thing that rankles about this cruise venture is the claim that it is somehow green. I don’t profess to know what kind of fuels these ships will be using, but I do know cruise liners have been blamed for wrecking air quality in many places where they dock. Virgin Voyages says its innovative technology will increase energy efficiency and convert ships’ waste into energy, but forgive my scepticism about the environmental benefits of having massive vessels carry a bunch of high-rolling clients hundreds of miles through fragile marine environments just for the fun of it.

Sorry if I’m being a spoilsport, but Virgin Voyages’ ‘sex sells’ approach turns me off.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Robots may have led to Trump’s presidential win, Oxford University study suggests

The last couple of years have certainly been a scary time for politics, bar the surprising result in the UK’s general election in May. Trump’s win was a shock to many, but in the wake of rising populism around the Western world (Brexit, Le Pen, Wilders), maybe it shouldn’t have been. One predominant trend during this period is increasing automation in the workplace and the impact this has upon jobs. This Oxford University study attributes Trump’s win almost entirely to robots and the disenfranchised ex-employees that lay in automation’s wake.

But does this mean that as more and more jobs are lost to robots, we can expect increasingly zany, right-wing politicians taking power across the globe? Something’s got to break, but perhaps Trump’s clear incompetence and his merciless filling of the political swamp (despite promises to drain it) with the kind of people that routinely fire thousands of workers in the name of efficiency will prove a lesson to the world.

What’s clear is that when workers feel under threat, protectionist messages resonate strongly, and their insecurity leads to desperate attempts to lay the blame on whoever is closest and easiest to target (Muslims and Mexicans). Perhaps the next few years will see voting intentions swing the other way, to equally extreme candidates on the left. But if they too cannot provide the answer to an ever shrinking job pool, where will voters turn next? Like industrialisation before it, automation could lead to some dramatic political shifts in the coming years. All we can do is hope that this doesn’t lead us back to the long period of instability and bloodshed that ultimately resulted in World War II.

View from Vitalia: Of dates, titles and technology terms

At last someone’s said it! May I be the first to agree with our very own resident of Vitalia that the term ‘smart’ - as in smart roads, smart cities and smart homes - has now become meaningless. Worse still, it doesn’t even work in the British context. Over here, unlike in Silicon Valley, ‘smart’ is still taken by many people to mean well-dressed and formal, rather than intelligent. Whenever anyone starts talking to me about smart cities, I automatically think to myself that I’d actually prefer slovenly and unshaven cities. Or at the very least smart-casual ones.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Faroe Islands move from Sheep View to Street View

This has to be my favourite story of the week and I’m pleased to be able to highlight it again here for ‘ewe’. Without wishing to ‘ram’ it down anyone’s throat, I strongly urge readers to ‘flock’ to the page and read all about the camera-equipped sheep capturing their own ‘live, stock’ footage that finally persuaded Google to add the Faroe Islands to Google Street View. That this story was written by our own Hilary ‘Lamb’ is entirely coincidental.

Clothing embedded with smart fabric used as digital key to open doors

Why this isn’t already a thing, I don’t know, but clothing embedded with smart fabrics could soon be used as a virtual key to gain access to your apartment block or offices. Approach the door of said building, wave your sleeve at the detecting pad and open sesame. That sounds like a future just itching to happen. When you think about it, why are we still using metal keys inserted into grooved and chambered locking mechanisms to open or close our properties, like it’s the medieval ages and we’re securing our castle against marauding invaders? It’s 2017, dagnammit. Problem is, of course, if you lose your coat or someone nicks it in the pub while your back is turned, you’re getting burgled tonight. All they have to do is wear your coat. Also, think of all the high-street key-cutting cobblers who would be put out of business by our smart unlocking jackets. Bad news for them; good news for high-tech tailors. 

Virgin’s ‘adult only’ cruise ships equipped with green tech; maiden voyage set for 2020

I’ve never been on a cruise, but I’m fairly certain that there are few things in life I would enjoy less than being stuck on a boat with several hundred of my fellow human beings for two weeks with no easy way to avoid them all, however spiffy and green-tech the surroundings, other than staying in my cabin for the duration of the trip, which seems a lot like paying for a luxury self-imposed prison cell on the open seas. All the fun of jail, with nausea-inducing pitching and rolling thrown in for laughs! Apparently, though, a lot of people  whose idea of a delightful holiday clearly differs wildly from mine  positively love a cruise, so these new Virgin ships will probably be right up their channel once they set sail in 2020. Bon voyage, seafaring sightseers!

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Top 250 firms failing to cut emissions despite creating a third of mankind’s output

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that so few are responsible for so much. However, in the same way that wealth distribution is horribly distorted – Oxfam claimed this year that the world’s eight richest individuals had as much money between them as the poorest half of the world’s population – so it appears that very few polluters are responsible for a huge chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There are differences between the two of course. The first is individuals and the second is global corporations, but it does make you wonder once again who runs the world these days. Is it elected politicians, or are the biggest companies in fact far more powerful?

Controlling greenhouse-gas emissions is incredibly difficult. It is estimated that there are three billion people in the world who cook over and heat their homes with wood fires. For all that wood is carbon neutral, unless it is a very modern wood burning stove these fires still give off carbon black soot, which contributes to the greenhouse effect.

On top of that there are now more than a billion cars on the roads around the world. So between those two aspects alone there are four billion individual cases of greenhouse gas creation. This is a tough problem to deal with, particularly if poverty is a factor.

However, burning fuel on an industrial scale, as these top 250 companies do, is something that can be dealt with. Technology exists to prevent gases escaping to the atmosphere when we don’t want them to, even if it is coal. And these companies – the top three were Coal India, Gazprom and Exxon Mobil - make profits in the hundreds of millions or more, so there is no excuse for not investing in such technologies.

Political will exists and treaties have been drawn up, but still the big polluters continue polluting away without apparent constraint. Should this be happening particularly when many of these companies are state owned? Gazprom is run from the Kremlin and Coal India is similarly nationalised. So maybe either the political will is not quite as enthusiastic as superficially appears – governments might need those revenues for other things – or it may be that it is not the state that runs the industry, but the other way round, which is equally applicable to the corporate giants in the private sector.

So there you go, it is possible to write about environmental irresponsibility without mentioning Donald Trump…….D’oh!

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Faroe Islands move from Sheep View to Street View

This is the news I’ve been waiting for since my last visit to the Faroes over 20 years ago. Only kidding… But seriously, I am very pleased that my second most favourite mini-nation (after the Falkland Islands) has become a tad more prominent and a tad more noticeable on the world’s map, even if a digital one.

Let’s face it: there are fewer and fewer blank spots left on the surface of our little planet. Only A couple of weeks ago in my new blog ‘View from Vitalia’  I mentioned the long-awaited Ordnance Survey mapping of the last hitherto unmapped bit of British territory – a tiny Scottish island of Foula. And now – the Faroes will appear on Google Street View, hurray!

To be honest, I do understand the difficulties Google could have faced in the Faroe Islands, where there are not many streets, to begin with. The semi-independent football-crazy nation of 60,000 people is so riddled with hills, hillocks and mountains that finding a sizeable stretch of flat surface there is a problem. Each time a football pitch is built (and there are over 500), another mountain has to be excavated and razed to the ground.  For the same reason, the Faroes’ main (and only) airport boasts one of the world’s shortest airstrips. Landing there has never failed to send goose bumps down my spine. No wonder the entrepreneurial local lady mentioned in this above news story had tried to use five of the islands’ five million (well, almost) sheep with cameras on their uncomplaining backs to capture the islands’ evasive ‘streets’ long before Google.

Reading this report, I clearly recalled one sunny Sunday I spent on Vagar, the third biggest island in the Faroes archipelago. The guesthouse I was booked into for the night was in the hamlet of Beur, at the end of the island’s only, 18km-long road (or ‘street’, if you wish). It was too far to walk from the ferry terminal, so – reluctantly – I had to rent a car and drive there. There were no other cars on the road, so I was able to get away with swaying from its left side to the right and back – out of sheer boredom and without an accident. A couple of times, however, I had to swerve to avoid head-on collisions with the ubiquitous sheep, who were jaywalking in the ‘street’ (sorry, road) freely, and once with a nearby mountain too.

Near one of the few villages on my way, I was thrilled to spot another car – an old jalopy moving towards me at a snail’s pace. When it finally came alongside me, I saw an elderly, neatly dressed gentleman behind its wheel. As he crawled along, he was looking not at the road ahead, but to the sides, turning his head right and left, like a leisurely pedestrian admiring the landscape. With awe, I realised with sudden clarity that he was admiring the landscape and that he was a pedestrian, only a pedestrian behind a wheel. He was out for a Sunday walk in his car!

Here I have to confess that so persistent and all-permeating was the Sunday quiet (read boredom) on Vagar that by the end of the day, for lack of anything else to do,  I ended up going for a walk in my car too.

Three cheers for Google Streets!

Homes suspended over railway lines could solve London’s housing crisis

I have another ground-breaking (in more than one sense) engineering suggestion that can solve London’s ongoing housing crisis: to suspend  new ‘homes’ above the River Thames, for all that space above Father Thames remains outrageously empty. For that purpose, the technology pioneered by Tom Morgan could be used.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Clothing embedded with smart fabric used as digital key to open doors

Human nature can get in the way of even the best ideas. Building technology that sends out a signal to your front door so it opens as you approach sounds like an excellent way of avoiding fumbling with a key, especially when you’re arriving home after dark. As a representative of one of the companies pioneering this sort of smart tech explained at a conference I was at recently though, in real life we don’t necessarily want everything done for us. In fact, the company in question has had to build an unecessary step into its keyless access system that means the user has to press a pad on their door before it opens. Research shows, apparently, that we’re such a neurotic (or perhaps sensibly cautious) lot, we don’t want it to swing open without any command at all in case there’s an assailant lurking nearby. I can’t help thinking this is just a temporary blip in a path that’ll see future generations wondering why on earth their parents and grandparents were so wary about such an obviously neat idea. All they’ll have to worry about is leaving their coat on the bus, not a clunky bunch of metal keys.

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