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Post-Brexit tech skills, China recycling crackdown 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

Exceptional tech workers sought under expanded visas scheme

Immigrants – tut! They’re everywhere. You can’t move for Sri Lankan doctors, like the man who delivered my son, Filipino carers, like the ladies who looked after my dying grandmother-in-law, and Iranians, like the lad who was my best friend at school. Before the Romans conquered Britain, tribes like the Iceni practised their native cultures largely undisturbed by the ways of foreigners. Then that great pan-Mediterranean empire heaved up on our doorstep. There were black legionaries at Hadrian’s Wall. Christianity – a foreign religion – was imported into this island. Norse invaders arrived. Normans followed. Later, Jews, like my own forebears, pitched up in large numbers. Later still, the first members of the Windrush generation from the Caribbean sailed into Tilbury to cover post-war labour shortages.

Not much connects these waves of humanity. My point is simply that human migrations have been a core part of what has made Britain Britain. Our current immigration policy is a mess, though. Few sensible people want completely open borders, so the Home Office holds down migrant numbers from pretty much everywhere – apart from the EU. We accept unlimited migration from a few relatively wealthy states, not because we have decided that this is the right thing to do but because the European Commission has told us to. At the same time we tell the rest of the world to get stuffed.

Our immigration policy could improve post-Brexit. The government’s new visa scheme targeting tech specialists could, in its own small way, mark the start of something fairer. The scheme might well attract interest from, among others, young Indians, Nigerians and Ghanaians. There are plenty of skilled workers and entrepreneurs in dynamic developing countries, so why not recruit them for a change? Meanwhile, we are told Brexit will cause shortages of the kind of cheap, unskilled labour employed to work at British farms, but – quelle surprise! – the pool of industrious, determined people crying out for a chance to better their lives extends beyond Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. Aren’t there Syrian refugees languishing in camps in eastern Turkey who would give their eye teeth to pick fruit in Lincolnshire?

It has always struck me as hypocritical that many of the same liberals who bemoan the pre-eminence of a ‘Eurocentric’ view of the world in terms of fashion, hairstyles etc are often the same people most convinced that the EU is the very embodiment of the brotherhood of man. Wouldn’t it be ironic if those Leave voters derided as racists were ultimately responsible for ushering in a new era in which the number of white-skinned migrants into Britain falls while the number of black- and brown-skinned ones rises? The ‘racist Brexiteers’ tag has always seemed ill-conceived to me. I’m not saying there are no prejudiced Leavers, but since when did white supremacists and fascists pick on the likes of Aryan Germans, Scandinavians and those notoriously nationalistic Slavs as their very first targets? I thought they liked to start with black people or Jews and work their way outwards.

If Brexit forces the UK to adopt a fairer immigration policy, surely thats something both Leavers and Remainers can celebrate. Citizens of the UK, there is human life beyond Europe! As we head for the exit, lets remember that.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

China’s recycling import crackdown sparks Hong Kong pile-ups

Theres a crisis coming in the world of waste and recycling. The recycling industry is showing signs of mild panic as China, which handles more than half of the UKs recycling material, has started to refuse shipments of mixed recyclables as being, well, just rubbish.

Apparently, theres too much other non-recyclable stuff mixed up with what were sending to China. In a way, thats partly our fault as householders, but its confusing of course – every council has its own guidance on what can be placed into recycling bags and how or whether it should be separated out. For now, the shipments are backing up in Hong Kong. The industry is going to have to find another country to take its recycling in the medium term, and with Europe already at nearly full capacity it will be somewhere further afield. In the longer run, more councils are going to have to start demanding that households sort their materials at the kerbside.

Technology will help. Just this week I’ve reported on the interesting example of an innovative startup developing a new process to handle ‘plastic residuals like crisp packets, black trays and clear films – https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2017/11/recycling-for-residual-plastics/

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Groundbreaking innovations and exceptional engineers honoured at IET Innovation Awards

If you find yourself in a hospital A&E department with suspected heart trouble, you might have reason to appreciate the work of just one of the winners in this year’s IET Innovation Awards. The competition, which has grown into a big annual event since it was established a few years ago, attracts entries from all over the world and the finalists in its 15 categories are working on projects that will have huge benefits in a range of real-life situations.

Creavo Medical Technologies, for example, took top spot in both the emerging technology design and the healthcare categories with a scanner that helps emergency doctors rule out serious heart disorders more accurately at an earlier stage of diagnosis, and get on with applying the best treatment. Elsewhere, Navtech Radar was a double-winner for a technique that scans roads for unusual objects and gives emergency services a much faster warning of when there’s been an accident or debris has found its way onto the carriageway. Next time you’re sitting in one of the massive holdups that seem to be an almost daily occurrence on motorways, think how much safer it would be if a machine was keeping an eye out and sounding the alarm as soon as an incident happened.

With several finalists in each of the 15 categories, our story could only touch on some of the projects selected, but we’ve produced a special free digital supplement for Apple and Android tablet devices with details of them all and a focus on the winners. To read it, first install the E&T app on your device (if you don’t already have it) from the Apple App Store or Google’s Play Store. (By signing in with your membership number and surname, IET members can also read the tablet editions of recent issues of E&T.) If you don’t have an iPad or Android device, a version is also available that works directly in your web browser

Jack Loughran, news reporter

First ‘digital pill’ approved by US regulators

I didn’t spend long looking for a picture for this article, any generic photo of a doctor holding a pill menacingly would do, I told myself (there was nothing available for the actual pill itself). Nonetheless I didn’t realise until I’d downloaded it and opened it large in Photoshop that the model’s eyes were terrifyingly veiny and bloodshot. I still quite liked the image and wondered whether his horrible eyes would cause anybody to click on the link, morbid curiosity getting the better of them.

But since the story was published I can’t help but linger on the picture when scrolling down the homepage (as I do multiple times every day) and feel slightly sickened by his disgusting, bloodshot eyes. Maybe it’s just me and no one else has an issue with this picture, but if you do too, dear reader, then I sincerely apologise. I won’t use shock tactics again. Unless it’s about robotic rectums.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Hollywood’s silicone masks used to commit crimes, most people can’t distinguish from real faces

I want to touch the faces! Don’t you just want to touch them? They just seem so weird. Also, it would distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake. I think. But then again, you cant go around and just touch a strangers face. University of York researchers figured out that the best silicone masks used in Hollywood can fool people into thinking they’re real faces. Well, if Hollywood are spending a ridiculous amount of time and/or money on sophisticated masks, then it should only be logical that we can’t tell which is the genuine article. Hyper-realistic stuff is supposed to be confusing, like in paintings, where you think it’s a photograph. I would just run around with a Tom Cruise mask on and confuse a load of people, because he’s tiny and I’m not.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Britain set to lose Formula E if Brexit deal can’t be reached

And so the strange unravelling of the British economy precipitated by Brexit begins. Despite previous seasons of the Formula E electric racing car event having included a race in London, the next will shift that date to Hong Kong. And this week, Alejandro Agag, the organisation’s chief executive, came out to say that the whole UK-based operation will have to up sticks and move to an EU country if no Brexit deal is satisfactorily negotiated. It’s the question of withholding tax being imposed on sponsorship payments from EU-based partners once Britain leaves the EU in 2019 that would force his hand. As Agag said: “If there are withholding taxes on sponsorship payments, that would make our business impossible. So then we would have to leave. A sponsor from France, like Michelin for example, the fee they pay me will have a 30 per cent withholding. So my revenue will go down by 30 per cent. If I move to France or Holland, I will get the whole fee. It’s a no-brainer.” Great Britain, arguably the global home of the sport of motor racing, is in danger of ostracising and missing out on the future of the sport as it evolves into something more environmentally friendly, because of the silly public schoolboy dormitory pillow fight that is Brexit.

Will.i.am honoured by the IET for his ‘outstanding contribution’ to engineering

“Where is the love?” rapper Will.i.am once asked. Why, it’s right here, within the very walls of the IET, my man! Musician, producer, director, advocate for education and “innovation consultant with a passion for merging the worlds of technology and design” (it says here), Will.i.am was this week honoured by the IET with an Honorary Fellowship. I’ve gotta feeling that this news may baffle and enrage some current IET members in equal measure, but Mr i.am is actually a legitimate case, being a passionate ambassador for STEM education for young people.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Hollywood’s silicone masks used to commit crimes, most people can’t distinguish from real faces

Reading this news item, I was immediately reminded of a cult movie of my childhood – the 1960s French crime serial ‘Fantomas, in which the eponymous crafty international villain, played by unforgettable Jean Marais (who also played the film’s main ‘goodie’, journalist Fandor) could change his face endlessly using impressive soft masks that made him look indistinguishable from other people and hence very hard to catch. All three episodes of the movie, which were shown in the Soviet Union, were about the never-ending confrontation between Fantomas and the grotesque police inspector Juve, played by the great French comedian Louis de Funes and masterfully dubbed into Russian (all foreign movies in the USSR were dubbed, not subtitled) by Soviet actor Vladimir Kenigson. The climax of the plot was at the point when the ever-so-inventive Fantomas assumed the appearance of – surprise, surprise – inspector Juve himself!

Coming to live in the West, I could not believe that ‘Fantomas’ was not particularly well known here, not even in France, and it took me several years to get a second-hand video of the movie, which I still watch from time to time in French, missing Vladimir Kenigson’s excellent dubbing voice. ‘Fantomas was one of the very few Western comedy thrillers allowed in the USSR, where James Bond movies, for example, were strictly banned. So for us it was a sort of James Bond French substitute, so to speak. I lost count of how many times I played truant from school to see the trilogy over and over again. The Fantomas graffiti (in Cyrillic, no doubt) used to scream at you from every fence – a rare occurrence in the country where all kinds of graffiti was banned as politically dangerous. I remember a popular piece of doggerel: “Children, don’t go to school, because your teacher can be Fantomas!” (it rhymed in Russian). Eventually, when some real-life burglars and even murderers started referring to themselves as ‘Fantomases’ in the notes they left at crime scenes, the authorities had to clamp down on that ‘Fantomania’, and stopped showing the movie in cinemas (it was never shown on Soviet TV). As kids, however, we still continued playing ‘Fantomas and kept talking with admiration about all those amazing state-of-the-art masks, which featured in the movie. Don’t think they were made of silicone, though.

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