A scene from BBC series Blue Planet showing a mother pilot whale carrying her dead calf
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Curing waste, next-generation MRI, nanotech microswimmers and more: best of the week's tech news

Image credit: BBC

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.

Jade Taylor-Salazar, supplements editor

Mankind’s waste problem, and how technology could help fix it

I’m always interested to read about the innovative work going on to try and combat the global crisis that is mankind’s waste production. The heart-breaking image in this story of a mother pilot whale reliantly carrying the decomposing corpse of her once-beloved calf left me, like many others, completely devastated. As much as I hate to see things like this, I do think it’s important not to shy away from the reality facing us today. It is all well and good to look for new and improved methods production, recycling and disposal – but the real issue here is people. People, for all their knowledge and understanding of the terrible things happening in the world, continue to make ill-informed choices. I was out for dinner with a friend the other day and after getting drinks from a self-service machine, she came back to the table with a straw for me – kindly noticing that I had forgotten to get one for myself. I hadn’t, and was immediately reminded of a video I saw of a giant sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose. It’s reassuring to know that there are things happening to try and combat our growing waste problem, from revolting bioengineered slugs to pavements made of cigarette butts, and a sincerely hope that we do soon see MPs passing a bill to ban single-use items like plastic cutlery, straws and  if there’s any justice in the world  coffee cups. The truth is, though, I don’t think it is enough.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

First patients put through new-generation MRI scanner

Medical imaging technology has made astonishing advances over the course of my lifetime, giving doctors a whole host of diagnostic tools that weren’t available a generation ago. The University of Aberdeen has been at the forefront of one of these developments, magnetic resonance imaging, building the first full-body MRI scanner back in the 1970s. It’s still at the leading edge now, with its new ‘fast field cycling’ scanner that can switch magnetic fields during the scan process to yield far more information. It has just been tested on patients who had recently suffered strokes to help their doctors assess what areas of the brain have been affected. No doubt far more applications will follow shortly.

‘The Nutcracker and I’: new ballet mixes dance with live animation

I was taken to see the Nutcracker when I was 12 years old and fell in love with the whole romantic experience of telling a story through music, dance and visual spectacle. As a slightly older teenager I continued going to the ballet, with the benefit of cheap tickets bought through the ‘Youth and Music’ organisation, though that dropped off when I moved out of London, married and had children. My husband has accompanied me to the occasional performance, but he isn’t really a fan. I think he’d be interested in the technology that created this latest version, though. It’s really quite impressive  and if it sparks a new generation of young ballet-goers that’s all to the good.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Mankind’s waste problem and how technology could help fix it

It is a truth universally acknowledged that scientists and engineers can be poor communicators. OK, maybe that’s harsh. Let’s just say they can be partial to using obscure terminology and convoluted explanations when simpler ones might do. Also, some speak in a style that is somewhat dry.

In a way, that’s to their credit. Science and engineering are disciplines rooted in objective reality as opposed to emotion. They have to do with things that are real and measurable. Scientific journal articles are not meant to be poetic, only true. Caveats might need to be applied when interpreting results of experiments. Not everything makes a good soundbite.

But when the stakes are high, the scientific approach can seem chilling. The calm and rational tone just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to inspiring the willpower needed to fight a force like climate change or hold back the tide of rubbish. That’s why programmes like Blue Planet – the BBC documentary fronted by David Attenborough – are brilliant. Yes, the show anthropomorphises animals, but it stirs the soul.

Where is the wider, technological equivalent of this? It’s a failure of UK politics that no party seems to have much to say about the really big developments. There are plenty of small policy announcements by the current government to do with social media, driverless cars and so on, but no grand narrative about our collective future. Labour, meanwhile, seems stuck in the 1970s. If scientists are often at fault for making everything sound dull and dismal, many of our leading politicians have an equally poor record on this.

Could someone start a Technology Party full of people capable of fusing their scientific nous with rhetorical flair? They would confront head-on the moral problems with the internet, artificial intelligence and the like, but would also look ahead with optimism. Brexit is giving us all a headache. Perhaps people want to be ‘taken on a journey’, to use the psychobabble, and told a story about the future. Even us cynical Brits could do with a bit of inspiration. A stirring narrative about our mastery of technology could be just the trick.

As the species in charge of this planet, we should be bold about using our newfound powers and articulating why we do so. Why not use synthetic biology to create new types of microorganisms designed to eat plastic and, in so doing, save the seas? If that means playing god, maybe we’ll just have to accept that this is now our destiny. Where is the politician who will paint a vision of the bright sunlit uplands, illuminated by the white heat of technology? Where, oh where, is the stirring narrative of hope?

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Sustainable fashion and recycled clothing: can you tell what I’m wearing?

‘Green fashion’ used to be something of an oxymoron, with right-on eco clothing tending to look a bit lumpy and utilitarian  more The Good Life than The Good Wife  but times have changed. Now a new generation of designers is putting environmental concerns at the heart of their operations and big brands, too, are also getting in on the act. It’s not at all difficult now to be a more responsible yet still well-dressed consumer.

Magnetic ‘microswimmers’ deployed in living body nanotechnology trial

It’s always a pleasure to encounter and help to popularise a new word. This week’s addition to our collective technical lexicon: microswimmers. Not quite a robot, but still something that makes itself useful and gets busy on our behalf. The view here is that one day soon it may be possible for these little chaps to be injected into our bloodstream and directed to specific internal nooks and crannies in order to ferret out diseases and other nasties lurking within. Welcome, microswimmers.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Mankind’s waste problem, and how technology could help fix it

During a recent short visit to Venice, my attention was drawn to a huge pile of plastic rubbish: bottles, discarded cups, carrier bags and so on. This hillock of waste was in striking contrast with the famous Rialto Bridge, near which it was piled, and with Venice itself  precisely the intention of the local environmentalists who chose the location deliberately. The sign on top of the pile read (in English): “More than 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year.”

I later found out that an organisation of marine biologists was behind that powerful display. The location could not be more telling and more appropriate, for Venice itself has suffered hugely from pollution, created largely by the millions of visitors it receives each year. A significant improvement was achieved recently after giant cruise ships were finally banned from entering the Grand Canal and the adjoining parts of the Lagoon. I saw one such liner, MSC Musica, ‘parked’ in the Port, well outside the city centre. But even from there, that floating skyscraper totally dominated the fragile urban gem that is Venice by making by far the loudest architectural statement in its vicinity.

All those man-made slugs, special rubbish-eating bacteria and other technological and biological ways of fighting waste, so graphically described in Josh Loeb’s story, are of course extremely important. Yet, like theatre starts with a cloakroom, waste disposal must start with culture and ethics of each of us. On the way to work, it pains me to watch drivers on A1M tossing out rubbish forgetfully out of their car windows. At home, my mornings routinely start with picking up junk food wrappings and empty bottles, dropped the previous night by the passing pedestrians, from my own front garden. In short, as a favourite writer of mine once said: “It is commendable to fight for cleanliness, but it is often much more effective just to sweep the floor!”

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

US regulators approve new TV broadcasting tech that boasts superior picture but has less privacy

There’s no free lunch as far as entertainment technology is concerned. At the cinema, bigger screens and better sound simply cost more. In the home it’s a more subtle trade off, usually involving sacrificing a little more of our privacy, inch by inch, with every upgrade to the video and audio experience. The ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard just approved by US regulators supports 4K broadcasts at 60 frames per second, with increased bandwidth that provides room for more of those services that we managed without for so long but have now come to rely on. The detailed knowledge it will give broadcasters of what viewers are watching means they’ll be able to target advertising and information like weather alerts more precisely, which sounds good. Many are worried though about the prospect of Big Brother keeping an eye on their viewing habits. I was resigned long ago to my cable TV provider having a log somewhere of everything I’ve ever watched in real time or recorded for later and personally I don’t think it’s a big deal. Certainly not compared with what the same company, which is responsible for my internet access, knows about my family’s web use. Reassuring too is how terrible the software that’s supposed to be able to identify what I like and make recommendations is at doing its job. Too often, I’ll flick through the channel guide and find it randomly recording an episode of a reality show I’d never watch in a million years in the hope of enticing me to give it a look later. If new broadcast standards mean algorithms will get better at the simple task of working out what I like watching and listening to, I’ll probably be more than happy for them to find out whatever they like about the shows that are already grabbing my attention.

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