Comment

Refugee isle, MP passwords, Olympic robots and more: best of the week's tech news

Image credit: A plan for the EIA island. Credit: Theo Deutinger

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

Build artificial island in Med as home for refugees, says Dutch technologist

I like Theo Deutinger’s idea for a new artificial island to help Europe cope with what is commonly termed a ‘crisis’. We need more thinkers like him – people who are bold, imaginative and radical when confronting phenomena which are vast in scale. The general intellectual laziness around the issue of human mass migration is astonishing. Every few months, ‘Europe’ (by which I mean the deeply conservative organisation that is the EU) emits some fatuous statement about having managed to bring under control the phenomenon whereby non-Europeans attempt to breach the less-than-secure citadel of its exclusive Schengen Zone. But the inflows of non-Europeans across the Mediterranean Sea and through the intercontinental land routes will not dry up until the complex set of factors pushing them to undertake these perilous journeys vanishes. And, realistically, that just ain’t gonna happen. So Europe wrings its hands. Meanwhile, inconceivable numbers of Africans drown. Others - as appalling as it is to write this in 2017 - are enslaved. 

Deutinger’s scheme is not perfect. For anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge, the name he has chosen for it - ‘Europe in Africa’ (EIA) - is unfortunate. Is it just me or does this stir memories of Europe’s nineteenth century ‘Scramble for Africa’? Others say the scheme looks too much like Australia’s notorious hellhole, Manus Island - the place that country uses to accommodate its asylum seekers. Deutinger, by contrast, says EIA could blossom into a modern-day Carthage, the ancient civilisation on the cusp of Africa and Europe that was akin to Rome and Greece in its renown. Myself, I don’t much care about names or appearances. Call this artificial island what you like, there are never going to be any good options for refugees, nor for many economic migrants for that matter. And I say that as someone whose relatives have in recent times been both.

Stay where you are and you face death/poverty. Leave and you face untold dangers. If you’re lucky and you make it to somewhere safe and relatively prosperous, you will likely be detained and deported. If you manage to actually settle somewhere, you may face racism or conflict because the land you have settled on is already inhabited by others (see Israel/Palestine, for example). If you can make it to Svalbard or Antarctica, you will encounter zero immigration checks. Everywhere else, it’s “Papers, please!”.

The EU has no good options either. Member states like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland are off the scale when it comes to prejudice. They won’t stand for being made to accept even very small numbers of Africans or Middle Easterners and have protested strongly with the European Commission about this. In lovely, civilised Germany (from whose towns my own grandparents fled as refugees not all that very long ago), the far right is growing in strength again. What if Europe allowed non-Europeans the same freedom (of movement) that it extends to its own people? Annoyingly, that wouldn’t really solve anything either as it would merely fuel the people traffickers’ trade and lead to more drownings. The EU’s latest wheeze has been to effectively bribe Turkey and Libya to stop the flow of people – but that is going very badly (for the refugees, though, not so much for Europe).

What, then? As I’ve said, EIA as an idea is not perfect, but then what in this life is? What I like most about it is its notion of the ‘tabula rasa’ – the land without history, the fresh start. That, I think, is what these people who leave their homes to travel hundreds of miles into the unknown crave. Salvation. A chance to wipe the slate clean, to leave behind all that baggage, that sorrow, that anger, that frustration. To start a fresh new life, and, perhaps, a new humanity, too. Until relatively recently, making that transformation was actually possible. It needs to become so again.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Information Commissioner’s Office warns MPs of dangers of sharing passwords

Data protection applies to all organisations, including Members of Parliament and especially with regard to the private information they handle from constituents. So the running Damian Green story about his alleged dodgy downloads of many years ago (or not, depending on whom you believe) took a ‘head-in-hands’ turn for IT professionals this week when fellow MPs started arguing, in Green’s defence, that it’s common for MPs to pass on their login details to others in their office. That’s just with today’s data protection rules. Doesn’t look good for the stricter rules coming into force in May.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

South Korea to employ 85 robots to assist with Olympic Games

Coincidentally, I have just returned from a short trip to South Korea, during which I visited the site of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in the Gangwon Province. The landscape of the province, dissected by the Taebaek mountain range, is stunningly beautiful and I had to pinch myself from time to time – not just to beat the severe nine-hour jet lag but also to remind myself that I was not in Switzerland.

Most of the Olympic structures and objects are nearly ready (in the words of Yeo HyungKoo, secretary general of the Olympic Organising Committee, “96 per cent ready”) and the tickets are selling well, albeit the continuing provocations by North Korea are not helping. The spirit of the organisers remains high and so is what they describe as the “state of preparedness”.

I am going to dwell on the build-up to the Games in greater detail in my next ‘After All’ column, but I can say here that, in the words of Songjae Lim, manager of international media relations team for the organising committee, they promise to be the most technologically advanced Olympic Games in history, with lots of new technologies used for the first time. I am talking not just about the 85 robots, mentioned in this story, but also TV transmissions, which, for the first time ever, will be broadcast not just in the spectators’, but also in the athletes’ view; the extremely advanced IT services, including 5G telecommunications, IoT, 4K Ultra-High Definition and 8K UHD video signals. The new Screen X technology will be tested for the first time and real-time 5G services, like ‘Hologram Live,’ ‘Sync View,’ and ‘360 degree VR’, will bring the Games closer to viewers at home.

So despite (or maybe because of) the boycott of the Russian team and the volatile situation on the border with North Korea, the Games promise to be a huge success. Look out for my next ‘After All’ column!

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

DARPA invests $100mn in gene-drive technology

I confess that I didn’t know much about gene-drive technology before I read this story. Now that I know a little more, the fact of the US military spending $100mn - and that’s a lot of military dollars - on gene-drive research does seem like a most disturbing turn of events. Particularly as this fact has only come to light after a Freedom of Information request from a pressure group revealed the details.

Murder of crows’ cacophony decoded as researchers eavesdrop on conversation

What do crows talk about (caw-k about?) all day? Scientists at the University of Washington Bothell are hoping to find out, eavesdropping on rooftop conversations with hidden microphones.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

South Korea to employ 85 robots to assist with Olympic Games

I’m used to the concept of humanoid robots in films and TV programmes and robotic technology is well established in some parts of industry. I’ve even encountered some of the robots that are designed to engage with humans, but they still feel like a bit of a novelty to me. That’s why this headline caught my eye. When we’re talking about 85 robots that feels like a lot. They won’t be there just as a photo opportunity for visitors - or at least not all of them. Many will be doing useful work such as cleaning or moving goods around and they are all contributing to a showcase of South Korea’s capabilities in this area.

Build artificial island in Med as home for refugees, says Dutch technologist

I’ve only just seen this story, but it caught my attention. I’ve no idea whether it’s seriously feasible to build an island as a new homeland for refugees, let alone desirable, but just the suggestion set me thinking about how it might work - and the potential difficulties. That’s the value of ideas: they set us thinking and stimulate the imagination, so even if one suggestion turns out to be a dud we’re better informed when we consider the next one.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Undersea telecoms cables are at high risk of attack, report warns

That’s the plot of the next James Bond movie sorted, then. Most internet users are probably blissfully unaware that although a lot of web traffic arrives at their computer or phone wirelessly, it only gets there after travelling through undersea cables that although heavy duty are still vulnerable to sabotage by a determined attacker who wanted to wreak havoc on everyday life. This report by a Conservative MP warns that the infrastructure deep beneath the waves that handles trillions of dollars worth of business every day is often poorly protected and its location easy to find. Protecting it isn’t as exciting as tackling cyber spies and government-sponsored hackers, but could be even more important. Not to mention that the idea of 007 fighting off Russian submarines in his own undersea vehicle would be a welcome change from the gloomier moods of recent films in the franchise.

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