Artist's depiction of 'Oumuamua
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Holey roads, alien asteroids, illuminating plants and more: best of the week’s tech news

Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

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

Astronomers search passing asteroid for signs of alien technology

Astronomers, including a chap called Avi Loeb (no relation), have been using the world’s largest steerable radio telescope to look and listen to a passing cigar-shaped asteroid and search for signs of extra-terrestrial life. The strangely-shaped celestial object, which probably originates from another solar system, whizzed past Earth at a speed of around 60,000mph. No aliens have yet been detected on board it. Phew! Let’s pray that there are none out there.

I sometimes wake up in the dead of night and experience a sensation of creeping doom. My mind starts imagining all the worst things that might befall me and those closest to me. Visions of environmental degradation and societal breakdown enter my thoughts – soon to disappear again after I’ve fallen back to sleep, and mostly banished from my daylight wonderings - but worst of all are my imaginings of alien abductions.

I must have watched too much X-Files in my teens. Or perhaps my fear can be traced back to being taken to see that captive killer whale that was forced to perform at Windsor Safari Park in the days when marine circuses were not uncommon in the UK. What’s the whale got to do with it? Well, orcas are intelligent lifeforms. Like humans, they live in complex societies with discrete cultures. They inhabit a realm that is alien to us. They are probably the closet example we have of an alien civilisation existing here on Earth.

What happened when humans and whales met? We killed and enslaved them. It’s a similarly depressing story if you look at the first contact between Europeans and Africans, or white explorers and the peoples of the New World. Who’s to say that members of an advanced alien race would not enslave or kill all us humans? If we’re lucky, we might end up in safari parks or circuses on another planet, performing tricks for the entertainment of a bunch of little green men.

Imagine waking up and hearing that advanced extra-terrestrials had been found – not amoeba-like dust balls on Mars, but Roswell-style humanoids from another galaxy. Imagine finding out that they were heading towards Earth. It would be terrifying. A bigger bombshell than Brexit. Infinitely worse than the election of Donald Trump. More of a shock and a scramble for journalists to get to grips with than the death of Elizabeth II - which, when it comes, will almost certainly be greeted as a cosmic calamity (in Britain at least). The feeling of dread will be overwhelming. So, you hear on the radio that advanced aliens have been discovered and they are heading for us. What do you do? Just go to work as usual? Keep calm and carry on?

The only silver lining would be if it brought humans of warring stripes closer together. The small differences between Israelis and Palestinians would (hopefully) melt away in the face of a common threat to all humanity such as that which an alien civilisation would represent. Perhaps those utopians who yearn for some form of world government might see their dreams come true, since a common global front against the enemy would surely be the best hope for defending our shared home from invasion.

All this might seem mad and irrational, but it isn’t really. The universe is infinite. There could well be intelligent, technologically sophisticated alien life out there. What happens if it finds us? Personally, I don’t think that bears thinking about, but I still reckon the government should have a plan, or least some impact assessments, in development. If they can prepare for the death of Her Majesty the Queen, they can plan for an alien invasion. Perhaps someone could give Lembit Opik a call?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Future cars could automatically detect and report potholes to keep Britain’s roads safe

There’s a good reason the song talks about walking in a winter wonderland, not driving through it. As my colleague Vitali Vitaliev pointed out at length in his ‘View from Vitalia’ column this week, we’re very bad at dealing with even a light sprinkling of snow in the UK. There can’t be many who would consider driving even the shortest distance once the authorities have issued the routine warning not to take to the road unless our journey is absolutely necessary. An additional hazard in recent winters has been that a crisp layer of virgin snow at the edge of the road can often conceal the sort of massive pothole you’d normally take great pains to avoid. Some consolation then in Highways England’s new report, which will guide how money is spent on maintaining and improving the country’s roads from 2020 onwards. One of the factors making potholes a priority is the expectation that driverless cars are going to be a common sight. It seems that however smart they are, platoons of autonomous vehicles travelling at high speed are particularly vulnerable to damaged road surfaces. The situation is so bad that some manufacturers are already putting prototypes through their paces on test tracks that are intentionally of poor quality to mimic real-world conditions. In the future, though, connected vehicles will be able to report back when they hit a bump and inform the person responsible for fixing it, something that we all probably intend to do every time we damage a tyre or wheel but never quite get round to doing. That’ll create an up-to-date map of where the work’s needed; the only question is whether the money will be there to send a team of robots out to carry out the job.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Knightscope security robot vandalised while on patrol

It was perhaps inevitable that a latter-day Luddite uprising would occur against our future robot overlords. And so it has come to pass, in a rather low-key way in San Francisco, where protestors outraged at the deployment of a security robot to shoo homeless people away from the perimeter of an animal rescue shelter have thrown a tarpaulin over its head, pushed it to the ground and - somewhat cryptically - smeared barbeque sauce over its sensors. The condiment-based assault is the more puzzling aspect of this story for me (I suppose Thousand Island dressing or garlic mayonnaise would have done the job just as well), but a human attack on an authoritarian robot attempting to govern and police said disgruntled humans is likely to be something we’ll see a lot of in the coming years.  

Fireflies inspire glow-in-the-dark plants that could replace desk lamps

House plants that can double as desk lamps. Mutant trees that can replace streetlights, illuminating the neighbourhood with their leaves and branches. It’s the future stuff of The Simpsons made real. I like this idea, all the same. More plants for the planet, less electricity used by mankind, win-win.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Only 20 per cent of world’s e-waste is recycled, UN report finds

This shocking statistic is indicative of just how severe the modern world’s massive e-waste problem really is. In the UK it’s actually quite hard to know what to do with e-waste. Electronic goods are generally unsuitable for standard household collections. Old battery collection points are available in some supermarkets, but it requires a degree of forethought that many just don’t apply to their waste disposal. I tried to get rid of an old mobile phone recently in a responsible way. It involved getting a company that specialises in these things to send me a prepaid envelope which I then sent back to them, hardly a seamless process. Without a more concerted effort from government, consumers will generally choose the lazy solution, which is to simply chuck their old electronics into the general waste bin.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Fireflies inspire glow-in-the-dark plants that could replace desk lamps

The night skies of the UK’s towns and cities has for decades been that burnt orange colour given off by the sodium street lights. The use of LEDs for this purpose is becoming more popular as they are lower power, brighter and deemed to be safer, so those orange skies are gradually turning white. Could they turn green in future? Will the night sky take on a slightly queasy hue?

Like much of the stuff that comes out of MIT, the science behind this project is in an early stage and the headlines are made by where the technology could go, rather than where it is likely to. But what an amazing project and what a strange prospect. The thought of becoming accustomed to green lighting in streets and public places, even in offices and homes, is vaguely surreal.

As I understand it from Jack’s report, living plants would be treated to display this bioluminescence and plant cells contain chlorophyll which is green. I think we would therefore be tied in to green lighting unless further genetic modification or filtering was to take place.

It could work well in parks and even encourage councils to alter their street lighting policy to be carbon positive rather than low carbon.

What if these plants went native? Started breeding in their adjusted state? Perpetual light could blanket the country and there would never be an excuse to not do the gardening!

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Book review: ‘Beyond the Map’ by Alastair Bonnett

A somewhat belated, yet thoroughly ‘Christmassy’ (or so I think), addition to my book review of Alastair Bonnett’s ‘Beyond the Map. Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and Our Search for New Utopias’. When the review already went live, I suddenly recalled one of the most amazing geopolitical curiosities in the making I’ve come across in recent years – a new Russian Empire in Kiribati! No, I haven’t overdosed on mulled wine yet. Earlier this year, Anton Bakov - a former Russian MP, a monarchist and a businessman (read oligarch) - having fallen out with President Putin, approached the government of Kiribati, a small archipelago in Central Pacific with a population of 115,000, with a proposal to create ‘an alternative Russian empire’ on one of its uninhabited atolls, Malden Island. The entrepreneurial Mr Bakov has already selected the new Russian ‘Emperor’, whose role he wants to be played by a German, the 64-year-old Prince Karl Emich of Leiningen, who claims to be the 19th-century Russian Emperor Alexander II’s great-great grandson. Bakov promises to invest £280m in the island and eventually to build some ‘resorts’ on it. The government of Kiribati is reportedly considering the proposal. One thing the international community has been kept guessing about is the name of that future Russian empire in Oceania. How about ‘Kiriassia’, or ‘Kiri-Russia’? Whatever it will be, I expect Alastair Bonnett to consider it as a possible addition to the next edition of his book as an ideal ‘emerging land’ in the making – and I won’t be asking for any commission (albeit Mr Bakov might).

Jade Taylor-Salazar, supplements editor

Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: the science of his sweets

The Victorian Christmas - a traditional celebration of the festive season

The measure of Christmas: festive facts and figures

With only five working days left until Christmas, I can’t be the only one who is in an exceptionally festive mood today. The office is full of Christmas jumpers, there is still a little bit of - admittedly dirty - snow on the ground and Friday holds the promise of a weekend full of much merriment. With this in mind, I’d like to draw your attention towards my three favourite stories from this week, all from our latest, digital-only edition of E&T. Firstly, we have Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: the science of his sweets, which offers an awesome science and engineering-based glimpse into the lickable wallpaper, chocolate rivers and edible gardens in this epic festive family favourite.  The other two articles, were, I confess, written and researched by yours truly, simply as an attempt to spread a little festive cheer. The Victorian Christmas - a traditional celebration of the festive season takes a look at how the Victorians and the industrial revolution helped to shape the image of Christmas as we all know it today. Meanwhile, The measure of Christmas: festive facts and figures takes a look at the many hidden numbers behind the UK’s biggest holiday, including the average pulling power of a reindeer and the length of Santa’s working day, as well as offering a little festive reminder of the obscene amount of waste we all throw away each year. It might seem like a bit of a downer to end a festive feature by looking at the effect of all our merriment in spreading love and goodwill on a large scale, but don’t feel down about it, rather, take this as an opportunity to have a more responsible Christmas this year. Happy holidays, guys!

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