Howe aligns a laser beam to pass through a tiny glass cell of rubidium atoms

Quantum radio, Iran shutdown, cryptorouble and more: picks of the week's tech news

Image credit: Burrus/NIST

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

‘Quantum radio’ could improve underwater and underground communications

I chose Hilary Lamb’s story about quantum sensors as my highlight of the week because I’m sure that we’re at a tipping point as far as quantum technologies are concerned. The theories have been around for the best part of a century and have managed to confuse the majority of people for the duration of that time.

Please bear with me for the next paragraph: normality will be resumed thereafter. Quantum technologies depend on the theory of superposition. Unlike the digital world, where everything is either a ‘1’ or a ‘0’, the idea behind superposition is that something can exist in both states and every position in between. Instead of digital transistors providing a sequence yielding a definitive answer, quantum computing involves its qubits (the equivalent quantum version of transistors) producing a state that is most likely. Probability of the answer emerging from these entangled qubits is what determines whether you’ve got the right answer or not.

Back in the real world, somebody told me at a quantum technologies exhibition in London that understanding quantum computing isn’t important for most of us. Few understand how an Intel chip works, for example, but we understand how to use a computer. All we need to know is what quantum technology can do. And what it will do, apparently, is perform some computing tasks incredibly quickly and even perform some tasks that are beyond the gift of our traditional silicon chip. It is not hard to imagine that quantum computing, given its potentially extreme high performance, will allow the sort of ministration that will allow VR headsets to become the size of an ordinary pair of glasses. Google glasses may even become fashionable if they contain appropriate levels of technology.

We’re not at the stage yet where we have useful quantum computers, but some quantum technologies are emerging. I’ve written an article for the next issue of E&T about gravity quantum sensors, which like the magnetic sensors mentioned in Hilary’s piece could change the way people navigate, particularly underwater or underground. Practical experiments for this are going on right now in the UK. There has been a big investment under the umbrella of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme and this includes four separate hubs dedicated to the most promising commercial applications – enhanced imaging, communications, sensors and metrology, and IT. The programme now has 25 universities and 50 companies participating and has attracted investment of £350m, £270m of which was from central government.

My point is that the UK often looks across the pond at some of the great research and industry leadership coming out of the US, but sometimes there are cases when more significant work is being done in its own backyard. Quantum technologies, which could have huge bearing on the advancement of global technology, is one such example.

And I have to throw it in, some of you may be acquainted with Schrodinger’s cat. This fictitious feline was created by Schrodinger as a thought exercise, and bounced back and forth in letters between himself and Einstein, in what presumably passed as ‘witty banter’ at the genius level. The cat, it was argued, could be both dead and alive at the same time. Which is why we don’t need to understand it, just appreciate that someone else does!

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Cellular network shut down in some parts of Iran, digital rights group claims

I’ve been to Iran. Yes, I know that sounds like a strange thing for a nice Jewish boy with dual British and American citizenship to have done, but then I’ve also visited Pakistan, which is far more dangerous, particularly for western journalists and Jews. What can I say? It was a long time ago. I was interested in dysfunctional Islamic regimes back then. I also, evidently, had a much higher risk threshold than I do now. Suffice to say, my mother was not best pleased.

My memories of my travels in Iran around a decade ago accord with much of what those best versed in the country (ie Iranians themselves) have to say about it – namely, that it is a fascinating place full of generous people who transcend those caricatures of bearded religious zealots that appear from time to time in the western news media.

I found Iranians to be, on the whole, highly educated and sceptical about their current form of government and even about Islam itself. Several of those I got chatting to professed a definite preference for Zoroastrianism, the native Persian religion, over the Arabic import that now holds sway in their land.

I remember conversing with a lady on a bus who informed me, out of the blue and in perfect English, of her personal sympathy with Jews and with Israel (and of her hostility towards the Palestinians and other Arabs). As it happens, there is a sizeable Jewish community in Iran - the largest in the Middle East outside Israel.

Believe it or not, I even visited an Iranian mosque, where the traditional rallying cries “Death to Israel!” “Death to America!” could be heard being chanted - by approximately three out of the many thousands of people in attendance. Not exactly an enthusiastic expression of support for the Ayatollah!

What I also noticed - inevitably - was the censorship. Digital communication there was nothing like as widespread then as it is now, but when I popped into an internet café in Tehran and tried to access an American-based news website, I found it was blocked. It was an odd experience for someone from a country where freedom of the press is taken for granted.

I don’t feel myself well informed enough to opine about the current protests in Iran. While I abhor many aspects of that country’s government, I simply don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough about the particular issues that have driven people onto the streets there this time around.

What I do know, though, is that Iranians have - from the bitterest of experiences - developed an aversion to outside interference in their country’s internal affairs. For any protests to command public legitimacy, they must be seen to be completely free from foreign contagion. Therefore, many well-meant expressions of support on social media and elsewhere risk having the opposite effect to that which is presumably intended. Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, said as much last week when he attempted to discredit the protesters by suggesting that their actions could risk “making our enemies happy”.

So I will say only this: if you are British, American or Israeli, be wary of what you tweet about these protests. In your bid to show solidarity with the Iranian people, you could end up unwittingly fuelling the narrative of the Iranian government: that the west is to blame for all the world’s ills and that these protests are being whipped up by foreign enemies intent on subverting the Islamic Republic.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Artificial chicken meat start-up backed by investors, including poultry giant

Would you eat artificial chicken? It’s one of those science fiction-like ideas that's been coming slowly but surely for what feels like decades. Developers used to talk about the advantages for vegetarians, but I’m pleased to say this latest development makes no such claim, hopefully recognising at long last that artificial meat is no substitute for a vegetarian diet, only a meat one. All the vegetarians I know don’t miss or crave meat in the way non-vegetarians in the past have tended to assume they do.

There are strong environmental reasons for avoiding real meat of course and artificial meat could help in that. There are also many other criticisms aimed at the industry, but those could perhaps be solved in simpler ways by improving farming and distribution methods, for example, if the will was really there.

As a meat-eater myself, I’m sceptical that artificial meat will ever taste the same. Even if the technology could manage to make it taste as good, it may decide to instead satisfy the tastes of a mass market of consumers who seem to prefer standard-looking, bland food with little taste that meets their narrow existing expectations, or oversalted, over-preserved, long shelf-life processed food. Both of which I avoid. But I’ll keep an open mind. The taste test is the final test.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Limor Fried: building electronic dreams

You may not have noticed yet that 2018 is the Year of Engineering, a government-backed UK initiative, sponsored by the IET, that will be organising a series of events designed to encourage young people to think about a career in the profession. Obviously it’s early days yet, but it’s likely that the stories of real-life engineers like Limor Fried can do a lot to help the project achieve its aims. Best known for Adafruit Industries, the New York City-based open-source hardware company she founded in 2005, Fried is the first female engineer to make it onto the cover of Wired magazine. I suspect the MIT graduate doesn’t look much like most young people’s image of a typical engineer, but judging by how popular Kate Parker’s interview with her for the E&T web site was over the Christmas holidays, there’s genuine interest in what she’s doing and how she got to where she is now.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Moscow ponders creating “cryptorouble” to avoid sanctions

2018 has so far brought both good and bad news, the best being the start of the North-South Korea negotiations, disrupted due to the continuous provocations by the North. With the tension in the Korean peninsula easing up somewhat (fingers crossed), the threat from Putin’s Russia seems to be growing exponentially.

This year will see the so-called presidential elections in Russia. With the only candidate able to seriously confront Putin effectively banned from taking part - I am talking about Alexei Navalny - the result is pretty much pre-determined: Putin is going to be ‘re-elected’ , or rather reappointed, for yet another term in office. That means that Russia’s aggressiveness is unlikely to subside: the proxy war in Donbass will continue, the Crimea will stay annexed and cyber attacks on numerous Western institutions will carry on, too.

In this kind of climate, I doubt very much that the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU and the USA will be stopped or even eased. According to Radio Liberty’s latest reports, these sanctions are starting to bite painfully into Russia’s already shrinking economy. Rather than resorting to all kinds of political and technological ruses - like, say, creating a state cryptocurrency leading to a possible global ‘cryptorouble’ - Russia’s current and future rulers (I am talking about the same bunch of people here of course) could do much better if they actually reconsider their confrontational course, particularly in the run-up to such a major international sporting event as the 2018 Soccer World Cup due to be held in Moscow and some other Russian cities in June and July.

It is of course an improbable scenario, but it is good nevertheless to start the New Year with a bit of hope, inspired by the latest positive developments in the Korean peninsula. A very happy and peaceful New Year to all E&T readers! 

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