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Congestion on a city road

Ride-hailing congestion, happy space suits and more: our picks of the week's news

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Ride-hailing apps are increasing congestion in cities, study suggests

Like Sadiq Khan, I’ve never used Uber. Although, to be fair, Khan has flip-flopped a bit on this, so I’m not really sure what his position is exactly. Before being elected to the post of Mayor of London, Khan described himself as “an Uber man” (which sounds, to my ears at least, frighteningly like an ‘Übermensch’). After being elected, he said he’d never dream of using the ride-haling app. So, perhaps I should instead say: Unlike Sadiq Khan, I’ve never used Uber.

Anyway, whichever one it is, Transport for London (TfL) several months ago decided not to renew Uber’s licence to operate in the UK capital. This prompted much whingeing from Uber users and a long legal showdown - one that rumbles on - between the fashionable tech unicorn and the city’s dowdier transport chiefs.

My aversion to Uber springs from a basic gut feeling I have that this “move fast and break things” firm is not at all good for the world. It gets my hackles up whenever I hear a millennial blithely announce that they will “get an Uber” somewhere. Please shut up, the lot of you.

My dislike of Uber is evidently shared by others. As a former colleague at a national newspaper sarcastically put it when the Uber ‘ban’ was announced last September: “I am outraged that people in difficult financial circumstances are not allowed to ferry me about for hardly any money when I’m drunk.” Indeed, the model under which Uber operates does seem exploitative to workers. Worse is the company’s arrogance in presuming it is above following rules TfL lays down for taxi firms. Uber, remember, was deemed by TfL to be “not fit and proper” to hold a private-hire operator licence on account of its “lack of corporate responsibility” - most notably its approach to reporting serious criminal offences committed by drivers in its cars. There have been numerous revelations about sex attacks by Uber drivers - scandals that the company allegedly tried to hide because of concerns about the possible impact on its brand (Oxfam, anyone?).

Now we learn that ride-hailing apps are also very likely worsening urban congestion, deepening the crisis of polluted air that has been linked to one in six deaths worldwide. So no, Uber is not a good thing. Not at all. And if more people can be disabused of their belief in its trendy technological mystique, so much the better.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

‘Happy spacesuit’ could help astronauts fight depression

In order to avert disaster en route to Mars, it’s necessary to understand how a long, extended space mission takes its psychological toll on astronauts. This isn’t just out of concern for the astronauts’ mental wellbeing; a low-functioning crew could – through no deliberate fault of their own – impair an expensive mission.

Humans just aren’t meant to be stuck in tiny, zero-gravity cabins eating nothing but freeze-dried food, sleeping irregularly in a floating body bag, speaking to the same handful of people every day and unable to communicate in real time with their loved ones. The most intelligent birds pull out their feathers and self-mutilate when isolated in a cage for too long on a limited diet and, similarly, astronauts are vulnerable to stress and depression during long missions.

The development of the ‘happy spacesuit’ at Florida Polytechnic University offers the promise of a slightly more comfortable experience for astronauts. Sensors monitor their physical state and the spacecraft is appropriately warmed up, cooled down, brightened up or darkened, and the colour of light could change in an attempt to improve their mood.

There are myriad reasons why people suffer from depression, so a smart heating system and ambient lighting is certainly not going to be a fix-all any more than a bath bomb or a mindful slice of avocado toast – although wouldn’t it be great if that did the job? This spacesuit is, however, a development which could help fix some contributing factors in the environment and for otherwise resilient and emotionally stable astronauts, it could do a world of good.

Jonathan Wilson, managing editor

‘Sponsored data’ program expanded by AT&T following net neutrality repeal

Well, whaddya know? Within a single day of professional clown Ajit Pai’s repeal of the Obama-era net neutrality laws being formally published by the FCC in the US Federal Register, AT&T - the world’s largest telecoms company - has gone ahead and informed its customers that they’re now effectively on a two-speed internet service, introducing the concept of ‘sponsored data’ and inevitably branding the upper tier a ‘premium’ package. If there’s one word flagrantly, depressingly, meaninglessly, overused in modern marketing speak, it’s ‘premium’. Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard it earnestly impressed upon those assembled at the press launches for products as diverse as knitwear and SUVs. ‘The premium experience.’ ‘A premium product, for those who know the difference.’ The word has lost all impact. The only thing ‘premium’ means now, at least when used in these contexts, is a greater profit margin for the company spinning its yarn. A premium profit. As a wiser man than myself once wrote, to get to the bottom - the core, the heart, the truth - of any confusing conundrum or perplexing puzzle, just follow the money.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Big Data used to identify suspected criminals and political dissidents in China, says report

Would you like to be ruled by algorithms? Or policed by technology? We may like the idea of algorithms keeping us safer in driverless cars, but the same advocates are more squeamish about technology keeping an eye out for us. Is that man loitering on the corner waiting for a drugs drop or just a mini cab? Perhaps the algorithms would be clever enough to tell the difference and if so would that make it alright? Or is it important to understand how the system arrived at a particular decision? That may be less than straightforward in the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning. These are all questions that will become more important in many different areas, from finance to law and order and we’ll be taking a closer look in our May issue later this year. Meanwhile, we learnt this week that it’s already becoming a reality for people in China.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Exosuit adjusts to individual wearers using machine learning algorithm

Researchers at Harvard University have developed a machine-learning algorithm that tailors control strategies for an exosuit and which could help injured patients learn to walk again. Exosuits are used in rehabilitation and other settings, but all humans move differently and tailoring an exosuit for each user would take an impractical amount of time. This new method is proving to be an effective and fast way to optimise control parameters.

‘Happy spacesuit’ could help astronauts fight depression

Researchers at Florida Polytechnic University are developing a ‘happy spacesuit’ that could adjust an astronaut’s environment to improve their mood and comfort. They are creating ‘Smart Sensory Skin’, which uses wireless sensors to detect emotional and physical deficiencies and send real-time feedback on the astronaut’s state, which can be used to adjust temperature, light exposure, light colour and oxygen levels in the spacecraft.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Fukushima radiation levels 100 times higher than normal, Greenpeace warns

Doesn’t this piece of news sound vaguely familiar to you? Well, to me it certainly does. The current levels of radiation in and around Fukushima and particularly the concerted attempts of the Japanese government to minimise the amounts and the dangers of possible radioactive exposure in the region of the Daiichi nuclear power plant, following the disaster seven years ago, immediately remind me of the situation in and around Chernobyl. When I visited the latter site in 1994, eight years after the explosion of Chernobyl’s fourth reactor, to make a Channel Four TV documentary, the background radiation levels in certain spots of the affected territory – as confirmed by the dosimetrist who was part of our film crew - were tens of thousands times higher than the accepted minimum. True, in other spots, at times only several metres away, the levels could be substantially lower. It all depended on how close we were to the highly sporadic route of the radioactive dust cloud, released by the explosion.

I could see with my own eyes the arrows of our Geiger counters jumping up well past the red mark denoting ‘danger’. And yet, the official position of the authorities was that the radiation levels remained ‘stable’ and not substantially higher than normal. It was another outright lie (even a couple days after the explosion the official Soviet stance was to deny any serious danger of radiation poisoning in the Chernobyl area), which nevertheless encouraged a number of gullible local peasants, forcibly evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster, to return to their abandoned villages and households. I spoke with some of them and was stunned to hear them say that “all radiation has been pumped out” and the place was now safe. Plus ca change. During my last visit to Ukraine in 2016, I was shocked to see guided tours of Chernobyl advertised in local media, with assurances that the radiation there was now “lower than the safety level”, whereas everyone knew that the so-called ‘new safe confinement’ was far from perfect (it was only finally put in place in 2017) and that the damaged reactor was still leaking.

The authorities’ desire to alleviate public fears is understandable, which doesn’t mean of course that they shouldn’t be able to tell the full truth which, hopefully, they will one day. So far, just like in the case of Chernobyl, I am inclined to take the reassurance of the Japanese government to the effect that radiation levels in the reopened zones pose no risk to human health with a huge grain of (radioactive) salt.

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