VR theme parks, Fukushima, Met slams web giants and more: pick of the week's news
Image credit: Starbreeze
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.
Hilary Lamb, news reporter
From a brief description, this sounds like a great idea. Theme parks have been quick to embrace digital technologies to jazz up their attractions and adopting AR and VR is the next logical step. However, I suspect that – like most arcades – this is a wretched place to visit. Once you’ve made your way through the world’s largest church of conspicuous consumerism (aka The Dubai Mall), you’re presented with a number of VR and AR experiences which you pay for per play.
These include gems like ‘The Mummy: Prodigium Strike’, which recreates a scene from the 2017 reboot of ‘The Mummy’, one of the most offensively awful, soulless and shamelessly money-grabbing films of last year. Unfortunately, it seems as though the other big mixed-reality theme park – a $1bn+ site under construction in Guizhou Province, China – is no better. I feel confident of this because the photos show a 53.5m high statue of a Transformer towering over the site. Transformers is, as we all know, another of the most offensively awful, soulless and shamelessly money-grabbing film franchises of the twenty-first century.
It’s no good me just complaining, so here are some suggestions for improved mixed-reality attractions: an AR fast-food restaurant where all the waiting staff are made to look like old-school Cybermen; a VR Chocolate Room from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with scent wafted up visitors’ nostrils via an embarrassing extension to their VR goggles; an AR petting zoo where the rabbits, guinea pigs and goats are turned into tiny, cuddly dinosaurs; a VR recreation of that sizzling ballroom scene from Pride and Prejudice where you can join in as Elizabeth Bennet or Mr Darcy; and, best of all, an augmented rollercoaster ride recreating the final psychedelic race from Speed Racer, that acid trip of a sports film made by the Wachowski sisters after they’d finished with The Matrix and could afford to have fun again. Developers are welcome to my ideas.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
The Fukushima Power Plant is the disaster that just keeps on giving. Despite the meltdown taking place well over half a decade ago, the clean-up team seems to still be floundering around as radioactive water piles up in huge, industrial barrels. It’s definitely a good example of the problems that nuclear power can cause despite many people holding it up as an (ostensibly) carbon-free energy source without the intermittency of renewables.
It’s slightly baffling that we still don’t really know how to deal with a meltdown – Chernobyl happened over 30 years ago and what have we learnt since then? And what about the ongoing expansion of Hinkley Point? Also coastally located (abundant water sources are essential for cooling in nuclear power) and facing the vast, unpredictable Atlantic Ocean. One of the many downsides of Brexit is that the UK will be forced to leave the EU’s nuclear safety body Euratom. Russia has also been ramping up its cyber-attacks on major utilities in recent years. A worrying confluence of factors that one hopes will not cause any issues in the future.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
Spare a thought for Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, who is retiring today after a long and illustrious career in policing. One of his last tasks will be to formally hand over to his successor, Neil Basu, the investigation into the suspected poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. This case has sparked a frenzy of speculation about Kremlin involvement. It has been taken charge of by Scotland Yard and Rowley has already confirmed that a nerve agent was used as the attack vector against the Skripals. All this happened in Rowley’s final week in the job. So much for being ‘demob happy’!
Rowley is an intelligent and highly professional cop, but he could scarcely disguise his frustration this week when he spoke at a major counterterrorism event in London. He reserved his parting shot for the American social-media behemoths, lambasting them for their conspicuous failures to provide law-enforcement agencies with any tip-offs whatsoever about the suspected jihadist and neo-Nazi plotters in our midst. Yes, you read that right, the likes of Facebook and Twitter have never ever cooperated with British police in this regard - at least according to Rowley, whose statement I have no reason to doubt. This cavalier attitude to public safety is astonishing, given the dangerous times in which we live. It stems, I think, from a deep and dangerous strain of American libertarianism that goes right back to the earliest days of Silicon Valley.
While in Britain there have, historically, been quite high levels of public trust in the police and other so-called agents of the state, this has never been the case in the US.
Across the Atlantic, high levels of private gun ownership reflect a deep suspicion of government – a feeling that goes right back to the era of the American Revolution (in fact, the American ‘right to bear arms’ actually exists so that its citizens can hold in reserve the power to overthrow their government should the need arise). Contrast this with the situation in the UK, where even the police - with the exception of Northern Ireland officers - are not routinely armed and where guns are extremely hard to come by. Over here, the state is associated with beloved national institutions like the NHS, while even secret service espionage is psychologically bound up with James Bond films or the Bletchley Park codebreakers who won us the war, rather than with some sinister version of the Gestapo or Stasi.
The differing ways in which the state and its agents are viewed in the UK and US goes some way towards explaining the seemingly unbridgeable gulf that exists between UK police and American tech entrepreneurs.
Coincidentally, MPs this week criticised Google for its year-long delay in removing from the web a proscribed white supremacist terrorist organisation’s propaganda video. Facebook, meanwhile, asked users in a survey whether it should allow paedophiles to groom children on its platform. I mean really, what planet are these people on?
As I said at the start, this was a hell of a final week for Rowley.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
I don’t know about you, but to me the prospect of being cut off or tailgated by a driverless car on the way to work in just three years’ time appears rather off-putting, if not scary. I beg to disagree on all points with Law Commissioner Nicholas Paines QC, quoted as saying that, “British roads are already among the safest in the world and automated vehicles have the potential to make them even safer - provided our laws are ready for them…”. First of all, I don’t know what the statistics say, but having driven in a number of European countries, as well as in the USA and Australia, I can responsibly assert that the British roads are far less safe (and British drivers far less polite) than in all of the above mentioned places. Yes, they do love tailgating in the Republic of Ireland, and it takes time to adjust to lack of speed limits on some German autobahns, but let me tell you, nowhere else but in Britain have I encountered such rudeness and road rage (incidentally, there’s no road rage in the USA, where many drivers are likely to carry small arms in their cars). Here I have to note that some of the exhibitors with whom I spoke at the recent Intertraffic exhibition in Amsterdam were sceptical about the safety of driverless cars in any city or country environment where they will have to interact with vehicles driven by humans. Particularly, by some aggressive British humans, I can add.
What intrigued me most about this story was the ongoing governmental deliberation about whether any new criminal offences may need to be introduced. My imagination was immediately sparked. Offences necessarily lead to punishments, so I started thinking about possible penalties for law-breaking driverless cars. Incarceration inside a dark, windowless garage for two years? Enforced deprivation of high-octane petrol and its replacement with kerosene? Being forcibly driven by a football hooligan for a couple of weeks? And for the most serious offences, including road fatalities, the scrapyard, albeit liberals and opponents of capital punishment might object to the latter.
I’m not sure about you, but the moment my second-hand Toyota Yaris (which, hopefully, I will still be driving in 2021) has to mix on the road with driverless as well as ‘driverful’ cars, I’m going to hand my reassuringly clean driving license back to the DVLA and switch over to buses and trains!
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Given that Lego’s entire business model has been built (no pun intended) on petroleum-based plastics, it’s heartening to read that the Danish toy titan is going to introduce ‘botanical elements’ to its kits in 2018. The amount of eco-friendly bricks might only initially account for between 1and 2 per cent of total elements shipped, but given that Lego ships approximately 60 million bricks per year, that immediately equates to around one million ‘green’ bricks (of many different colours). As Lego increases this percentage of botanical elements in its kits, that figure will jump to 10 million, 20 million, 30 million etc. Clearly, these are giant steps in the right direction.
I enjoyed this story for the revelation that ‘Cyberslug’ - an artificially intelligent virtual creature created to react to food and members of its species in similar ways to the real-world living creature it was modelled on - has already learnt what other types of virtual sea slugs are good to eat, which ones are less tasty and which could fight back if it attempts to eat them. That’s all your basic life skills for survival right there. Now it just needs to figure out which virtual sea slugs it can mate with in order to carry on the family name.
The perennial ‘Tomorrow’s World’ dream of the 1970s inches ever closer. Now, where are we on food in pill form?
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ show is a tried and tested formula that never fails to entertain and inform, and this week’s episode about the notorious Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries was a fascinating listen that’s available to catch up with and well worth 40 minutes of your time. Although the assembled experts had plenty to talk about without getting into comparisons with contemporary issues, the story of how rural workforces were shifted from place to place by economic and social forces bears comparison with the trends we’re already seeing as a consequence of the Brexit vote. There’s obviously a lot less coercion of EU agricultural workers who are deserting British farms, where they have become an essential part of seasonal labour, but it’s still a case of landowners juggling a resource that isn’t always in the right place at the right time.
Even without the political dimension, manual labour is a big deal in fieldwork, where it can account for half of the cost of putting a cauliflower on a supermarket shelf, for example. Twenty first century agriculture has the advantage of being able to turn to technology for a solution, and scientists at the University of Plymouth are touting their brassica-wrangling android as one possible way of preventing crops from being left to rot.