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High-tech Irish border, Trump infrastructure plan and more: picks of the week's news

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

Ultra-hi-tech invisible Irish border ‘perfectly doable’, ex-customs chief says

As a child in London, I feared bombs. It was the same fear my grandfather experienced when he was a youngster, just that then the bombs were falling from the sky. In the 1980s they were hidden in bins, if I remember right. The men responsible were not Germans but Irish. The terror didn’t even skip a generation; my mum was also London-born, and I know for a fact that she once freaked out when she overheard an Irishman talking to his mate about explosions while travelling on the Tube, before realising that they were just chatting about fireworks. Thankfully, my three-year-old son as yet knows nothing about terrorism or war, but I expect it is inevitable that he will discover soon enough – from the news, rather than first-hand, I pray – that there are bad people out there who drive cars into people outside places of worship or blow up innocent children at pop concerts in the name of some warped set of beliefs.

The IRA’s bombing campaign on the British mainland was nothing compared with the Blitz. I am also by now well aware that the Troubles were so much worse for residents of Northern Ireland. However, for a temperamentally nervous child with zero historical awareness and no idea of where Northern Ireland even was, that was irrelevant. I was terrified – even if I had absolutely no clue what the whole horrific thing was about.

I’m certain that, had you asked me then, I would not have cared at all about Northern Ireland or its status vis-à-vis the UK. Whenever Gerry Adams appeared on TV with his voice dubbed over in that weird way because the government had banned it from being spoken out loud in people’s living rooms, my ears must have just blocked out his words as they were too boring. All I remember were the strange, ever-changing accents that spoke those words. Meanwhile, my Tory-supporting uncle told me that Margaret Thatcher didn’t want us to give in to terrorists, but I just thought: ‘Why not? Wouldn’t that mean they might leave us alone?’ Surrounded by a Jewish family, the difference between Catholics and Protestants was beyond me too. Weren’t they just Christians? I’d never been to Ireland and I didn’t know any Irish people.

But the terror was real. I might be imagining this, but I’m sure that from my bedroom in our home near Temple Fortune I heard the distant explosion of that IRA bomb that was detonated near Staples Corner in the early 1990s. No one was killed by that one, but there were others that did kill. Once, visiting the Natural History Museum with my mum, we had to run out because of a bomb scare. I’d never seen my mum run like that.

All of which is to say that I, too, was once touched, in a small and essentially suburban way, by the Troubles. Many years later I visited Northern Ireland for the first time and learnt about partition in the place where it really mattered. I have since been back several times, once even going on a journalistic expedition to one of the war-zone-type ‘peace wall’ areas dividing Loyalist and Republican streets in Belfast.

Will Brexit now resurrect that hell of a murderous sectarian conflict? Will the demons of history rise up? Personally, I think not – though that’s not to say there aren’t serious issues to consider concerning the future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Lars Karlsson, an expert in customs and ‘smart borders’ with whom I spoke earlier this week, believes it’s perfectly feasible to use technology to design a frontier that looks and feels almost exactly like the invisible border that currently exists. I tend to agree. All that’s needed is political will (a big caveat, I know, but it’s been mustered in similar situations before). I’m told by people in Belfast that sectarian divisions are deepening, in part because of the shameful lack of a functioning executive at Stormont, but I refuse to believe that things can regress so much. The communities in Northern Ireland have come too far. The Troubles now seem to belong to a different era. Terrorism these days means something else – Islamist or far-right acts of murderous violence. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps that’s just the misguided impression of a naïve, distant Londoner.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

View from Washington: Trump's infrastructure plan is crumbling

DJ Gribbin was in the news this week. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, as I suspect most people outside America (and probably many in it too) won’t have either. He’s nothing to do with the Detroit house scene or even UK grime; D.J. are his initials rather than his job title. His job was as Trump’s chief infrastructure policy advisor until he resigned this year. His resignation isn’t as headline-making as other departures from the Trump administration like Steve Bannon, Rex Tillerson or even Gribbin’s immediate boss, Gary Cohn. But Paul Dempsey explores in View From Washington why his departure in some ways is much more important, especially for the civil engineering sector.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Ultra-hi-tech invisible Irish border ‘perfectly doable’, ex-customs chief says

At the moment, we can only speculate as to what the future UK-Ireland border will be like. Hopefully, it won’t change too much from what it is now. As someone who has lived and worked in the Republic of Ireland and often travelled from there to the UK (and back), I crossed it many times and in both directions, but will always remember my very first crossing, which I described in detail in my book ‘Vitali’s Ireland’.

On that rainy day in June 2005, when I travelled from Dublin to Newry to see a GP, my rationale was: why should I cough up €50 to see a GP in Dublin when, as a UK citizen, I could see one for free in British territory, i.e. in Newry?

The journey towards the border was smooth. But after Dundalk, the road became much bumpier. I was looking out of my car window, blowing my nose (I was suffering from bad cold) and munching a stale sausage roll. First I spotted an oblong shed with a mysterious sign: CUSTOMS FACILITATION OFFICE (as far as I knew, there were no customs barriers between Ireland and... Ireland, i.e. they had already been ‘facilitated’ to the extreme). Then came a row of dodgy-looking money-changing outlets. BRITISH SPY POST. DEMILITARIZE NOW! ran a colourful billboard, topped with skull and crossbones. I pretended not to have noticed it.

The road signs suddenly became dark green, strictly monolingual (in the South, they were normally in both English and Irish) and showed distances in miles, not kilometres, but it was only when I ticked off ‘Give Way’ instead of ‘Yield’ (the UK’s ‘Give Way’ road sign’s Southern equivalent) that I yielded - sorry, gave way - to the fact that we were in the UK.That was all!

When it was time to go back to Dublin, I realised I didn’t have any change in euros for the first Celtic-Tiger road toll station across the frontier (of which there were many in the South and none in the North). I parked near Newry’s Dunnes Stores and spent half an hour trying to change pound coins into euro — all in vain, until a young lady from the store’s newspaper kiosk simply gave me two euro coins and refused to accept anything in return. What a reassuringly optimistic last touch to my trip, for different currencies then constituted the only visible division between North and South.

Having reached the border, I pulled over at a currency-exchange outlet marking the unmarked North-South divide and got out of the car. The rain stopped, and a huge juicy rainbow, with one end in Ireland and the other in ‘the other’ Ireland,  was effortlessly bridging together two parts of the same small nation, dissected by the non-existent frontier.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Boycott university over autonomous weapons lab, academics say

In the current climate it’s sometimes tempting to think that carefully programmed, rational artificial intelligence technology responsible for decisions about defence offers us a marginally better prospect of avoiding a massive global conflict than leaving it in the hands of politicians. Until we’re confident about that careful programming though, I’d be reluctant to make a machine without its own sense of self-preservation responsible for deciding whether or not to press a button that could have massive consequences. The issue in question here isn’t on the scale of launching ballistic missiles, but the group of academics criticising a South Korean research centre over its links with a manufacturer whose work has been called into question have a point. Debates over the ethics of weapons development can wind on for ages and we have to draw a line somewhere. In the case of autonomous weapons, armed robots could be patrolling borders and skies, making choices with no human intervention, before the public discussion has a chance to catch up.

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