Wind farm bird risk, emoji takeover, IKEA robot and more: best of the week’s news
Image credit: Josh Loeb
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
Turbine watching might sound like an eccentric hobby, but there were several people on the boat with me, so others evidently share this passion. I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed my visit to an offshore wind farm this week. In fact, ‘enjoyed’ is an understatement. It was probably the most memorable thing I've done work-wise since joining E&T 14 months ago. The whooshing sound the giant blades made was spine-tingling and as Channel Diver - the boat I was riding on - sped back to the marina, a dolphin broke the surface right in front of the bow.
I’d booked the trip with the intention of writing a feature about the pros and cons of wind power. Apparently there’s concern about the impact on seabirds. Seabirds or climate change? You decide. Then again, these post-modern windmills might not actually kill seabirds after all, so maybe there’s no choice to make.
Anyway, ideally I like to see up close and personal the thing I am investigating before beginning any major journalistic undertaking. Hence why I went down the London drains for a feature about wastewater and toured an incinerator while researching what happens to the contents of our rubbish bins. Of course it’s not always possible, but whenever I can I like to practice the principle that journalism is about getting close up to the real McCoy rather than just searching for information on the internet.
It turns out we will all soon be seeing a lot more of offshore wind, it so happens. If the Government’s Industrial Strategy is anything to go by, Whitehall now takes a dim view of onshore turbines and has its eyes fixed longingly at the sea. Our offshore electricity generation capacity could increase five-fold by the 2030s, slashing greenhouse gas emissions in a way that should make Greens weep tears of joy.
Britain’s identity is bound up with the sea, so the choice of this type of renewable energy as our environmental saviour also seems appropriately patriotic. With the Union Jack fluttering from her mast, Channel Diver glided beneath one of the 116 Triffid-like structures that make up the 400MW-capacity Rampion windfarm off the West Sussex coast opposite Brighton. Then the skipper offered us all mugs of tea and turned off the boat’s engine so we could hear that great, tremendous whooshing sound: “FwooOOOM! FwooOOOM! FwooOOOM! FwooOOOM!”
One passenger remarked: “Record that for me, and play it over and over again, and I’ll sleep like a baby.”
It reminded me of the time my wife fell asleep underneath a pylon listening to the relaxing hum of electricity. She’s always been one for pylons. She says that she used to entertain herself by spotting different types of pylons while on long car journeys (that counted as entertainment in the days before iPhones). Pylonspotting. Now that really is eccentric!
Tim Fryer, technology editor
I think this is one of those ‘t’was ever thus’ type stories. All generations are convinced that the one after it shows no respect, is lazy and eats Wagon Wheels that are smaller than they used to be. One of the engaging things about Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the father’s opinion of the majority of his daughters as flirtatious, foolish and uninteresting things – along with many other observations of people and families that will remain timeless. That book is written in such charming prose that the content is almost left behind by the joy of reading. And yet, it is not the last charming book that has ever been written. Much as I enjoy some of the classics, many of my favourite books are more recent, but obviously written in a more contemporary style. I just read ‘How to Stop Time’ by Matt Haig, and that contains the imagery, compassion and imagination to make it a thoroughly entertaining read. Some of the vocabulary has gone since Elizabeth and Mr Darcy circled each other’s emotions and much has been introduced; obviously the emojis that prompted this news stories come into that category.
Reading anything at all is a big step forward from a hundred years ago. Parents who have thought the original ‘Peter Pan’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’ would be a good bedtime read for their offspring might be surprised at how archaic and turgid it is. These days, children’s books are great (all hail JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett) and they get children into reading. Language, spelling and punctuation are all evolving and if emojis enter the written world then it’s just part of that evolution. If kids can’t spell it’s not ideal, but technology has given us the gift of the spellchecker and as most written submissions don’t need a pen anymore, spelling isn’t the deal-breaker it once was. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to get lazy, but the way we communicate with each other has evolved at an astonishing rate over the last couple of decades – children have moved with it, their parents need to as well. Smiley face.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
As man and woman increasingly look to the heavens and begin plotting ever-more realistic future journeys deep into the inky black unknown of space - largely down to the irrevocable mess we’re making of the planet we currently inhabit - here’s an interesting new take on how to maximise the efficiency of long-distance space travel (as all space travel inevitably is). It turns out that piloting a spaceship is not so very different to driving a car: you could fly more slowly to save fuel. If you’re not in a hurry to get to Mars, take it easy, enjoy the cosmic scenery (which, presumably, would be endlessly jaw-dropping), save a boatload of space petrol and still arrive in good time to start the depressingly inevitable work of messing up another planet. It’s what homo sapiens does, apparently.
Meanwhile, at least some light relief is promised for the frustrated humans left on Earth, still attempting to put together the cheap furniture they’ll need to brighten up their post-apocalypse shacks, shelters and caves. A robot in Singapore has been trained to put together a flatpack chair from IKEA unaided, using 3D cameras for sight and special grippers on the ends of its arms to hold the necessary pieces to finish the piece. This is great news for the millions of us who dread the prospect of sitting tearfully on our living room floors, surrounded by seemingly unrelated chunks of cheap wood, like a palaeontologist attempting to reconstruct the skeleton of a previously unknown dinosaur from its scattered and fossilised remains. While the robot was able to complete the chair-building task, we aren’t told whether it had also been programmed to yell expletives and throw up its robot arms in frustration at the bafflingly enigmatic instruction leaflet, with its simplistic pictograms of smiling cartoon characters looking pleased with themselves. Humankind has come a long way in some respects; in others, not so much.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Researchers have inadvertently engineered an enzyme that can efficiently digest the common plastic called PET. They say this enzyme could form part of a strategy to deal with plastic pollution of the oceans. If they are right, and it turns out that the process really can be scaled up from the lab to industrial level it will certainly make a useful contribution to one of today’s major concerns - and one that’s on the agenda at this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - but it won’t be the whole solution. First, we need to stop using so much ‘disposable’ plastic - when did pubs decide that a glass of orange juice had to be served with a straw? Did someone suggest it encouraged people to drink more? Second, we need to make sure that the plastic we do dispose of finds its way to a recycling plant and doesn’t end up in the sea. And not just in Europe. I’ve read that it’s a much bigger problem in Asia, so the message needs to go out around the world, along with encouragement for governments to provide adequate rubbish collection and recycling facilities.
I was surprised to learn that the risks of bird strikes around offshore wind farms hadn’t been studied in greater depth before, but in 2014 a number of project developers and other bodies with an interest in offshore renewables clubbed together to pay for this multi-million-pound survey, which was able to monitor seabird behaviour at three levels: windfarm perimeter, individual turbines, and blades and rotor. It turned out that there were far fewer collisions than current models predicted, with the suggestion that birds are better at avoiding obstructions than was previously thought. I can’t say I’m all that surprised that birds aren’t 'bird-brained’ about their own safety, but having the evidence is always better than making assumptions.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Trust isn’t a new problem for technology, but it’s reached crisis in some places and is spreading. Technologists have long warned against the lack of privacy in digital platforms from social media to search engines. Now the privacy problem is deeper, with daily stories of data protection lapses, data scraping, allegations of unfair influence on elections, government enquiries and calls for tougher regulation and enforcement. Chris Edwards looks at Facebook’s latest troubles and argues that the trust deficit goes way back to business models established in the early years of the web, but this will soon be swept away by a tidal wave of new platforms under the coming web 3.0.
Trust is a very public issue for the web, but it also threatens to slow the adoption of emerging technologies that could improve society with advances from more environment-friendly resource allocation to better healthcare and even fairer law enforcement. Would you be policed by algorithms? Josh Loeb investigates the growing use of AI in police work. He finds some worrying examples of algorithm bias, but could machine learning make law enforcement fairer? And are we right to hold technology to higher standards than humans? Should it be 100 per cent right or just better than the alternative?
Under the General Data Protection Regulation – coming in next month across Europe – companies may have to explain how they arrived at decisions. ‘Computer says no’ won’t be good enough. That presents a problem for the ‘black box’ decision-making of AI and machine learning.
Clem Chambers says the stock markets are heading for another worlwide crash ten years after the major one in 2008. That one was blamed on the banks. He says this time it will be blamed on the technology companies, even if it’s not really their fault, and they will become the new bogeyman. That’s what happens when trust is lacking.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
At first, I found this news story rather : ( . It even made me a little bit >: ( . It wasn’t hard to imagine a time when both literature and language will go to >: ). Nothing to :’ ( about then? Absolutely! Let all : D , for there are other, more >:-O things to :- s about!