Drug detector chip, marine warming, Airbus move and more: best 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
This is fantastic news about advancements in the development of a ‘breathalyser for drugs’ involving the use of Raman (not the noodle) spectroscopy. Increasingly compact handheld devices that can give the ‘chemical fingerprint’ of substances already allow border guards to take measurements through packaging and enable police forensics teams to quickly scan for white powders at crime scenes. If researchers do succeed in developing a new breathalyser-type testing device that can give instant ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ results, that would surely be a boon for society.
Whatever your thoughts on the rights and wrongs of criminalising drugs (I, by the way, am largely of the view that it would be better to legalise and regulate at least some of those varieties that are presently illegal), it’s clear that people who get behind the wheel while under the influence – and thereby recklessly endanger others’ lives - should be detected and properly punished. At present, detection is not particularly straightforward. Plenty of verminous scumbags drive while high precisely because they know that they can do so with impunity. They are among the lowest of the low, in my view.
Police enforcement is not a dirty word. It can certainly be effective in stamping out harmful behaviour. In fact, proper enforcement will – ironically - actually become more important if society and the law do decide to move towards a more sensible, liberal attitude on drugs. As electrical engineer Professor Qiaoqiang Gan, who is quoted in Hilary Lamb’s article, correctly concludes: “The widening legalisation of marijuana [in the US] raises a lot of societal issues, including the need for a system to quickly test drivers for drug use.”
Counterintuitively, liberalisation is - in this case, at least - actually contingent upon greater control by the state and its agents. They are two sides of the same coin.
I think drugs do enormous harm to both individuals and society, but I think prohibition has simply failed and I have spoken to many senior police officers who privately feel exactly the same way about this issue. The pragmatic way forward is surely to gradually legalise and regulate – tightly – at least some of the commonly used recreational varieties. This would pull the rug out from under the feet of the violent gangsters currently making money hand over fist out of the drugs trade. It wouldn’t be a reckless leap into the unknown but rather a new, subtler and hopefully more effective iteration of the depressingly never-ending ‘war on drugs’.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Have you ever read a headline and thought “Well, that escalated quickly”? That’s what springs to mind when I saw this news article. Then again, when I actually read the content, it makes a lot of sense. 3D-printing technology allows individuals or groups of states to build dangerous items undercover and without the need for specialist equipment. These self-manufactured weapons could put a lot of people in danger, as anyone who owns a 3D printer can make whatever the hell they like. It’ll just take a few hours/days for a small batch. So if you’re planning on world domination using all 3D-printed guns, ammo, tanks… just remember, there will be an emphasis on the planning bit. Like, plan about 50 years in advance. And then some.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
I wrote about Galileo at some length last week so I’ll be brief this time, but this looks like a story that’s going to run for a while. The press and wider public are waking up to the EU’s attempts to shut the UK out of a project that we are a major contributor to. If that attitude extends to blocking wider defence and security cooperation, everybody will lose.
Quieter aircraft would be a boon for everyone, though the motives of the two partners in this latest initiative could hardly be more different. Even so, I’m inclined to think that the notion of autonomous flying taxis is still a lot further in the future than some of its proponents would like potential investors to believe.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
How can we save the world's endangered species? That’s the question posed in an academic study out this week and it happens to be the theme of the next issue of E&T. We’ll be looking at the threat to wildlife diversity all over the world, why it matters and what can be done about it. The study this week found that today’s measures to protect endangered marine species won’t work in the long run and most will disappear by 2020 unless the world does much more to cut greenhouse emissions. However, our Extinction issue explores emerging technology ideas to protect or save the world’s wildlife in the future including smarter anti-poaching programmes, tracking the ivory trade, 21st century ‘arks’ and whether there is even the faintest glimmer of hope that genetic engineering will one day be able to bring back the dinosaurs. On a cheerier note, we look at how the film studios and the robot builders do it.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
A news story out of Costa Rica of such good cheer that even the macaw pictured at the top of the page seems thrilled about it. And why not? He and all his jungle friends will benefit hugely from the announcement made by Costa Rica’s recently elected President, Carlos Alvarado, in which Alvarado stated that his government plans to oversee the complete abolition of fossil fuels in the small Central American country and that he wants Costa Rica to “be one of the first countries in the world to accomplish it, if not the first… We have the titanic and beautiful task of abolishing the use of fossil fuels in our economy to make way for the use of clean and renewable energies.” If only all world leaders took this far-sighted, thoughtful, nurturing and intelligent vision for our planet, instead of slashing the budgets for environmental agencies and scientific carbon-monitoring programs simply in order to spend that money instead on getting people off this planet and onto another one, as Donald Trump did this week. At least Costa Rica’s efforts - and those of similarly compassionate human beings, whether heads of state or their humble subjects - will in some way go towards offsetting the vapid, naked greed and impotent ambition of clowns like Trump - much as carbon must be offset to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Despite sometimes experiencing a nagging sense of guilt about the fact that most working days my car runs for only about an hour and spends the rest of the time sitting in a car park, I haven’t yet convinced myself that I should look at alternative ways of commuting. It’s convenient to be able to run other errands at each end of the working day and the ridiculous cost of travelling for the one stop between home and work means that once all the basic costs of keeping the car on the road are covered, it’s simply much cheaper to use it than to take public transport.
I’m sceptical, too, about the idea of a kind of time-share arrangement where I would have use of a vehicle at specific times during the day. OK, it’s a mindset that’s eventually bound to become obsolete, but I like the comfort of knowing my car’s there whenever I need it.
One proposal I can see changing my outlook is GM’s suggestion that owners of self-driving cars will be much more amenable to loaning out their vehicle for a fee when they’re not using it themselves. So I get it to drive me to work then set it free to roam the streets of Hertfordshire for the rest of the day until I’m ready to go home and summon it back. Is it illogical that I’d be more comfortable doing that than handing the keys over to a licensed cab driver who would do exactly the same thing? Hard to say, but it’s one of many questions about transport and car ownership that I suspect we’re all going to have to address in the next decade, like it or not.