star trek tricorder

Star Trek tech, VR spreadsheets, sexbot sceptics and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Dreamstime

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.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Star Trek-style medical device promises near-instant diagnosis

Another example of life imitating art - and it’s frequently the art of science-fiction TV and film franchises that is imitated. Star Trek seems to be a particularly rich vein to tap: if it’s not hologram avatars for business meetings or flip-phone communicators for snappy clamshell handsets, now it’s tricorder laser-analysis tools for medical diagnostics.

First habitable 3D-printed cement houses set to appear in Dutch city

While at times it can appear that the world is going to hell in a handcart, the counterpoint to that pessimistic view is that engineering is constantly coming up with new and ingenious solutions to pressing problems. Housing is a real concern - particularly for the 99 per cent of us not in possession of 99 per cent of the world’s wealth. The millenials in particular are up against it in terms of getting even the most tenuous toehold on the property ladder, so the opportunity offered by new alternatives to traditional housing, such as these 3D-printed concrete houses, could prove to be a godsend. Not only for developed countries: in poorer countries and disaster-stricken areas, 3D printing a new house is no longer a far-out notion, nor is it expensive. Engineers: solving the world’s problems one headache at a time.

Interview: Glen McIntosh, animation director for ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

In the week that the fifth entry in the Jurassic Park canon crashes through the undergrowth and into cine multiplexes across the world - to a lukewarm critical reception, by all accounts - here’s a terrific exclusive interview from E&T with the animation director responsible for creating the virtual ‘terrible lizards’ that terrify onscreen. Check out the beautiful pen and ink preparatory sketches included with this article: whatever your opinion of the (over)use of CGI in modern movies, it all starts with traditional artistic inspiration.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

10Mpbs minimum broadband speeds too low, government warned

The government is really dragging its heels over this. Arguments over what should be the minimal acceptable internet connection have been debated endlessly for years, by which time the original definitions have become hopelessly outdated. A failure to invest in infrastructure has led to a situation where even housing estates on the edge of cities can’t stream Netflix or YouTube without frustrating pauses while the internet trickles in.

One obvious solution would be to mandate that new builds have fibre connections to the wall. A relatively cheap requirement for housing developers that would help to expand high-speed fibre networks to more remote areas using private funds. This would also tie in nicely with the government’s supposed drive to ramp up house construction in the UK in order to ease pressure on the property market. Yet the Conservative government’s entrenched fear of any sort of business regulation will, of course, prevent sensible suggestions such as this ever being implemented.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Future of VR may lie in spreadsheets, not gaming

Eurgh, how boring! So instead of a ‘Ready, Player One’ kind of future scenario, where there are weird, wonderful and downright exciting scenarios at your fingertips (without the dystopian feel, of course), VR is going to be used for Microsoft Excel. Jeez. Apparently, commercial interest in VR has been skyrocketing, with ideas like virtual meetings and avatars to save on travel costs and time. However, you may end up puking mid-conversation on an important issue, as you can get motion sickness when you’re doing your VR thing. Make sure you take your Stugeron. Or Fisherman’s Friends. Whatever floats your boat. Joking, of course. It’s not as if you’re going to be throwing yourself off fictional mountains or fighting dinosaurs in your workplace.

On an exciting note, Excel documents are going to be brought into 3D. RIVETING.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Sex robots’ health benefits questioned by UK doctors

In the same week that a High Court judge upheld NHS England’s decision to stop spending almost £100,000 a year on homeopathic treatments, doctors who have studied another potentially costly therapy whose supporters say it could have wide-ranging benefits published their sceptical findings in the British Medical Journal.

Lawyers for the British Homeopathic Association had argued there is “plain evidence” that the sort of treatment it advocates is effective in some cases and said it will continue to champion its health benefits in the wake of its legal challenge against guidance that would have prevented GPs prescribing it for new patients. I suspect it’ll take a while for the cash saved from the NHS budget to compensate for the legal costs involved in the whole business, but it’s at least a victory for science. Complementary and alternative medicines may have some limited benefits, but as far as I’m concerned there’s no robust evidence to support their provision through public funding.

With proponents of realistic sex robots suggesting they could have a therapeutic value by providing an outlet for people with disabilities, or help to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, how long before someone suggests the NHS should think about providing them? Assessing the pros and cons is going to be much more complicated than with the sort of controlled testing that medicines can be subjected to, but this study found little empirical evidence that ‘sexbots’ could have a positive influence. In fact, the doctors involved believe they’re likely to have negative consequences, potentially blurring the line between fantasy and reality for those who might want to use them to act out violent or abusive scenarios.

Robots of all kinds are only going to get more and more realistic and it’s safe to predict that there’s going to be no shortage of customers for the sort of machines that are forecast to make the sexbot industry worth billions in the not too-distant future. It’s reassuring to see health professionals making a pre-emptive strike before it occurs to manufacturers that they could be profiting from an already cash-strapped NHS.

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