moon surface

Moon return, fighting online abuse, AI job threat and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: DT

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

Nasa calls for renewed Moon exploration after finding frozen water at the poles

I miss the Moon landings. Actually, I missed them entirely the last time they were a thing, by dint of being very small at the time. They still hold a singular fascination for me, though, to the present day. The International Space Station is all well and good, but it’s not very exciting, is it? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t underestimate for one second the bravery and commitment of the men and women who go up there and spend weeks, months, on end in such splendid isolation. Still, you can see why the public has lost interest in space. It’s not amazing any more. As shallow as it sounds, the public needs to be amazed, because if you can amaze the public, you’ll find both public and private purse strings automatically become that much looser. Look at all the money currently being thrown at autonomous vehicles, smart toasters and other Earth-bound bobbins. They’re nothing compared to a Moon landing. To see man (and woman) walking on the surface of another heavenly body, I think it’s high time to blow some minds with that again. Now that Nasa scientists have found definitive evidence of ice water on the Moon’s surface, let’s go back and take a proper look. I know everyone is fixated on flying to Mars these days, but it’s not like we’ve exhaustively explored our nearest celestial neighbour. She holds secrets we have yet to discover.

Government lays out papers summarising no-deal Brexit planning

Executive summary: no deal, no plan, no idea, no surprise.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Support children to fight destructive and harmful online abuse, says Mrs Trump

Following this speech, which called on adults and tech companies to help children protect themselves from online abuse, many hooted at the irony of a White House campaign against cyberbullying. And given Donald Trump’s notoriously angry, name-calling, threatening use of Twitter, I have some sympathy for this position; surely the White House must lead by example? However, it’s worth pointing out that Melania Trump is not her husband. She’s a former model from Slovenia, thrust (seemingly unenthusiastically) into one of the most public offices in the world.

Melania Trump has chosen to take a much less prominent public role than other modern First Ladies – some speculate because she is not a native English speaker – and decided to focus her attention on a campaign to protect children, particularly with regards to cyberbullying. I have no reason to believe that her wish to protect children is insincere. I also do not believe that Melania Trump could rein in her husband’s online behaviour by any means (and she has confirmed that she has attempted to do so). I would like to believe that Melania Trump is entirely aware of the horrific consequences of her husband’s behaviour and policies (particularly with regard to children) and is working independently to make whatever small amends she can for them.

Give her a break. After all, she married Donald Trump so none of the rest of us would have to.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

AI poses a threat to British jobs, warns Bank of England’s chief economist

Once more the financial sector believes it is talking about ‘British industry’ because it sees that change is afoot. Change isn’t always bad and the financial sector isn’t all of British industry, but it is a sector in which artificial intelligence could be deployed to good effect. Combining loads of historical data then using clever algorithms to determine whether the ‘computer says no’ - or yes for that matter - strikes me as a pretty good use of technology. I’m sure instant decisions on the stock market will also play an important role in the world of fintech (financial technology) as it is becoming known, but it is more the broader investment banking environment where I see it as of huge benefit.

If those charlatans swanning around in the noughties had actually had well-developed AI to embed in their computer systems, and thus control their instinctive greed, it’s far more likely that the 2008 global meltdown wouldn’t have happened. Millions of people lost jobs and livelihoods around the world; poverty – real poverty – resulted for many. Millions more have had to suffer a decade of austerity and watch our police, health and education services wither away. The banking sector still cannot see that it is to blame, cannot understand that unfettered greed is unsustainable. If AI does cause its own fourth industrial revolution, and jobs are lost in their droves, let’s hope that it is the right ones that are lost this time.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Tax on tech giants could support public interest journalism, says Corbyn

After decades of politicians bashing the press, it's refreshing to hear one talking about the growing threat from the tech giants that have decimated newsrooms in recent years, from search engine news to social media fan news. To be fair, bodies like Google already provide funds for digital news innovation projects, many of which are tackling issues like fake news. Corbyn’s idea would go much further, taxing technology companies to help fund traditional ‘worthwhile’ journalism. He seems to have a few channels like the BBC or investigative journalism organisations in mind as beneficiaries, so it’s doubtful the initiative would be spread very widely across the media. The idea is probably unworkable on a practical level, anyway.

Kalashnikov puts giant military robot statue on display outside Moscow

Haven’t we seen this robot before somewhere? The arms company Kalashnikov unveiled what appears to be a walking troop carrier at an arms show in Russia this week, but it’s hard to take what looks like something from a 1970s sci-fi action thriller seriously. It seems an unlikely coincidence that an engineering development programme should come up with something that looks like a cross between the biped robots from Star Wars, Robocop and Transformers.

Halogen bulbs to be banned in the EU; phase-out starts next week

The move to ban halogen bulbs - or lamps, as engineers call them - from sale in Europe is welcome from an environmental perspective and shows how fast LED technology has developed. It doesn’t seem long ago that halogen was a greener alternative to tungsten. Replacing them isn’t always as simple as changing the bulb, though: dimmer switches may need to be replaced, too, for example. LEDs are just the start of a revolution in the lighting industry that could find the once humble light bulb essential to smart buildings or the Internet of Things. Look out for our next issue, which is a lighting special.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Better weather forecasts expected using laser-equipped spacecraft

It’s been widely noted that the launch of this wind-measuring mission was delayed by 24 hours because of high winds - a nicely ironic touch to liven up a news story. This is a significant project, though, because it will provide truly global wind observations, filling in gaps where Earth-based monitoring is patchy, such as over the oceans and parts of the southern hemisphere. Better information should lead to better weather forecasts and more opportunity to prepare for what’s coming.

Tidal stream prototype generates record levels of electricity off the Orkney coast

It’s encouraging to see how quickly marine energy technology has developed since the turn of the century and the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney has played a big part in nurturing this nascent sector. Scotrenewables is rightly proud of the 3GWh of electricity produced by the SR2000 tidal stream prototype in its first year of testing. What’s needed now is a policy and investment climate that will let promising technologies move on from the development phase to full commercial viability.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Remote control robots discover ancient tunnels in Peru

Being able to send a drone or robot down a narrow passageway or deep underwater might take the Indiana Jones-style romance out of archaeology, but I assume it’s making life a lot easier for groups like the Stanford University team who were able to explore tunnels at the Chavin de Huantar temple without putting themselves at risk. Not to mention how much less unnerving it must be to discover what look like the remains of human sacrifice via a video screen rather than stumbling on them in a dark and confined space.

Thousands of miles away, the hot, dry summer the UK has been experiencing looks like it could finally be coming to an end, but thanks to images captured from drones has exposed evidence of ancient structures in the landscape. It’s another example of how technology working its way into the mainstream, combined with the ability to share discoveries on social media, is helping groups of enthusiastic amateur scientists and historians to enrich our knowledge of the past. With robots like the ones used in Peru likely to soon be as affordable as the drones you can pick up in a high-street store today, that’s a trend which is likely to continue.

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