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Killer robots, Trump’s social beef, carbon beavers 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.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

‘Killer robot’ ban proposed at UN meeting

It’s hard to believe anyone would disagree with the idea that ‘killer robots’ are a very bad thing that should remain the stuff of science fiction. Like so much at the interface between civil and defence sector tech research though, semantics mean that one person’s homicidal android is another’s example of how artificial intelligence can be exploited to carefully target weapons so they minimise and hopefully completely avoid civilian casualties. That said, it’s good that the United Nations has hosted a discussion of the issues involved, particularly when it’s apparent that moves to establish a Geneva Convention-style consensus on what’s acceptable in the theatre of war are moving at a slow pace.

Technology and conflict are evolving in parallel, with each adapting to the other. If we accept that more wars are inevitable, we have to acknowledge from the way in which they’re being fought today that men and women coming to blows on a battlefield with conventional weapons are likely to become a thing of the past. Replacing them with drone strikes controlled from thousands of miles away will reduce the death toll, but as soon as the human element is replaced by giving a drone the responsibility to identify a target itself and decide whether or not to pull its own trigger we’re opening a whole new can of ethical worms.

At the moment the international agreement is only a proposal, and countries seem to have very different ideas of what needs to happen next. Nevertheless, it’s an issue where the US and Russian administrations agree that placing restrictions on developing systems with lethal capabilities would be premature and stifle innovation. With these two major powers apparently intent on kicking regulations into the long grass, it looks like we’re a long way from any formal agreement.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

White House wades deeper into accusations of left-wing bias at Google

Graham Linehan (creator of ‘Father Ted’ and ‘The IT Crowd) once said that “facts are left wing”. While this statement will rile a lot of people up, there is some truth to it, especially when it comes to Donald Trump.

Trump struggles with the truth on an almost daily basis. He blatantly ignores facts, historical events, things he has said on record, in favour of whatever he is feeling on a certain subject at that time. A consistent or evidence-based approach is certainly not his strong point.

He has criticised Google’s news service for burying good stories about him while promoting negative ones from “left-wing” publications. Unfortunately for him, even America’s right-wing press mostly refuses to endorse his self-serving, nationalistic policies and statements. Just about the only publications that do are Fox and Breitbart, which both distort the truth to such a laughable extent that anyone who consumes news from other publications can see right through it.

Google News’s coverage often doesn’t portray Trump in a good light, but unfortunately for him, that’s just the nature of facts.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Jaguar Land Rover fits ‘virtual eyes’ to self-driving vehicle to test public trust

This looks like a quirky story, but there’s a lot of sense behind it. As humans, we often have to make decisions based on what we expect other humans to do – so a judgement about whether it’s safe to cross the road might depend on whether we think the driver waiting at a crossing has seen us or not. If there’s no driver, how do we predict what a machine will do? If the vehicle has ‘eyes’ that can look in our direction, that might give us more confidence that we’re not about to be run over. JLR’s ‘virtual eyes’ can only be found on a test vehicle at the moment, but technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Human factors matter.

And then there were three: GloFo exits 7nm chip process

Moore’s Law has held good for a surprisingly long time, but making electronics at ever-smaller scales couldn’t go on for ever. Read Chris Edwards’ commentary to understand what’s happening as the industry comes up against the laws of physics.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Domestic abusers using tech to spy on and control partners, charity reveals

According to Refuge, the use of technology by abusers to monitor, isolate, frighten and control their victims is on the rise, with more than 1,000 cases of abuse involving smart, connected devices such as fitness trackers. This is unsurprising. The most benign people use technology to check on their partners and it doesn’t take much imagination to think how the most controlling partners may use, for instance, location tracking devices to make their victim feel there is no possibility of escape or even brief refuge elsewhere.

While domestic abuse claims many hidden male victims, it remains a feminist issue in most countries. And so this story made me think of a recent issue of the Boston Review, The Once and Future Feminist, which explored how effectively technology has been assisting women’s emancipation, mostly focused on the issue of reproductive technology. Radical 20th century feminists such as Shulamith Firestone argued that advances in technology could help emancipate women from some aspects of their biology (in this case, the enormous physical toll and social pressure involved with childbearing), while other feminist scholars rejected these advances and instead promoted embrace of “the natural”.

To reject all technology (painkillers, prenatal scans, the possibility of a C-section, etc) when it comes to dangerous and painful biological processes – such as growing a parasitic human inside your body then pushing it out of your vagina – is not what I would consider empowering. So I sympathise with Firestone and Boston Review guest editor Merve Emre, who argues in favour of technology as a powerful, though not uncomplicated, tool for women’s liberation.

However, this warning from Refuge, along with many of the responses to Emre’s essay, casts a light on how technology developed and used by men with little understanding or regard for women’s concerns can have the opposite effect. This is not just about connected devices and reproductive technology – new technologies such as sex robots, which could conceivably be tools for gender equality, will more likely end up serving patriarchal interests unless women are involved in every stage of their development.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

White House wades deeper into accusations of left-wing bias at Google

Not so sure about the “left-wing bias”, but I have reasons to believe that Google, the world’s largest internet search engine, may have an anti-Vitali Vitaliev bias, no less! Let me explain.

For personal reasons, I recently had to remove from the web an old TV interview of mine. The interview producers agreed to do that immediately after I contacted them and the following day the footage disappeared from all their sites. Yet the Google search on my name kept stubbornly coming up with a photo link to the no-longer-existing interview. Clicking on that link would initially lead to some programming abracadabra, but later – and that was the main cause for my concerns – it began opening up some, hmm, how shall I put it, questionable (read: semi-pornographic) content not even distantly related either to the now-defunct interview, nor, as you may have rightly assumed, to yours truly, and was therefore harmful to my reputation – or so I thought (and still do).

Interestingly, that photo link only popped up after a Google search and did not feature in searches by other engines. During the last several days, I’ve been trying – unsuccessfully – to contact Google’s online privacy and security helplines, a long, tedious and absolutely futile cyclic process whereby you inevitably end up back at the starting point. Unlike with Amazon, which runs a very quick and efficient phone helpline where you can actually talk to a real human being, who – more often than not – would promptly resolve your problem, all of Google’s phone contacts are either non-existent or firmly disabled.

In short, so far I got nowhere. What’s more – as if punishing me for my efforts – the Google search engine now comes up with two links to the same removed interview: both the abracadabra and the semi-porn ones! I am truly at a loss as to what else can be done. The only thing that remains is to visit Google’s London offices, which I am planning to do next week. Will definitely keep you posted of the results in the next instalments of my ‘View from Vitalia’ blog.

China launches web platform to crush ‘online rumours’

I wonder whether the above news story gets “crushed” by China’s new web platform, because if it doesn’t, it should mean one of two things.

1. Chinese censors think that it is not “false” but true (which I am sure it is).

2. Piyao (a somewhat feline-sounding name of the highly fake-news-sensitive web platform) is still experiencing teething problems to confirm Douglas Adams’ tongue-in-cheek dictum that technology is something that doesn’t quite work yet.

The same, incidentally, should apply to this news pick of mine, too.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Beaver lifestyle found to be impacting on global warming

In Finland researchers have released findings on the growing beaver population and the impact on climate change. More beaver dams means an increase in water levels in rivers and ponds, so organic carbon from the soil is released into the atmosphere. Beaver ponds turn into carbon sinks or sources of the gas and the ponds and meadows could release up to 820,000 tonnes of carbon annually. That’s quite a bit.
 
So what shall we do? It’s not as if we can sit the beaver down and be like: “Steve, you and your furry family’s lifestyle is abhorrent. It’s making the world a poopier place. You need to calm this carbon stuff down.”
 
How about us, then? Why don’t we cut down on our carbon emissions so the good old beaver can go back to doing what it does best? Being a cool furry architect.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

UK commits £92m to fund its own satellite navigation system

Some things just seem better done at scale and some industries necessitate international collaboration. One such industry is aerospace, where the US is large enough to do it alone but smaller countries need more smaller countries. Hence Airbus, Eurofighter and Gallileo. Airbus is one of the few companies to have come out publicly against Brexit and start talking about moving operations as a result. Admittedly, Airbus has always been a political as well as a commercial operator, but it is a success story and it would be a great shame for the UK to lose its place there. Now for the UK losing its place in Galileo... the GPS project has taken decades and it would be a disaster for the UK’s contribution if it were thrown out, as it looks it might be. Let’s hope it can negotiate a way to stay in. Starting again on its own GPS satellite constellation just doesn’t make any sense.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Engineered sand cleans up storm water for drinking

As one of the team working on this project commented: “The way we treat storm water, especially in California, is broken.” Given the ever-present water shortages in urban areas all over the world – particularly predominantly hot, dry locations such as California – a sudden and unexpected deluge of the stuff should be treated as an opportunity, not only as a crisis. Make hay while the sun shines – or, in this case, when it rains. Instead of dumping the dirty water as quickly as possible, cities could take advantage of it to address other pressing needs.

The team of University of California, Berkeley engineers have devised a method of turning contaminated storm water into drinking water, courtesy of a new technology which filters liquid through sand. Looking at problems in a new way to spot the untapped potential is something engineers and entrepreneurs have in common and it is this type of thinking that could help steer the world’s population away from what is otherwise looking like an inevitable environmental catastrophe.

Beaver lifestyle found to be impacting on global warming

Who would have thought the common (and cute ‘n’ cuddly) beaver would pose an environmental threat, directly contributing to global warming due to their instinctive dam-building activity. The University of Helsinki has said that the rising number of beaver dams has caused an increase in water levels in rivers and ponds, resulting in organic carbon from the soil being released into the atmosphere. That’s something we didn’t know until this week. I wonder what other animals are unwittingly contributing to the global problem of rising carbon emissions?

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