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Bitcoin, blurred faces, binstagram and more: our picks of the week’s news

Image credit: pa

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Rampant Bitcoin mining could hamper efforts to keep climate change under control

I’m not interested in Bitcoin. It is product of our age – someone has found a way of creating wealth out of nothing using modern technology. As with anything where money apparently appears from nowhere, there are always going to be losers as well as those at the top end who almost invariably win.

Take the stock market for example, which was originally conceived when people invested in companies because they wanted those companies to succeed. Now, while many would pit arguments against me claiming the financial services industry is a major employer and revenue generator for the UK, it largely exists without creating anything other than wealth for itself.

If a company’s priority is to line its shareholders pockets, then sometimes customers and employees don’t reap the benefit. Bitcoin is similar. Invented by the fictitious Satoshi Nakamoto, who may well be Australian entrepreneur Craig Wright, the notion of creating wealth based on an ability to mine digital currency seems bizarre. Basically it hands the wealth to those with the computing power, i.e. those with the funds to acquire the resources and electricity. According to an earlier report, Bitcoin mining now takes up 0.5 per cent of the global electricity consumption and that is massive.

Wikipedia tells me the world’s annual electricity consumption for 2016 was 21,776 TW h/yr. Half of one per cent of that is around 108.9 TW h/yr. This equates to about a third of the consumption of the UK and is almost equal to that of the Netherlands, which is placed at 31 in the global consumption league table. That means there are 188 countries whose electricity consumption is less than that of the bitcoin mining community. If it rises to five per cent, as predicted in an earlier E&T news story, only China, USA and Russia would be bigger consumers. In a world that faces numerous problems, but none as great as self-inflicted climate change, to create such a problem with no benefits except wealth gain for the wealthy is madness.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Anonymous blurred faces on the news given more emotion thanks to AI

Like something from your abstract art nightmares.

Some new AI process blurs faces, but instead of the weird pixelated look, you get a nice, emotional expression that is likened to a lazy artist that can’t be bothered to properly fill the features in.

A team from SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) created an updated pixelating technique using an AI “painting” approach. Apparently, their AI learns from over 1,000 years of artistic technique. Sounds sophisticated. Maybe the next step will be learning the art of war.

Then we’ll have a strange, colourful version of Terminator or something.

SFU’s system uses five levels of AI processing to simulate a smart painter, using art abstraction to repaint the video as if an artist was painting every frame. The team says the result is more engaging. Like a car crash. You can’t tear your eyes away.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Gatwick Express ordered to remove 30-minute advertising claims after frequent delays

Water companies told to do more to fix leaky pipes

Two stories this week about how private companies that operate state infrastructure with a monopoly are failing (yet again) to do their jobs properly. Despite the assertions of Thatcher and Major, under which the water and rail networks were privatised respectively, giving one company control of a service that consumers have no choice but to use is clearly doomed to failure.

The Tory’s ideological position has always centred on the fact that the free market, and competition, will bring greater efficiency than state run systems. But whether you agree with them or not, this clearly doesn’t apply to water and trains where there is only one available avenue for consumers.

Defenders will argue the competition comes during the bidding process for the contracts for these services. But you can see time and time again that companies undercut each other to the point where their bids cannot actually sustain the service they claim they will run efficiently. When they run out of cash, they don’t get the blame, the government simply hands over a fat package to keep these essential services operating.

Official figures show that all but one of the private train operators in the UK receive more in subsidies than they return in the form of franchise payments to the government. Meanwhile, the cost to the taxpayer has actually doubled since the 1990’s.

Why not cut out the middle man and go the route of nationalisation? The 30 year trial of private rail and water has clearly not worked, time to admit it and go back to the drawing board.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Internet dependency on the rise in the UK as voice calls drop for the first time

Put social media in the binstagram for ‘Scroll-Free September’, experts advise

Facebook launches tools to help users limit time spent on the site

These three stories boil down to: get off social media. Look, even Facebook claims to care about preventing you from zombie scrolling through your social media feeds. This week, we have learnt that internet dependency is very much still on the rise, with many people checking their phones first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Facebook saying it wants time spent on the platform to be “time well spent” is comparable to a dealer professing that they hope their clients are brought together with loved ones over a nice bit of meth. Facebook’s founding president publicly admitted the platform was designed to be addictive, and researchers are seeing the same patterns of addiction in compulsive tech users that they see in substance addicts. It’s pretty obvious that Facebook doesn’t really want you spending any less time with it… but it is in the midst of a months-long PR crisis and needs to look responsible, by putting Mark Zuckerberg in a suit, and pretending to care about your mental health. Cynicism aside, I have found Instagram’s “You’ve caught up” notification – which appears when you’ve seen all the new posts in your feed – useful for putting a stop to my scrolling on that platform and think that something similar on Facebook could be a small help for compulsive users.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society for Public Health is taking a harder line by promoting “scroll-free September”, putting social media in the same category (seriously harmful to your health) as alcohol (Dry January) and tobacco (Stoptober). I think this is a good idea. I can’t wait for all the rest of social media to go the way of MySpace.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Google to launch censored search engine in China

With all my interest in Chinese history and culture: Taoism, Confucius, Tibet,  the Great Wall, the White Russian area of Shanghai and so on – I will probably never be allowed to visit China.  For that, I have to ‘thank’ my eldest son, a Canada-based company director and an expert in electronic security for human rights defenders, who, on the eve of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, found some interesting data on the web and published it online and in the Guardian newspaper. The sensitive data in question constituted  some secret Chinese authorities' ‘shopping lists’, with the names of Western companies who willingly – and contrary to main democratic principles - sold to the Chinese their latest electronic eves-dropping, tapping and monitoring equipment that would allow the latter to keep any possible dissent under control during the Games. Those were among the largest and best-known companies in the area, so the outcry was enormous. Denials were issued, and my son received some anonymous threats, but no legal claims were made – the best proof of the fact that the revealed information was truthful. My son’s (and my) last name, however, was obviously blacklisted by Chinese authorities, and since then all our attempts to get a Chinese visa have been met not with outright refusal, but rather with some unreasonable demands and nit-picking which eventually made us give up.

I wonder if Google is now prepared to follow in the above-mentioned Western companies’ stead and sacrifice integrity in favour of profit? As one of the indirect ‘victims’ of such an unprincipled approach, I will be watching any further developments with interest. My son, I am sure, will be too.

Internet dependency on the rise in the UK as voice calls drop for the first time

The first to go were letters. Not the 26 letters of the alphabet, which – surprisingly - are still pretty much around, but the good old ‘epistle’, or as my Concise Oxford Dictionary puts it (for the benefit of those who might have forgotten), “written or printed message addressed to person(s), usually sent by post or messenger and fairly long (sic – VV)”.

Tell me honestly, when did you pen your last hand-written missive, put it in an envelope, sealed with the help of your own multi-tasking tongue, then attached a Liz-headed stamp and took it (the envelope with the letter) to a red pillar box on the street corner? I for myself, would find it very hard to recall. Ten years ago perhaps? Sure enough, I still occasionally post (and even less frequently receive in the post) cheques or some boring bureaucratic forms, but a personal letter? What’s the point when I can sms or email anywhere in the world, not worrying about buying a stamp or cutting my tongue, press the ‘send’ button – and bingo: my hasty and ill-considered message would pop up on my addressee’s screen in Australia! I cannot cancel it, recall it, or take it back. As my writer friend Douglas Kennedy once remarked, it is impossible to calculate how many lives and careers were ruined by the hasty and ill-considered presses of the ‘send’ button! The whole epistolary literary genre – all those novels and novellas in letters and triggered by letters – has disappeared too and will soon be incomprehensible to younger readers. Take Nabokov’s “Lolita”, for example, where the whole plot was kick-started by a letter which a hurt lady (Lolita’s Mum) wanted to take to the post box, but got run over by a car on her way.

Sorry, I’ve digressed. According to the above news story, it looks like phone calls and conversations are next to disappear. Indeed, what’s the point of straining your vocal cords when you can just – again – type it all out and press the button?

What’s to follow? Birthday parties, weddings, funerals and other social occasions as we know them to be replaced with their VR equivalents?

Call me a retrograde, but I would hate the idea of spending the rest of my life staring at a screen, no matter how eye-friendly and pixel-rich. So let’s keep making phone calls and give our friends and loved ones the pleasure of hearing our own voices - full of joy, or trembling with excitement, but with no emoticons attached.   

Mark Ballard, associate editor

Senator lays out plan to fight disinformation, and rein in Big Tech

The US senate will be treading a fine line in its attempt to counter political disinformation by regulating free speech on the web.

US Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Mark Warner drafted a white paper last week where he proposed 20 measures to prevent fake news and digital malignants undermining democracy. He notes particularly, Russia and the efforts by digital advertisers to combine the science of psychological persuasion with people's personal data to influence their behaviour.

The Democratic Party senator's proposal touches upon a matter that is delicate to his constituents: identity and civil liberties.

On the face of it, the way to deal with disinformation is to force people to stand by their words. And do that by making them identify themselves when they speak. That might be the democratic essence. And it is the flavour of recent pressure on social media companies such as Facebook.

But we should be cautious about forcing platforms to make users prove their identity, said Warner. That involves verifying their location. And oppressive government officials might use such information to persecute dissidents. Native American and LGBT groups have, moreover, protested at Facebook's attempts to counter fake news by establishing people's real names.

Yet to hide one's identity one must create a fake identity. And fake identities, said Warner, can undermine the integrity of digital markets. His policy recommendation did not muster a direct answer to this problem.

But it hinted at a regime in which dissidents would be authorised by the state. In the way protests are allowed in London only on application to the authorities, and only if they follow the designated route, at a designated time and keep to certain rules of decorum. When things go beyond agreed limits, police contain protesters by kettling them: encircling their main body with a thick line of hardened riot police and closing it in tight so the protest suffocates.

This seemed to be what Warner was hinting at.

Any effort in this area needs to consider the distinction between inauthentic accounts created in order to mislead or spread disinformation from accounts clearly set up for satire and other legitimate forms of entertainment or parody, he wrote.

Surely this does not mean all but state-sanctioned satirists would be digitally circumscribed, in order to protect Western democracy against interference from quasi and former dictatorships whose historic record is marked most notably by their oppression of all but state-sanctioned artists, journalists and satirists?

If not the essence of democracy, perhaps dissent is the salt. At least, the policy has concluded we can only stomach so much of it, and - as it has complained also of late - that it can stomach only so much free speech as well. Warner proposes the making of a recipe. As the behavioural advertisers and malignant influencers might put it, you are what you eat.

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