Best of the year: E&T editors pick their favourite stories of 2018
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In what’s become an end-of-year tradition, instead of writing about a story from the week just finished, E&T editors mark the end of 2018 by looking back at the articles which really resonated with them in the past 12 months.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
This year could be remembered as the year politics and governments around the world started to bang up against the world’s technology giants. It really kicked off after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when select committees on both sides of the Atlantic started to ask difficult questions (and sometimes not-so-difficult questions dues to poor pre-briefings) of the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But it was about so much more than that. The antagonism grew throughout the year, ranging from child protection and trust and privacy issues to a UK digital services tax and a worldwide debate over whether technology companies should be taxed more to help the world cope with technology transitions like automation and AI that aren’t even here yet.
The stories were many and varied. The name ‘Zuckerberg’ appeared in well over a hundred items in our news stream for the year. Things are slowly changing for the tech giants. Even as we mourn the decline of the High Street at Christmas, Asos, the tech giant darling of retail, issued a profits warning. Have the 21st century tech giants peaked? I doubt it, but the climate is changing for them. And behind them there’s a digital tsunami slowly building.
You can find some of our coverage, from early in the year, in our issue on Technology and Trust, including Chris Edwards’ article on what might follow Facebook.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
I'm a bit torn. One of the privileges of life as a technical journalist is that we have the luxury of digging deeper into issues that are of interest to us. It is therefore no surprise that the stories that had most impact on me this year were ones that I followed up myself. I am torn - do I choose our coverage of extinction back in our May issue, or my report on marine renewable technologies in Orkney which we published in July? So I'll lump them in together and choose both.
There's no point in revisiting the actual topics, but the reason I feel comfortable putting them together is that they represent global issues - critical issues - that are within our gift as human beings to do something about.
Both issues are linked of course. Global warming, rising sea levels, change and loss of habitat - none of that is beneficial to species that have evolved slowly, in tune with the natural world. The relatively sudden environmental changes brought about by human-generated climate change are potentially catastrophic, unless you are a rat, cockroach or pigeon, who all seem to thrive in the mess we create. Ants are pretty robust too. Almost everything else, particularly our poster boy mammals, are struggling. Rather than throw up our hands in despair, there are things we can do, as I hope our series of articles demonstrated. Some of these are just common sense and commitment, but the use of technology in anti-poaching and protection, animal monitoring, and genetics and breeding programmes can make a huge difference.
It’s a very similar argument with energy. Sure, coal, gas and oil are still cheap enough to dominate generation and seduce those countries that have reserves and vested interests. But wind energy can now be competitive in its own right, while marine technologies could make a valuable contribution if given the chance. I know there is an argument that it has had a chance and not taken it; subsidies cannot go on for ever. But perhaps, particularly given the UK's leadership in this technology, it would be worth going that extra mile. Certainly, Orkney is making the most of its abundant natural resources, hooking in hydrogen tech as well, and is a model for what can be achieved if public and private enterprise work in harmony with a willing local community. A visit there was quite inspirational.
In both conservation and energy there are engineers and technologists who are doing incredible, inspiring and worthwhile things - not always matched by those with political power or those in charge of the purse strings - and it has been a joy over 2018 to be part of the E&T team that has been able to bring them to you.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And I’m not talking about Christmas. It’s our annual picks of online stories from the past twelve months! Huzzah! Basically, it’s where I have to waffle on for a wee bit longer than usual and include a couple more stories. And for this year, I’ve chosen the wonderful world of animals! Again!
So yeah, animals are a big thing for inspiring the latest technologies. We call it biomimetics. It’s pretty snazzy. I covered it a wee while back for our recent ‘How to take the soldier out of war’ issue, where I found gadgets and gizmos used by the military that were inspired by the all-natural power of nature. Awesome, right? Especially the flowers that spy on you. I can imagine it now – sunflowers with sunglasses and earpieces.
Cornell University found a way to use the leaping power of sea creatures to create simple aquatic robots. In the future, these jumping beans could be used for surveillance for water basins. I think this tech would be good for the toy market too. I bet kids would love to have jumping water robots as a Christmas present. I would like one. I’d have to find a stretch of water first, but hey. A robot from Boston Dynamics can also leap around like a madman. It’s called BigDog, and looks nothing like a dog. This beauty could be used alongside human troops as an efficient and tireless pack mule capable of carrying heavy loads over rough terrains. How useful!
Jelly robots that can fit through tiny holes were inspired by – you guessed it – elephants! I joke. But anyway, the creators of the super squishy bot believe they could act as ‘guardians of the oceans’ and can monitor fragile coral reefs without causing any damage. Neat. There was also the bat-like robot developed at Tel Aviv University that can navigate using echolocation. Robat is the first fully autonomous bio-robot that moves through a novel environment while mapping it solely based on echo information. The info delineates borders of objects and free paths between them. The team behind the robot says it demonstrates the great potential of using sound in future robotic applications.
I could go on about the use of biomimicry in technology, but it’s Christmas and I have presents to wrap and mince pies to eat, so be on your way. Merry Christmas everyone!
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Although this is a very recent news story for E&T, and so may strike you as an odd pick as one of the best of the year, it does possess an allegorical quality for me. For us humans, living and all too frequently squabbling on Planet Earth, the passage of time is of prime importance to us, as we measure our meagre lifespans by our own achievements, hoping to ‘leave our legacy’ before we inevitably pop our clogs.
When it all comes down to it, though, however fabulously successful or wealthy one becomes (or not), and no matter how amazing science, engineering and technology become at extending our finite lifespans through ground-breaking medical advancements (or not) - we're all inevitably heading to a lonely grave in the same cold, cold ground. Even the worst President in American history (for my money), Donald J Trump, regardless of the inordinately, disproportionately high opinion he holds of himself, will soon be gratefully enjoyed by the same egalitarian worms as you or I. Really, why worry?
Why bicker over the tiniest, most irrelevant facts of human existence? Why go to war? Why fight and kill and murder other human beings just to make a little bit more money, or in pursuit of the fleeting notion of a little bit more power and control, or to annex a little bit more land that was never yours to begin with (Russia, I'm looking at you)? What productive, beneficial good will it ultimately do you, and the rest of humanity, in either the short or the long term? What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?
I heard a radio report recently from Gaza, in which beleaguered inhabitants were interviewed about what it was like to live in that place, under constant threat and fear of missile attacks from the neighbouring Israelis. One man eloquently spoke of how the whole situation was utterly pointless, without foundation or merit, and driven solely by political posturing and religious, partisan aggression. What is the point of it all, he said, when in 100 years we’ll all be gone and this will all be forgotten? Quite so - and that’s a message you can take around the world.
What has any of this to do with Saturn’s rings, you might ask? Well, regardless of our own self-absorbed interpretations and fixations about time, hanging over us all as it does like the sword of Damocles, Saturn is quietly operating on an entirely different timescale that goes well beyond the geological. Frankly, Saturn’s calendar of change makes Earth’s tectonic movements seem like some sort of perpetual sliding puzzle as our continents gaily skate around on the surface of the planet. Every child for generations has known that Saturn has its famous rings and to us they appear as fixed and permanent as the fake smile on the face of a Fox News anchor. Apparently, though, Saturn’s rings are only a temporary feature, currently enjoying that graceful decay of middle-age that will be familiar to so many of us. The rings weren't always there and in another 100 million years are likely to be gone altogether, as they gradually – and we are talking extremely gradually - fall into Saturn’s gravitational pull, piece by icy piece.
“We are lucky to be around to see Saturn’s ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime," said one of the Nasa scientists involved in the rings’ study. "However, if rings are temporary, perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, which have only thin ringlets today!”
Essentially, in the immortal words of George Harrison, all things must pass. Even Saturn’s rings. Even 2018. And yes, even Brexit.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
2018 has been an interesting year for Tony Stark wannabe Elon Musk and his various outfits: SpaceX, Tesla and The Boring Company. SpaceX truly seems to be pushing the boundaries of what is possible with commercial space travel. This year saw the company launch its Falcon Heavy rocket (with Musk’s own Telsa Roadster inside) and land two first-stage rockets back on earth after propelling a capsule into space.
The likelihood that Tesla will eventually become profitable is also increasing, with the automaker finally hitting production targets for its Model 3 and ironing out kinks in its manufacturing process (ditching a bunch of unnecessary robots on the way). It also has its eye on significantly expanding capacity after it signed a deal to build a huge factory in China.
Lastly, just this week The Boring Company unveiled its first tunnel, which Musk touts as a way to beat Los Angeles’ notoriously heavy traffic. A commercial tunnel will ultimately require driverless functionality, a fully electric engine and the addition of extra wheels to commuter cars. But the idea is forward-thinking and who knows, maybe it could become the future of urban commutes.
But with all this success comes a dark side. Musk himself appears increasingly unhinged, and much like a certain US president has become prone to erratic and out-of-character outbursts on Twitter. First, he said he was going to make Tesla public at $420 a share which turned out to just be a very, very expensive publicity stunt (the SEC is suing him for millions). It later transpired that the reason he’d chosen this figure was to impress his girlfriend, pop star Grimes, who’d told him that 420 was a funny number because it’s associated with weed. And while we’re on the topic, Grimes? Seriously? Even ignoring the 17-year age gap this seems like a very strange pairing indeed. It looks like they’re still together though, so who’s to say there’s not true love there.
But Musk’s most distasteful moment was surely when he accused a British diver who helped rescue boys trapped in a Thai cave of being a paedophile. His sole justification for believing this is true? He’s an older white guy living in Thailand; quite a stretch indeed. It was also clear that he was just butthurt over the Thai authorities’ refusal to use a cumbersome mini submarine that Tesla engineers had quickly hacked together in an attempt to glean some positive publicity from a tense, and potentially tragic event.
To top it all off, Musk launched a range of flamethrowers that weren’t allowed to be called flamethrowers and is apparently entering the Tequila business next year. I for one can’t wait!
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
It was a pity that Josh Loeb, one of E&T’s best writers, left the magazine earlier this year. His 2018 features, news stories and blogs stand for their topicality, impeccable research and engaging writing style.
This feature – on the methods of thwarting the illegal trade in ivory – was, to my mind, one of his most notable contributions in 2018. Informative and humanistic, it raises the important issue of how technology can be used to save one of Earth’s most iconic animal species – African elephants – from continuing butchery for the sake of their much-coveted tusks. It ends on a rather unexpected note: it appears that the open-air nuclear bomb tests of the 1950s and 1960s have actually helped the process of proving the age of ivory by boosting the amount of Carbon 14 in the atmosphere. Increased levels in the tissues of some animals serve as proof that those particular elephants were alive or otherwise at the time of the tests and have allowed law-enforcement bodies to determine whether their tusks fall under the global ivory trade ban introduced in 1990.
Yes, it often happens in science and engineering that some clearly negative developments eventually lead to positive results and unexpected discoveries. Josh ends his feature on an optimistic and somewhat poetic note: “When it comes to the ivory trade, perhaps even mushroom clouds have a silver lining.”
The silver lining to the cloud of Josh’s departure from E&T is that, from what I know, he is now pursuing one of his life’s main passions – love of animals – with a veterinary-oriented publication. I’d like to wish him all the best in 2019.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
One of the most enjoyable events I was lucky enough to be involved in this year was when I was invited to act as a judge at the finals of PA Consulting’s annual Raspberry Pi challenge for schools and colleges, which was held at the IET’s London headquarters in Savoy Place. To be honest, I’m a tiny conflicted about initiatives like this, which aim to get young people thinking about careers in engineering and technology by tackling the widely held misconception that they’re all about spanners and oily rags. With one of my own children having decided on their own initiative to embark on an engineering degree, I can’t help being reassured by all the headlines about skills shortages and how they’re reflected in job opportunities and higher than average graduate salaries. The debate about tuition fees and loans looks set to rage on, but for those who’ve already made the choice, a four-year MEng course means coming out with a hefty debt they’ll probably be paying back for the next 30 years.
I couldn’t help being optimistic about the prospects for UK industry, though, having witnessed the sheer enthusiasm and ingenuity on display at this particular competition. Part of the judging process involved quizzing the teams behind environmental applications of the Raspberry Pi mini computer that included an interactive recycling bin, streetlights that turn off when they’re not needed and a portable charger to harvest solar and wind energy. What was particularly heartening was how these inventions weren’t just there to show how clever the Pi is; there was some serious thought put into addressing a real problem and how it could be solved.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the entrants in this year’s competition come up with, and hope that more and more schools and colleges will be getting on board. The theme this time round is transport and details have been recently announced. I’ve noticed talking to younger people recently about how we might reduce our reliance on car ownership that – probably because they have to rely on alternatives like public transport – they’re much less wedded to the idea that every household needs at least one vehicle, if not two or three, simply because it’s the most convenient way of getting around. A generation that’s got used to being able to summon an Uber on their phone and aren’t even bothered whether or not it has a human driver will be the one that ushers in a new way of thinking about personal mobility.
Whatever you’re doing over Christmas and the New Year, maybe take a little time to think about how you could manage it without jumping in a car that spends most of its time sitting outside your home. I’m confident that teams entering PA Consulting’s Raspberry Pi challenge will have come up with some interesting ideas – watch this space to find out what they are later in 2019.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
I do love a good statistic - and I’m quite fond of Jaffa Cakes too.
Seriously, you can learn a lot by looking at numbers, and the Royal Statistical Society’s list aims to “capture some of the zeitgeist of 2018”. It includes plastic pollution, which we were all aware of before, but a David Attenborough-fronted TV programme really pushed it up the agenda this year (and revived the market for paper drinking straws - though personally I’m quite happy to drink straight from the glass).
English readers will also be painfully aware of the furore over bad rail services - another statistic that made the list. Things are getting better, but my son still has to get up at 5am to catch a reliable train for work because later ones are so often late or cancelled.
I didn’t learn anything about statistics at school - our maths syllabus covered mechanics instead - so my first encounter with the subject was at university as part of my physics course, where this potentially dry topic was brought to life by the excellent Professor Michael Wolfson, to whom I pay tribute now, some 45 years later. I also learned a lot from a book called ‘How to Lie with Statistics’ by Darrell Huff. Last time I checked it was out of print, but I’ve just had another look and seen that it’s currently available from a certain well-known online retailer. I recommend it.
Did you notice that 2018 was the Year of Engineering? Non-UK readers can ignore that question, but for the rest of us this government-backed initiative was a welcome recognition that engineering makes a huge contribution to both national prosperity and the comfort of our daily lives. Therefore we need to make sure we nurture a new generation of engineers, and the best way to do that is to make sure young people are aware of what engineering is and the opportunities if offers, and - at the very least - guided to make choices that don’t close off their options too early. I’m not an engineer, but I’ve spent all my working life writing about it, as did my husband before he retired. I’m sure the conversations at home contributed to the fact that two of our three children became engineers. Spread the word.