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Social media addiction, autonomous UK and more: Best of the week's news

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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.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Excessive social media use shown to be comparable to substance abuse

Samsung users rage at being unable to delete Facebook app

Samsung phone users were cross this week about being unable to remove the Facebook app from their phones. Big deal, you may say, get a life and worry about something more important. It’s not top of my worry list but it is a sign of the declining trust in technology companies and I do have some sympathy for two further reasons.

First, it’s also the week when more evidence emerged of how addictive social media can be - more like gambling than physical drug addiction, but it can be an addiction nonetheless. So responsible technology companies should respect that and make it as easy as they reasonably can for those who want to lay off social media to do so. Putting an unremovable app on a phone doesn’t help. It may be inactive, but it’s always there to remind you, ready for you to sign in to just have a quick sneaky look at Ariana Grande’s latest pictures of her pet pig and then that leads God knows where. It’s like having a pack of cigarettes in the drawer – you might have the will power but why risk it? Why not throw them away?

Second, if customers are telling you they don’t want a feature and it could be removed then why not remove it? If they are that sure, why not do what they ask? After all, if they are wrong they can always go and download and install the app should they change their minds. I recently sorted out my iTunes library and once again I came across that U2 album that I never wanted, never asked for, and yet is still there hiding in a corner of my library and I can’t get rid of it. It doesn’t much matter. It’s just a little annoying.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

UK has key role in autonomous vehicle development, says Fox

There’s something fundamental that we all seem to be missing. Or ignoring. Put simply, we expect people to put their lives in the hands of autonomous-vehicle technology, but we can’t seem to find the technology to tackle autumn leaves on our railways, or a sprinkling of snow on our roads in winter.

Liam Fox – who somehow landed a role as the UK’s promoter of technology at the massive CES consumer technology trade show in the US – did get it right when he said that the UK has a big part to play in autonomous-car technology. We can’t lay claim to all of the inspired thinking in the automotive sector, but we’re pretty good at it. But if some leaves can stop our trains running, it seems unlikely that a driverless car will successfully navigate the open road.

Being a massive commercial market obviously gives the automotive sector incentive for pushing innovation and provides the R&D bucks to do so - unlike the rail industry which, despite being made up of private companies, is still essentially a public entity and consequently funding for the new stuff is limited. But surely there should be enough money in the bank to solve entirely predictable weather-related problems within the transport system?

There must be teams of engineers in the Network Rail skunkworks putting their brilliant minds to these problems, but you would think that by now, after decades of being a laughing stock, they should have got the basics covered. Maybe the fact that they quite clearly haven’t would suggest that projections for having autonomous vehicles on the road in the near future, with British technology at their heart, are either hopeful or reckless.

However, if Fox – a man who once compared himself to Winston Churchill – said it, then who are we to disbelieve him. But in truth, my frustration lies with the lack of progress in some fundamental areas of British transport infrastructure, rather than doubts about the abilities of pioneering automotive engineers. It’s a bit like the brightest brains in medical technology striving to find a cure for cancer, while the standard treatment for a club foot remains the same as it was a hundred years ago.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Anti-poaching cameras powered by AI to protect African wildlife

You know what would be a great idea? Weaponised cameras-equipped drones that shoot poachers on sight, all at the touch of a button. So, you see a poacher in the camera, then let sweet, sweet justice commence.

Intel has created an AI system that helps detect poachers entering wildlife reserves in Africa, and throughout south-east Asia. The software will be used in TrailGuard AI cameras, which are capable of object detection and image classification remotely. It alerts rangers if a person or vehicle is detected, so they can go off and hunt the terrible humans down.

The teeny pencil-sized devices have a battery life of up to 18 months without needing to be recharged. Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation helped with this – this makes me love him a little more. Bless him. Intel’s neural network algorithms help the cameras more accurately identify poachers rather than other motion in front of the camera.

Like I suggested, just hook some machine guns on there, so the rangers don’t have to go out. Much more efficient and less dangerous. Weaponised drones would also effectively get rid of the problem.

Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed by poachers. If you put guns on the cameras and drones, a poacher would surely be killed every 15 minutes. I find that a decent exchange.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Politicians blocking social media users unconstitutional, court rules

This interesting little debate concerns whether the USA’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression is applicable to social media. According to this Federal Appeals Court – it is. This particular case began when Virginian Brian Davison posted critical comments on the Facebook page of his local Chair of Board of Supervisors. The Chair got fed up of Davison and decided to delete his comments and block him. Although he was unblocked after just a few hours, Davison sued the Chair, arguing that she had violated his First Amendment right to free expression in a public forum (the Facebook page). The court sided with Davison, meaning that officials’ Facebook pages can be considered public forums in which the First Amendment applies.

This is not the only legal case brewing in the US over the issue. Last May, a District Judge similarly ruled that it was unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critical Twitter users. It is likely that within the next year or so, we may see this debate make its way to the Supreme Court, with wider implications for how content is moderated on social media.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Excessive social media use shown to be comparable to substance abuse

This sort of experiment has been long overdue. The excessive use of social media, arguably, could be a form of addiction. Now that there’s actual evidence that there are parallels between excessive social media users and substance abusers.

Michigan State University researchers were the first to look into more depth about the relationship between social media use and a human’s decision-making ability – an experiment that has officially determined whether or not social media is actually an ‘addiction’, so to speak. They found that individuals who participated in the study with the most dependence on social media had performed most poorly in the decision-making task on Facebook. These individuals were also making risky decisions – decisions similar to those made by people with dependencies on cocaine and opioids.

I for one am glad that there is finally a study that actually proves how ‘addictive’ social media can be. Now here’s to hopes that researchers will take it to the next level. Helping excessive social media users find healthier alternatives to gluing their eyes to a screen. Perhaps some form of rehabilitation for the ultimate social media enthusiasts?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

High-tech solutions proposed for future of NHS as staff and patient pressure mounts

The announcement of billions in additional funding for the NHS temporarily nudged Brexit off the front pages this week. The Government would probably have liked coverage to focus on the top line figure of more than £20bn a year to be going into the health service by 2023-24, but most news outlets chose to focus on other aspects.

One – prompting headlines like ‘The doctor will see you now: by Skype’ that seemed designed to scare the technophobic pensioners who rely most on access to their GP – played up the fact that the underlying plan relies on the introduction of new technology. The other was the question of whether the extra cash will even be enough to maintain the current level of service in the face of increasing costs, staff shortages and an ageing population.

A recent experience involving one of my older relatives illustrates the potential and pitfalls. Having spent the best part of a morning and four bus journeys getting to their local surgery and back for a check-up following a fall at home, they were phoned later in the day and asked to come back in again as soon as possible. As is probably typical of their generation, they got their coat back on and repeated the trip at some inconvenience.

It turned out that the return was only required because the doctor had failed to carry out one of the routine checks that’s considered essential in this sort of situation. That took a couple of minutes and with a quick “That’s fine. Thanks for coming in” the necessary box was ticked and the elderly relative dispatched back to the bus stop.

There’s a debate to be had about the bureaucracy and fear of litigation that’s at work here, but even assuming that ensuring all the boxes are ticked helps measure performance, spot trends and – in this age of big data – improve future outcomes, there are so many parts of this experience where technology could help out if implemented correctly. At one extreme, vulnerable patients could opt to be fitted with diagnostic devices that monitor them continuously and make many visits to the surgery unnecessary. How many, though, would want to trade that convenience for the reassurance they get from a face to face appointment, however inconvenient?

Speaking for myself, as the sort of middle-aged man who typically resists consulting a health professional until it’s absolutely necessary, I’ve got no problem with the idea of video consultations from the comfort of my own screen to see whether I need to make a visit in person.

So the key to spending this additional money wisely, I believe, is to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach that a relentless drive for greater efficiency has made so common in the NHS. Let’s look instead – with engagement from the tech sector as well as health professionals – at how it can be used to build a flexible system that works best for individuals in the way they need it to and of which the country can continue to be proud.

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