Huawei threat, tech's Wild West, education apps 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.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
There’s been so much kerfuffle over Huawei in recent weeks that I’m worried E&T is starting to look like it has some sort of grudge to bear. There is a deep suspicion that the company is effectively the Chinese government’s in-house tech company rather than a fully fledged private enterprise.
Indeed, a former cyber-crime investigator with the FBI told me last year that the company pretty much came out of nowhere and that the Chinese government itself could not explain how it became such a prominent tech company in such a short space of time.
Much of this suspicion may arise from the inherent clash between the political systems of China and the West, and the fact that there is little transparency coming from Huawei. The West has long been able to overlook various unsavoury reports emerging from China in favour of taking advantage of the country’s cheap and endless labour and its lax approach to the environment.
With labour in particular becoming rapidly more expensive, the Chinese manufacturing base is starting to look unattractive. However, the global network of supply chains and facilities is such, that actually moving this secondary sector to countries with greater transparency and adherence to IP laws is much easier said than done.
Nevertheless, the growing concerns centred around security and the falling economic benefits of manufacturing in China could see high-tech manufacturing moving back to the West in the long term.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Technology is never far from the top of the news these days and more often than not it’s about rules and regulations, from the abuse of social media to the ethics of driverless cars or artificial intelligence. Politicians and the public are more involved than ever in the debate on where new technology is taking us.
Technology sometimes looks like the new Wild West of the modern world, full of exciting opportunities but also many dangers, a lawless place that does things by its own rules or no rules at all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just an inevitable consequence – for a while, at least – of its pace of change. The law is not an ass, as the Dickens quote goes, but it sure moves like one. It has always struggled to keep up with technology and now there so many science, engineering and technology developments with really serious ethical, social, environmental and economic implications for the world. That’s why we devoted a bunch of coverage this month to the law and we suggest five fresh laws that a sheriff needs to restore order in this new frontier territory.
Hilary Lamb, technology reporter
Technology is a powerful, world-changing tool, but it isn’t the answer to everything. Sometimes it’s irresponsible to push technology as a solution for societal ills and conflicts in order to avoid taking the real political action necessary to fix the problem. Perhaps the most obvious example now is the utterly pathetic call for ‘technological solutions’ to secure the Irish border when the UK crashes out of the European Customs Union. What technological solutions? “Existing” technology, the European Research Group claimed, while an ex-EU customs chief suggested an “ultra hi-tech” border. There has been vague muttering about drones, GPS, licence-plate tracking but, in reality, the “technological solution” is another unicorn that hardcore Brexiteers gesture at in order to wave away grave concerns and distract from the (quite literally) deadly serious issue of reintroducing border checks in any form.
There have been other instances of technology – particularly apps – being pushed by the British government in lieu of hard funding and brave policy decisions: NHS-backed mental health apps to distract from the severe and sustained underfunding of child and adult mental health services, for instance. And now we come to early-learning educational apps, which the education secretary hopes could help close the gap between rich and poor children. Do you know what would stand a better chance of doing that? Wealth redistribution.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
My family can’t be the only one in which the balance between vegetarians and non-vegetarians has reached a tipping point where it’s simpler just for everyone to forsake meat. I expect lots of people who find themselves in this situation discover, like I have, that the less meat they eat, the less bothered they are about it. It’s swings and roundabouts at the weekly big supermarket shop though: no need to plod up and down a few aisles, which speeds things up, but it’s often thin pickings trying to inject a bit of variety while sticking only with packs that carry the ‘V’ logo.
Right now, we’re fortunate in the UK to be able to pick and choose. With the world population soaring, many aren’t as lucky and will get their protein where they can find it regardless of the impact on the environment. Even so, the food industry looks like it’s onto a winner if it can provide the privileged few with peace of mind about ethics and green credentials while at the same time developing meat substitutes that will sell in the developing world.
Rebecca Northfield looks at where we are in this timely feature in the March issue of E&T. Personally, if flour made from insects is sustainable and doesn’t taste too bad I’d be happy to eat it or use it as an ingredient. What I find a bit baffling is the enthusiasm for a steak that’s only more environmentally friendly because it’s been grown in a laboratory. It’s still cultured from animal cells and – presumably – engineered to pass muster just as if it was the real thing.
Why go to all that trouble when there are so many other foodstuffs that can be made with much less trouble?
I’m at the tail end of the baby boomer generation who are largely baffled by younger people’s indifference to owning their entertainment – whether music or video – on physical media. So while it’s a shame that the rise of streaming is deterring manufacturers from Samsung in developing hardware, it does mean I enjoy the regular thrill of buying cast-off discs at knock-down prices in my local charity shops. A box set of all the ‘Godfather’ movies for 20p as part of a five-for-a-pound deal? Don’t mind if I do.
I’m also acutely aware that it’s not so long ago that many households were ditching their vinyl and audio cassette collections, resigned to the idea that both were dead media. Try picking up a lot of the things that were being given away then, other than the ubiquitous easy-listening collections, at less than eye-watering prices and you’ll be more sceptical about whether Samsung’s decision is an absolute death knell for Blu-ray.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
I did say in my feature a little while back that lab-grown meat would probably be more environmentally friendly, but now some research has claimed that’s not the case. I’m not so sure, but everything is up for debate, I suppose.
I don’t know whether this is some sort of KEEP EATING MEAT FROM REAL ANIMALS thing, but I’m sure the animals won’t be too happy to hear this.
Oxford Martin School’s LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) programme looked at the climate-change impact of several production methods for lab-grown and farmed beef accounting for the differing greenhouse gases produced. Turns out, lab-grown meat will need to be produced using renewable energy for it to be more environmentally friendly than traditional cattle rearing. Apparently.
Renewable energy is awesome anyway, so if they set it up when developing larger-scale lab-grown meat factories, it should be good to go. I am a wee bit incensed, as if the lab-grown people haven’t thought about it already.
Stop trying to prevent the future, people. It’s happening! Bring on the (kind of) cruelty-free revolution!