Lego Star Wars STEM models

Raspberry Pi, sour milk, Star Wars robots and more: the week’s top tech news

Image credit: Lego

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

Raspberry Pi innovations unveiled by British youngsters

I can’t have done too badly in my role as a judge at the 2018 finals of PA Consulting’s annual Raspberry Pi coding competition for UK schools, because they were kind enough to invite me back for this year’s event. It was a genuine pleasure (again) to see what the finalists had come up with, as well as having the chance to quiz them about their inventions.

It’s a cliché in this situation to say that everyone was a winner. Having been selected from almost twice as many entrants as there were last year, though, the teams who converged on London for a day of activities had genuinely achieved something special. I was only involved in one of the age categories, but from conversation when the judges reported back on their decisions, it was clear that picking a winner was a hard task in all of them.

Just as impressive as the quality of the entries was the extent to which teams as young as primary school age had thought about a real-world problem they could solve in the area of transport and not just plunged into high-tech projects that showed off their technical ability. Not to mention working on presentation skills that’ll be useful whatever careers they end up pursuing.

Less welcome news this week was the finding from the University of Roehampton’s annual review of computing in UK schools that fewer 16-year-olds obtained IT qualifications in 2018 and that many schools are cutting back on the hours spent teaching associated subjects.

Part of the reason for that is the demise of the old ICT GCSE, which I know from my own experience taught students little they didn’t know already, focusing on how to set up a spreadsheet or create a Powerpoint presentation. Useful skills, but ones they were already acquiring in the course of other subjects. At the same time, though, the more useful but challenging computer science courses that are being phased in to replace it are perceived as difficult to get a good grade in compared with other options taken at the age of 14 and are proving unpopular with girls’ schools in particular.

The Raspberry Pi project can play a significant role in addressing this trend. It was great to see the primary school teams, where girls and boys were equally represented, getting excited about technology not as something like literacy or numeracy that they have to learn in order to then be tested on, but as an environment for trying out ideas and working collaboratively. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they carry this through into secondary school and beyond.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

It could be curtains for sour milk with bottle-cap ‘sniffing’ sensor

Is there anything more revolting than soured milk? Especially when it has reached the clotting stage. Opening such a bottle is a gaggingly unpleasant experience and also hugely disappointing if it is the only milk in the house and you need that early morning coffee fix more than anything else.

How often does this happen? I am of sufficient vintage that I remember when newly opened bottles of milk were off, let alone ones that had been lingering in the fridge for a few days, but that is all a fairly distant memory. It’s been a long time since I have had such a dairy-related disaster. Possibly this is down to better milk management, or perhaps the best before dates are more accurate these days. Either way, it is not a problem.

My reaction to this story is that it is an example of creating uses for technology that don’t really exist. We seem to have an obsession with smart products that make things far smarter than they need to be. I could buy a smart toothbrush for over £200 that would help me brush up on my brushing technique. Meanwhile a standard electric toothbrush does the brushing for you – so what do I need to improve upon?

Another example is smart clothing that can tell you how often it has been used, or how many steps you have taken in it. Not so much pointless exercise as an exercise in pointlessness in my book. I’m quite capable of choosing what I want to wear and measuring activity is useless unless either all of your clothes are equivalently smart, or the item in question is the only one you use for exercise. Simple step counters (or your phone) are probably better suited for the application.

However, my point is not the grumpy old man perspective of technology running away with us, but more the environmental aspect. Presumably adding a sensor into a pint of milk not only will have a consequence to the cost, but will also serve to make the container less recyclable. The sensor will use up elements that need to be dug up out of the earth. I know these sensors will be incredibly cheap, but should we really be going down the road of using gimmicky new technology that is ultimately useless and is also both more expensive to make and more difficult to recycle?

In this case it is doubly pointless because no one wants to be told when their food has gone off: they want to know when they are at the ‘use it or lose it’ stage.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

New Zealand targets carbon neutrality by 2050

Last week, a landmark bill was introduced in New Zealand’s parliament that would oblige the country – which presents a more worrying per capita carbon emission record that others – to surrender to a zero carbon emission target by 2050. What a boon and a jolly good idea (a climate-change conscious reader might conclude).

However, as with any 30-year pledge – there are certainly a few on my list, some of them involving risky extreme sports, which, in 30 years, I can hardly imagine myself doing at the modest age of 60 – there is the caveat of enforceability and time. The bill was lambasted by Greenpeace for having no way of enforcing targets.

From my own experience, the closer a target is set, the easier it gets to account for it, to hold someone responsible and to scrutinise and supervise progress. Short-term targets might appear more boring – also perceived this way by the media – but they are arguably more tangible. Short-term objectives might not stand out as bold, but if carefully planned and checked, they can carry more weight and cumulatively more rewards.

In a period of 30 years, governments might alter, politicians change their minds, and agendas adjust. Take Margaret Thatcher’s signal to the UK in 1989 that it will join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (she resigned 18 months later). Legislation can be rejected and binned in the twinkle of an eye. Many of Barack Obama’s agreements and endeavours have recently been dismantled.

How unpredictable a promise or a legal commitment is in 30 years becomes clear when we instead look back at social promises. Making a contract of marriage is certainly one way to look at it (only that a human divorce from our climate means game over for everyone).

Here the analogy holds some important lessons. Statistics suggests that the ’Seven Year Itch’ - from the 4th to the 7th anniversary of a marriage - is the time when married couples are most at risk of divorce, while after that, the risk abates. Three-quarters of all divorces will have taken place by the 15th wedding anniversary. If we know that a country or region is not able to be loyal to the climate via its seven-year climate change commitments, wouldn’t that be a more useful point of information than realising at the end of 30 years that a country failed in its irreversible obligation? Did I mention that quitting is not an option?

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Lego announces new Star Wars collection to help ‘Boost’ STEM skills

Heck, yeah! I’m buying a set!

The upcoming Lego Star Wars Boost Droid Commander lets you build, code and play with three iconic Star Wars droids. It’s suitable for everyone. Including me.

The Lego Group unveiled the additions on May 4th (may the forth be with you, if you’re a Jedi with a lisp) AKA Star Wars day. A day to be celebrated.

The Lego Star Wars Boost Droid Commander set includes coding, so could help people young and old get into STEAM. You can build R2-D2, the Gonk Droid and the Mouse Droid. Dibs on the classic D2. He’s iconic.

Drag-and-drop Lego Boost coding technology has been used in the set and according to Lego the tech has been “overhauled”, to better match the Lego Star Wars galaxy.

Basically, kids and parents (or aunties, like myself) can team up to build, code and play with the droids, then create their own Star Wars stories and battlegrounds with inspiration from over 40 interactive missions.

I want them all. Thanks.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

It could be curtains for sour milk with bottle-cap ‘sniffing’ sensor

I think this is a brilliant idea. More than once I’ve popped over to the corner shop before breakfast to buy milk and a newspaper, only to find when I get home that the milk has a definite whiff to it, despite being well within date. It’s even happened with milk from well-regarded supermarkets that you would expect to be diligent about maintaining the cold chain. A coloured indicator in the bottle cap would protect both consumers and shopkeepers, who would be able to reject deliveries that were clearly not going to be saleable.

Ordnance Survey joins forces with AI firm to map UK roads

Anyone who went to school in Britain will be familiar with Ordnance Survey maps from their geography lessons and a quick check of the road atlas and street map on my desk shows that they, too, are based on Ordnance Survey data. The organisation holds a massive repository of data and we reported recently that it’s working with utility companies to add information about underground pipes and cables. Now we hear that it’s partnering with computer-vision firm Mobileye to capture roadside infrastructure such as traffic lights, lamp posts and drainage grates. This kind of information will be really useful for any organisation planning work in an area, as well as for the future of autonomous vehicles, and just shows what’s possible as technology advances.

Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief

Foreign investment in British tech firms bucks Brexit trend

Some welcome news this week about Brexit that seemed to take even the the publishers themselves by surprise. Foreign investment in UK technology ventures, including investment from European funds, rose significantly in 2018 compared to the previous year. Note that the publishers say this was despite Brexit rather than thanks to Brexit, but a very welcome development for a very nervous tech startup sector nonetheless. Let's hope it continues and that the funds can continue to find the same number of tech startups in the UK to invest in after Brexit. Other European capitals are courting the UK tech scene in the hope they can attract more startups. If entrepreneurs are enticed to set up in Berlin, Frankfurt or Paris rather than London, Cambridge or Oxford after Brexit for wide and varied reasons - from access to talent to access to markets - the UK could lose the next big thing without even knowing it. Let’s hope this latest survey signals that won’t come to pass.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Ordnance Survey joins forces with AI firm to map UK roads

I was delighted to see this story on E&T’s website and not just because it makes reference to my 2017 E&T feature on Ordnance Survey (OS), recounting its eventful past and high-tech present. Since my brief visit to the OS’s new modernistic headquarters on the outskirts of Southampton about two years ago, I have been maintaining close ties with this truly amazing British company and kept receiving regular updates on the state of the new technologies, adopted by OS, from their highly efficient PR department, particularly from Keegan Wilson, who accompanied me during my visit and with whom I have since become good friends.

One of the high points for me was when I received a brand-new OS map of the tiny Scottish island of Foula, which immediately became a gem in my ever-growing collection. What was so special about it (and about the islet itself, with all 6.5km of its one and only public road) that set it apart from the astounding 111.5 million square kilometres of custom-made maps (according to the OS’s own statistics) that have been ordered and printed through the OS’s online service since 2012? The answer was simple: right until that point in time, Foula had been the very last bit of the British Isles not to feature on an OS map! No more OS ‘blank spots’ in the UK.

Now, in this news story, here’s another OS ‘first’: the creation of the first detailed roadside infrastructure dataset of Britain. Interestingly, for last Christmas, OS – again, for the first time in its history – published a fascinating book of their own “OS Puzzles”, of which I also have a copy. Its aim was to overcome the general map-reading ignorance, which has grown considerably since the advent of GPS devices.  The answer to one important puzzle (as well as the puzzled itself) was missing from the book, though: how has OS managed to maintain its excellence for all 225-plus years of its history? I hope one day we’ll know the answer.

It could be curtains for sour milk with bottle-cap ‘sniffing’ sensor

To me, the story’s biggest challenge lies in the words “bottle cap”. Why? For the answer, see my latest ‘View from Vitalia’ blog.

I'll give you a bit of a spoiler: sensor or not, will it be possible to unscrew the plastic cap easily without breaking nails and/or spilling out the bottle’s contents?

A 49-pence (average price of a pint of milk) engineering question!

Jack Loughran, reporter

Facebook accused of exaggerating success in tackling extremism

Facebook has yet again been accused of not doing enough to tackle extremism. Even worse, the site has been auto-generating videos containing anti-Semitic material which feature a big Facebook-branded ‘Like’ thumbs-up at the end. While clearly made by algorithms, there’s still something darkly humorous about these videos that appear to show Facebook directly endorsing extremist content.

These auto-generated videos have never worked out too well – generally taking a cloyingly familial tone that screams big corporate trying to present a human face. Since I barely use the platform anymore, when such a video comes up it is generally celebrating the “long friendship” that I have with someone that I haven’t seen since I was at school.

One time, it generated a video demonstrating my close friendship with someone that I had predominantly only shared links with. It was just a series of URLs interspersed with stock “friendship” illustrations that seemed to suggest our entire relationship was based around links to memes from 2009. It just goes to show that you need to be a human to understand human relationships. Facebook’s algorithmic content comes off as corny at best and at worst sees the company inadvertently endorsing terrorism.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Amazon chief Bezos announces plans to send spacecraft to the Moon

As it turns out, our Jeff didn’t actually announce all that much about Blue Origin’s plans to send a rocket to the Moon - presumably using Prime Now’s same-day delivery service - other than he’s going to bally well do it, there he goes, no one is going to come between him and Earth’s nearest neighbour - the one neighbour with whom Amazon can’t (yet) leave your parcel if you’re not at home. “It’s time to go back to the Moon,” he said. “This time to stay.” It’s not clear whether that last comment was a future-facing, altruistic pledge for the benefit of all mankind; an indication that Bezos wants to put some considerable distance between himself and his ex-wife following an extremely expensive divorce, or some sort of ominous commercial threat. Maybe Amazon wants to corner the Moon market first, establishing one of its infamous shipping warehouses on the lunar surface, before Alibaba or Wal-Mart get there.

Still, how things change, eh? The world’s richest man is a shopkeeper and now he’s spending his gargantuan wealth to compete with government-funded entities such as Nasa and get to the Moon before any of his perceived rivals. It all sounds a little bit Despicable Me, only apparently without the evil intent, but it’s also revealing how an endeavour that used to be the sole preserve of nation states is increasingly being enacted by private companies, even individuals. Entire countries are practically bankrupt, but a tiny number of people have become very, very, very wealthy.

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