Climate emergency, facial recognition ban and more: best of the week’s news
Image credit: Jonathan Mitchell | Dreamstime.com
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.
Hilary Lamb, technology reporter
Parliament has backed a declaration of climate emergency. To declare a climate emergency is to acknowledge that the progression of climate change is an existential threat and that we must be prepared to treat it as such. Comparisons are made with the all-consuming war effort of the 1940s - changing the way we live and work with all the urgency appropriate in the face of an unprecedented threat.
We should be prepared for extensive debate over how the government should be responding to the climate emergency; how can we be discouraged from driving petrol and diesel cars without punishing the poorest in society and sparking a British gilets jaunes movement? What are the best mechanisms for reducing flights to an absolute minimum? How could livestock farming be fairly slashed to a small fraction of what it is now?
These are the difficult issues our elected representatives should be working through now (taking notes from economists, environmental scientists and something akin to a citizens’ assembly). I’m not in a position to declare how to optimise carbon-emission reduction while keeping the public onside. However, I am comfortable saying that to continue to extract billion of barrels of oil and gas and expand Heathrow is a sort of lethal farce. You cannot declare that your house has caught fire and then proceed to douse it in petrol.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
This week I was present when the government launched IRIS – its International Research and Innovation Strategy – at the Global Innovation Summit in Manchester and I spoke to the science minister Chris Skidmore briefly afterwards. He promised the UK government will make up the funding which researchers have up to now received from Europe, which is more than the UK currently puts in so it won’t be easy.
Joint research isn’t just about the money, though, it’s about the, err, joint research – collaboration as a good in itself. The minister is trying to secure associate membership of the Horizon Europe research programme, while seeking new bilateral collaborative agreements with countries beyond the EU, including China, India and the US. It struck me that the position is in some ways a microcosm of the whole Brexit situation for the UK. We’re giving up full membership and instead trying desperately to secure a deal that will give us something worth having, but still half of what we had under full membership. We want to do deals with countries beyond Europe, but have yet to get much that’s solid or replaces the EU level of collaboration - and it’s being driven by another former Remainer.
Ben Heubl associate editor
There are ever-more stories and research emerging that point to the perils and discontent surrounding facial-recognition technology, in both a technical and ethical way, notably within law enforcement. In London, a person covers his face when walking by a police car with facial-recognition camera technology mounted and then gets fined and his face fed into the database anyway. Outcry on social media!
First, this situation in London could have been handled smarter and is possibly the worst PR for the tech and the police force that uses it. Secondly, increasingly we learn how police are using the technology - at times in ways that are very different to what we were originally led to believe. Take the example of the New York Police Department facial-recognition system that utilised image alteration and non-suspect images. This is the NYPD, remember, not just some police department out in the sticks.
There’s a significant contradiction evident in this debate. Tech has given us capabilities that make public spaces uncomfortable. CCTV, which many argue doesn't work as promised, was one harbinger. The more we talk about the perils of facial-recognition software used by the state – whether it’s in the media or among friends and colleagues - the more backlash and discontent there will be and the more difficult the police will find it to apply it in an acceptable way.
This brings us to the next step. Instead of accepting it, the police might perhaps try to up their game and become more 'creative', as the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology puts it in a recent report. The reason: law enforcement will want to make large investments worthwhile and may end up breaking the law itself in attempts to use it to its 'full extent' to 'catch the bad guys' - something that could keep repeatedly backfiring until everyone gets fed up with it.
There’s a different and more practical irony. As the use of facial-recognition technology becomes more and more pervasive, people who have something to worry about will gradually increase their efforts to disguise, cloak and coat themselves - think sunglasses, baseball caps, false moustaches - perhaps increasing the chance of misidentification. The question is where this path leads us. Where is opposition accumulating and when is the soup overboiling next? Our piece suggests it did so in San Francisco in legal terms. The UK is a hot contender for the next story.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Actors from Game of Thrones are the latest ambassadors for reducing single-use plastic waste by appearing in an ad campaign for Sodastream. Well, I wouldn’t want to listen to what GoT actors have to say, seeing as the latest series has been a total letdown. I don’t want to ‘Say Goodbye’ – the title of the campaign – to any of those chumps. Just sayin’.
Also, how much non-recyclable plastic do you think the mammoth number of cast and crew got through? There’s a lot of people that need hydration and I bet they didn’t all use reusable materials. Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles were probably on the menu when they needed their liquid fix.
To back this up, that non-recyclable coffee cup left in a scene in the fourth episode makes me think that it wasn’t the only unrecyclable liquid vessel in the series. We all know most coffee cups are disposable and are single-use only. So nerr.
Okay, perhaps I’m a little harsh on the cast of one of the best series ever on television. It’s not as if they wrote the script. Also, two of the three actors that appear in the ad were killed off in previous seasons, so my point is largely moot. But I’m looking at you Thor Bjornsson aka ‘The Mountain’, even though you have nothing to say in your current state in the storyline.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
While it seems inevitable that there will eventually be a facial-recognition CCTV camera on practically every street in every city, in every known galaxy (or have I been watching too much Futurama lately?), for now the human aversion to such rampant, embedded surveillance by the state is too strong. San Francisco officials have voted not to introduce facial-recognition technology across the city, although as many of the objections are centred around the fact that it simply isn't sufficiently accurate yet, the question is probably more a case of for how long will such resistance last?
This is the kind of story that The Sun and The Daily Mail would ordinarily love, providing as it does a glorious opportunity for a gleeful bit of EU-bashing - "It's bureaucracy gone mad! Those fat cats in Brussels can't tell us Brits what to do!" - only in this instance it would mean siding with vegetarians in this particular debate and something tells me that the editorial types at what I consider to be Britain's most odious newspapers probably view vegetarians with the same jaundiced eye as Senator McCarthy once reserved for communists.
Now that I've had the idea, I can't unthink it: Shrinking Moon is an excellent name for a band. I imagine their music would sound spacey (obviously), ethereal, possibly with a slightly downbeat air or distant sense of unspecified doom, as if a planetary body were contemplating its own inevitable demise in several hundred million years' time. If it never comes to pass, at least I can hear the music in my head. Meanwhile, with reference to one particular aspect of this story, I wouldn't mind the girth of my circumference shrinking by a few inches as the years went by, instead of the inexorable expansion that appears to be my destiny.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Until I saw this story, I’d been thinking naively that for once the numerous EU officials were genuinely busy trying to resolve the Brexit impasse and didn’t have time to waste on the openly superfluous and at times ridiculous efforts to regulate everything and everyone under their control; efforts that often result in regulations so bizarre that it is tempting to dismiss them as another manifestation of the tireless anti-European propaganda by the British tabloids. Certain things seem to never change in Brussels and some EU lawmakers appear to be still primarily concerned with their vendetta against a veggie burger.