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Radio Me, digital bedtime stories, Leonardo at 500 and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Maksym Yemelyanov | 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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

AI-based radio broadcasts could help people living with dementia

Once in a while, there’s a sort of beauty about how technology can be used in a positive and caring way. This is one of those projects and also one that just makes perfect sense.

If Spotify can come up with playlists ‘just for me’ then it would be no surprise that the proposed Radio Me platform could do exactly the same, with added filters depending on the time of day or even responses to wearable medical sensors. All the while, of course, prompting the user to regulate food, activity, hygiene perhaps and certainly medication.

Dementia gets a lot of attention these days and rightly so. Those of us who have seen first-hand the effect of this condition on both the patient and those around them will be aware of just how unpleasant it is. I have also seen people live in a state of slightly oblivious contentment with it and in my anecdotal and unscientific experience those are the ones who can live in their own homes. This radio project could be a perfect use of technology to allow more people to do that, even if it only delays rather than removes the need for a more supervisory environment. I hope the Radio Me project goes well.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Tom Watson calls on authorities to block tech giants’ ‘bad mergers’

An event at the House of Commons where Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson said he would look into stopping mergers that risk cutting jobs and harming workers saw terms such as 'automation' and 'robots' thrown across the room.

Both subjects are covered in stunning depth in a book I’ve been reading this week, ‘The Robots are Coming! The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation’, written by Miami Herald columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Andres Oppenheimer (Vintage Books, $16.95, ISBN 9780525565000) .

Across nearly 400 pages, Oppenheimer’s judgment after taking on some of the world's leading futurologists doesn’t surprise in the least: "Yes, some jobs will cease to exist, but the vast majority won't disappear. Instead they will be transformed," he predicts, arguing that much of what we do today in our jobs will be performed by intelligent machines. Which doesn’t mean humans will be sitting admiring the view; we need to work hard to create our future jobs. We’ll be required to constantly update our skills and in some instances reinvent ourselves completely.

Tom Watson spoke about one dramatic example: that of workers who suffer PTSD-like symptoms as a result of having to review thousands of gory, explicit, violent and abusive online posts every day.

Although such jobs may soon cease to exist, the collateral damage may not be as bad as we fear. Oppenheimer contrasts one study which concluded that 47 per cent of jobs are in danger of being replaced by automation with the comment by University of Oxford philosopher and commentator Nick Bostrom that this figure “can be debated”. In fact, one of the most automatable jobs mentioned in Frey's report is that of ‘insurance underwriter’. Much of that role, however, relies on social interaction between humans that could turn out to be irreplaceable.

‘The Robots are Coming’ provides a long and revealing list of myriad examples of the areas where automation is emerging. Take healthcare: here, new technology promises to allow us to "perform a growing number of medical tests at home, resulting in fewer trips to the doctor's office or a hospital," Oppenheimer writes.

Other industries are already in the middle of a transformation into automation. With self-service touchscreens available in most branches of McDonald's, Wendy's and Pizza Hut, automation in the restaurant industry is here to stay. Oppenheimer possesses a real skill for describing how he felt when using these devices, relating the sobering experience of travelling to Japan to stay in a fully robot-staffed hotel.

Despite the flashy promises, it’s clear we still have a long way to go until we enjoy the real benefits of automation and robots. The interaction between human and machine is a significant obstacle and Oppenheimer does a job good of explaining how good intentions can miss their target, often by only a hair's breadth.

Automation may prove to be a boon that will make the world a better place, but how do we make sense of the opportunities while at the same time guaranteeing that people have work and remain independent? In many of the examples that Oppenheimer analysis, he concludes that the biggest asset humans own is their abilities to be a human - to be a facilitator, a patron and safekeeper of technology.

The optimistic final note is positive, not because Oppenheimer wants to be politically correct, but because he is genuinely convinced that in the long run the world will be a better place and that while we make the transition into an increasingly automated world we will need to do all our bit to reinvent ourselves. Despite all that positivity for the long-term future, he reminds us that the danger lies in the near future. If we as a species can’t generate enough prosperity to provide a basic income for everyone who is left behind, or find a way around that takes care of technological unemployment, the robots might not turn out to be so benevolent.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Lost medieval home in Scotland virtually reconstructed by researchers

Not so much a home as a palace, the Finlaggan complex was the seat of the Lords of the Isles, who ruled the Hebrides and parts of mainland Scotland and Ulster in the Middle Ages. Many of the buildings were destroyed on the orders of the Scottish king James IV in the 1490s, but now a combination of archaeology, historical research and digital skills and technology have enabled a team at the University of St Andrews to create a virtual reconstruction. You can view it online or take a trip to Islay and try out the interactive virtual reality experience at the Finlaggan Trust’s visitor centre.

Art restoration and conservation: restoring former glories

History matters. If we didn’t learn from the past we’d be living in a permanent ‘year zero’ – and we wouldn’t enjoy it much. That’s why E&T is celebrating Leonardo da Vinci and his many contributions to civilisation 500 years after he died. It’s hard to pick just one feature from our coverage, but this one ties in with the story above in showing how modern technology can help to preserve and restore the treasures of the past.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Digital devices replacing books for bedtime stories

A study commissioned by the charity BookTrust asked parents about their bedtime story habits and found that many are happy to use digital technology to read stories to their offspring. The survey found that digital tools are becoming increasingly relevant and in some cases replacing the conventional analogue alternative of a physical book. Furthermore, 65 per cent of parents said they would allow their children time on a smartphone, tablet, YouTube or in front of the TV instead of sharing a bedtime story.

All of this comes as no surprise whatsoever. Perhaps this is mainly due to costs and the fact that digital stories are more easily accessible? The article shows that Kindle editions of children’s books are at least a quid or so cheaper than paperbacks, while audiobooks can cost virtually nothing. Also, parents don’t generally have the time to visit a bookshop - and why would they when you could get a Kindle or online app version at just the tap of a screen or a click of a button?

That being said, it’s rather upsetting to witness the slow and steady downfall of paperbacks. I personally would rather purchase paperback novels (and still very much do) as I do enough screenwork as it is. I guess that the publishing industry, very much like every other writing-based industry, must become digitally savvy – especially seeing as promoting and selling more digital material is better in the increasingly competitive and (now) digital and social media-driven world.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

After All: How the spark gap proved itself mightier than the bomb

I’ve chosen my own After All column from the latest issue of E&T to make an additional and very important point that I didn’t have enough space for in print. My admiration for Europe’s small geopolitical entities, like enclaves (of which Baarle, which features in the column, is a shining example), semi-enclaves, micronations and ministates largely rests on the fact that most of them manage to remain prosperous, technologically advanced and proud, despite (or maybe even because of) their minuscule size.

One of the best examples of that is certainly Liechtenstein, often called a mini technological giant due to its passion for innovation and its proportionally extensive industrial infrastructure. Yet my admiration for that mini state rests largely on the little known fact that the tiny principality of (then) fewer than 20,000 people was the only Western country to find enough stamina not to hand Russian prisoners of war over to Stalin after the end of WWII.

On the night of 2 May 1945, nearly 75 years ago, 500 fully armed Russian soldiers, under the command of Major Boris General Holmston-Smyslovsky, crossed the Austrian frontier into Liechtenstein near the village of Schellenberg. The Russians, remnants of the First Russian Army of the German Wehrmacht, had entered Liechtenstein in search of political asylum. Unlike two and a half million other Russian soldiers and Cossacks who fought on the German side and were captured by the Allies, only to be handed over to Stalin for execution under the ignominious Yalta agreement, they were not extradited and were allowed to stay.

The First Russian Army of the Wehrmacht was made up of Russian émigrés and freedom fighters, most of whom were not even Soviet citizens. Its main objective was not to contribute to Russia’s occupation, but rather to help it to get rid of Bolshevism, which was seen as the greater of two evils. Hitler never fully trusted it and even had Holmston-Smyslovsky, a former Russian count, imprisoned and his unit disbanded for a couple of years. The army didn’t commit any atrocities and its involvement in combat action was minimal.

Asylum was granted to all the men, but shortly afterwards Prince Franz Joseph II, then the country’s ruling monarch, found himself under considerable pressure from the Soviets. Unlike his British, French and American counterparts, the ruler of tiny Liechtenstein firmly resisted all attempts to have the asylum seekers extradited. Despite strong pressure, and in contrast to the example set by other countries, those unfortunate refugees were not handed over to the executioners and survived.

I am planning to tell this story in greater detail in one of my future columns. Liechtenstein might be small indeed, but it has much to teach the world.

No Borders’ Collie: Voters tweet dogs to spread pro-EU sentiment

Having read this charming story, I thought that as a Brexit supporter who doesn’t own a Border Collie, I should perhaps tweet a headshot of my Tibetan Terrier puppy.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Technology predictions: who saw that coming? (I did!)

Yeah, I’m doing some shameless plugging of my own feature. Don’t judge me. Doing the research for this was actually quite a test - and also super interesting. I was surprised to find that some predictions came from such a long time ago, like the bloke back in 1660 who thought organ transplants would be something revolutionary.

Some of the best predictions I could find were the nuclear arms race and the Cold War back in 1940, before those weapons were launched by the US in 1945; the iPad and tablet back in 1968; Mars and its moons in 1735; the internet in 1900, and the effects of the First World War in 1898. There was also a dude who managed to foresee the missing 40 elements in the periodic table.

Rad, right?

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Additive manufacturing can give historic treasures a new lease of life

Could we or should we protect the world’s most precious treasures with copies? It’s long been considered and occasionally achieved. Now new technology makes it all the more possible with copies so alike it would be hard or near impossible for the visitor to tell the difference. Ben Smye argues in his Comment column for E&T that 3D printing makes them more possible than ever before. Does that mean museums should replace their exhibits with copies for safe-keeping? I think that even if a visitor can’t tell the difference, one still exists. Replicas have their place for research and more, but visitors should be able to see the real deal.

The trend to make museums more interactive has still not replaced the actual artefact and neither should it. Just knowing it is not the original, genuine artefact reduces its impact. On a trip to the Science Museum many years ago with my kids, I pointed out the Apollo 10 space capsule and explained this had orbited the Earth and come back down again to now rest in this museum. "Look at the marks from re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere", I said. "Imagine being in such a small capsule hurtling back to Earth". After listening patiently to this and other things parents say to try and fire their childrens’ imaginations, there was a pause and my eldest asked: "It’s not real, though, is it Dad?” It was such a great moment - in the age of virtual online, on-screen simulations - to be able to answer, “Yes, it is real, this is the actual one, this is it,” rather than, “Well, no, but it’s a very good copy”.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

How to be remembered like da Vinci

A peculiar proposition this, posing as it does several metaphysical questions. How do you know that you’ll be remembered? Will you ever know that you’re being remembered? What does being remembered mean to you? How can you have any control over how you are remembered or determine which aspects of your life and work end up being remembered? All we can do during our time in the physical realm, on this earthly domain, is produce our best work, live a good and productive life, contribute positively to society and attempt to help shape the immediate world around us in the most mutually beneficial ways we can.

Having dozens of future-facing ideas is fine - brilliant ideas should be recognised for the breakthroughs that they are, whenever and wherever they appear - but there’s also no need to beat ourselves up as failures if we don’t seem to be achieving anything even remotely approaching intellectual legend status. A narcissistic obsession with enshrining one’s own legend whilst still alive is an inherently selfish path to follow and ultimately often leads to an undesirable destination which that individual did not envisage. The caveat is simply that what people choose to remember about you is beyond your control.

First rural schools chosen for full-fibre broadband scheme

More than 30 schools in rural areas have been selected as the first to receive gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband as part of a Government effort to improve poor connection speeds in the most rural and remote locations in the UK. We aren't told what the schools plan to do with this turbo-charged internet connection, so I have to assume that it will mean more access, for more children, on more devices, simultaneously. If that means more education and more opportunities, it's all good.

Social media platforms ‘not as transparent as we would like’, says ad regulator

'Well, durr', says rest of world. 'Way to drily understate the problem'.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Digital devices replacing books for bedtime stories

I was hoping there would be something in our online news from the past week that would give me an excuse to mark the passing of Judith Kerr, surely one of the greatest writers and illustrators of books for children. ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, probably her best known work and one I read countless times with my own children, is a useful benchmark when assessing the ability of artificial intelligence to mimic the human ability to come up with engaging stories. It’s short and simple, but I reckon you could train the most sophisticated AI on thousands of similar works of fiction for the target age group and it wouldn’t come up with anything nearly as entertaining, engaging and such a pleasure to share with a young person.

I wonder what Kerr would have made of this study, which found that parents and carers are increasingly replacing books with digital assistants, whether electronic versions on a tablet or digital audio that does the reading for them. On the face of it, it’s easy to be dismayed at this apparent laziness and worry about adults abdicating their responsibilities to technology. Maybe, though, it’s a good thing that will help to get children excited about reading by making them realise it doesn’t have to be about sitting down with a physical book. Electronic versions of stories like ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ can incorporate animation, music and other features that help a child to read along.

I suspect there’s as much chance of iPads replacing shared reading as there is of e-books replacing paper, as some in the publishing industry were predicting not that long ago.

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