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Gaming addiction, space collaboration, AirPods 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.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Extreme compulsive gaming acknowledged by WHO as addiction

This week, the World Health Organisation voted to approve the latest iteration of the International Classification of Disease, the internationally recognised guide to every disease, injury, disorder and other possible health condition. ICD-11 is expected to come into effect in 2022.

The classification of mental disorder in the ICD (and in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) can be contentious due to the difficulty in objectively classifying some conditions. This cause some diagnoses to reflect the prejudices of the ages; most notably, homosexuality was only removed from among the WHO’s list of mental disorders with the publication of ICD-10 in 1992. Deeply misguided inclusions like this have led to accusations that the WHO is categorising ordinary behaviour as mental illness.

Given this debate, there has been plenty of interest in changes to the WHO’s definitive list of mental disorders, including the expansion of workplace burnout and the dropping of gender identity disorder; decisions that have been broadly welcomed. The WHO has also approved the inclusion of two behavioural addictions – gaming disorder and gambling disorder – alongside substance addictions.

There is a growing body of research into behavioural addictions, including pornography, gambling, food, sex, shopping and certain technologies, which demonstrates that some of these activities appear to be addictive, with people compulsively engaging in them to gain natural rewards. Some designers are aware of how the brain can be manipulated to encourage compulsive behaviour; in November 2017 former Facebook president Sean Parker said that Facebook was intended to be addictive, explaining that the platform was designed for “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.

The trouble is that unlike opiates, Facebook, video games and porn are part of our everyday lives, so the idea that somebody could be struggling with an addiction to gaming can sound laughable. Predictably, following the WHO’s approval of gaming disorder as a mental disorder, Twitter exploded with laughter at the idea.

I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist and I acknowledge that perhaps there’s a debate to be had about why gaming disorder has been included if research into this particular compulsion is in its early stages, or whether similar technology-based disorders should have been included alongside it.

The important thing to note – and the point that many people seem to be missing – is that gaming disorder only refers to the most extreme and distressing cases of compulsive gaming. The vast majority of gamers would never qualify for this diagnosis. A teenager who plays Fortnite from the moment they come home from school until it’s time for bed probably wouldn’t be diagnosed with gaming disorder. A teenager who deprives themselves of sleep because they can’t switch off, secretly uses their parents’ credit cards to pay for games, starts failing at school and loses friends because of how much time they spent gaming - and had been doing this for at least a year despite wanting to stop - probably would be diagnosed with gaming disorder. There are some people like this, although they represent a very small fraction of gamers.

In my mind, the incredulous response to the inclusion of gaming disorder in the ICD can partially be blamed on the way we talk about mental health and mental illness. It seems like every day I hear people joke about how they are “totally addicted,” “a little bit OCD,” or “a little bit bipolar” when really what they mean is that they enjoy something, they like being tidy, or they are sometimes happy and sometimes sad. Of course, there’s a mental health/mental illness spectrum, but addiction belongs at one very extreme end. And it’s not funny.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

US and Japan agree to cooperate on next lunar mission

‘IO’: There’s no place like home

I’ve put these two stories together as the first is an interesting reflection on the interview I did when writing the second. That interview was with Pascal Lee, chairman of Nasa’s Mars Institute, who gave me his thoughts about the practicality of humankind inhabiting other planets. The relevance was that this is the end game in the film ‘IO’, subject of this month’s Big Screen column (and, incidentally, an inhospitable moon of Jupiter).

The implication in the film was that the evacuation of the Earth to pastures new would be a global effort, but history tells us that space-technology development hasn’t always been harmonious. Our news story about the co-operation between the US and Japan, which does sound a bit non-specific, at least demonstrates a cordial relationship that wouldn’t have been tolerated in the days when Japanese manufacturing appeared to be taking over the world. Today, the only country being blocked from joining the fun on the International Space Station is China - and that’s because America doesn’t want it to be involved.

As Lee explained, despite all the good and virtuous stuff about furthering science and exploring new worlds, it all really boils down to geopolitics. He told me: “It’s always been national interest. James Cook wasn’t sent to the South Pacific by the British Navy because they were interested in botany. JFK didn’t send a man to the Moon in the sixties because of an interest in lunar science. It was because the Soviet Union was a threat and they were ahead of the US in space. They had the first shuttle in space, first being in space - Laika the dog - the first man in space, the first woman in space, first spacewalk, first rendezvous in space. Putting a man on the Moon was how the Americans could beat the Russians at this game and it was only that that made us do it.”

However, new space projects cost big bucks and US plans run to around a trillion dollars over 20 years, so certain practicalities must be taken into account.

“Science is what drives the activity that you carry out in these places, but it is not the reason why you go; it’s not the motivation,” claims Lee. “Look at Antarctica: US bases, UK, Russian, Chinese, but it is for posturing and land claiming in advance of future potential mineral exploitation.

“The Space Station is the same thing. People ask what it has done. Well, it has served a useful purpose, it has kept the aerospace industry alive and working. And it brought onboard a partnership of countries. It’s the same thing with going back to the Moon, but we are making sure we are not doing it alone because we want to partner with Europe, we want to partner with Japan, and the European Space Agency, because we want them to spend their space dollars with us.”

It appears the Japanese are ready to sign up to the American programme, but one question that springs up is whether, in a post-Brexit world, this is something that the UK would want, or even be able to afford, to be involved in?

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Teardown: Apple AirPods wireless ear buds

I've had similar discussions with my children about Apple's AirPods to the ones Paul Dempsey apparently has had with his. As ubiquitous as AirPods are finally becoming - now that everyone has got over the design shock of their fugly shape - they are probably environmentally speaking the most offensive item in Apple's product range. As beautifully engineered, technically and sonically impressive as they may be, the fact remains that here are two eminently disposable £160 objects, almost certainly bound for landfill in much too short a time.

Considering that Apple is way out in front in terms of environmental corporate responsibility in almost every other aspect of its operations - even managing to persude its Far East suppliers and manufacturers to sign up to its green production pledge - the AirPods seem like a disappointing anomaly, a retrograde step. Perhaps Apple already has a recycling programme in mind for AirPods, as it does with older iPhones. There's no word on that yet, but I hope it comes to pass. The dirty little secret about the 'freedom' sold with any wireless gadget - whether it's ear buds, speakers, games console controllers, Bluetooth mice etc - is that they almost always carry an unacceptable environmental price. The concept of products designed with in-built obsolescene should itself have already become obsolete. Planet Earth can't take much more of our crap.

The Eccentric Engineer: Ben Carlin, his wife and their honeymoon with a Ford GPA

A sobering reminder of the real-world emotional fallout that can inevitably result from the foolhardy stubbornness and obsessive blind pursuit of a Man With A Vision. It’s almost always men who behave in this way and I have a hunch that engineers even more so. They become fixated on a goal - often a faintly ludicrous ambition - and lose sight completely of the bigger picture and the people closest to them in pursuit of said goal. Sure, at first, your new wife might be sufficiently enamoured of you to agree to honeymoon in an amphibious vehicle, as you attempt to cross the Atlantic in a Ford GPA army 'Seep', just because you've got the crazy notion in your head and you're determined to pursue it to the bitter, watery end. Even when you have to be rescued several times because your vessel has failed - presumably at significant risk to your wife's life - you still can't let it go. Honestly, you can't then claim to be surprised when your wife divorces you a few years later.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Amazon working on wearable device sensitive to human emotions

Who wouldn’t want a device you wear on your arm like a smart watch or fitness tracker, but which is programmed to detect your emotions from your words and tone of voice and respond with appropriate advice? Well, I wouldn’t and maybe you wouldn’t be first in the queue, either, but Amazon reckons enough punters would appreciate the help of a wearable that can detect if its owner is experiencing feelings of “boredom, disgust, fear, anger and sorrow”.

I assume the conversation is supposed to go along the lines of “Alexa, I feel bored and angry”, to which your wrist-borne chum reacts with soothing words of comfort and possibly some distracting yet calming music. Or as the example that’s mentioned in this story describes a hungry user with a cold being given a recipe for chicken soup, maybe the feedback will be more sophisticated but less helpful.

The project, which Bloomberg reports has got as far as beta testing, is code-named ‘Dylan’. As Bob himself pointed out, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows - nor an expensive bit of technology to tell you how you’re feeling.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Shut down Facebook to force reform, former adviser tells lawmakers

Reading this, I was reminded of Margaret’ Thatcher’s 2002 characterisation of the EU as “fundamentally unreformable”. The same can be said about Facebook: arrogant and totalitarian in its essence, so the advice to shut it down “to force reform” sounds like the only reasonable option. On the other hand, if Facebook is no more (after being “shut down”), then who is going to get reformed? Search me, as they say in the US.

‘IO’: There’s no place like home

I trust the opinion of my esteemed colleague Tim Fryer and will definitely watch ‘IO’ on Netflix asap. However, the very premise of the movie – of people, having rendered the Earth uninhabitable, moving to other planets - appears both far-fetched and thoroughly unrealistic.

From my point of view, there wouldn’t be any people left on the uninhabitable Earth in the first place (that makes sense, doesn’t it?), for they by definition will be among the first victims of the very ‘uninhabitability’ of our long-suffering planet. To me, the very best and the most scathing description of the Earth, depopulated as a result of a succession of nuclear wars 500 years from now, is to be found in Ronald Wright’s brilliant and thoroughly unputdownable novel ‘A Scientific Romance”, first published in 1998 – one of the best books I have ever read. Its solitary time-travelling protagonist David Lambert trudges tragically from what used to be London to what used to be Scotland along the overgrown remains of what used to be the M1 motorway, with a friendly black panther as his only travel companion. A sad and perhaps not too filmable, yet highly plausible, scenario.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

‘The UK is a long way behind in terms of productivity’: Mike Wilson, BARA

Stagnant productivity, in the UK especially, is one of the mysteries of the modern age. Technology adoption and better working methods ought to lead to better productivity, which eventually pays off for the economy in growth and an improved standard of living.

That was the traditional model in economics, anyway, but in recent decades productivity has plateaued. There are many possible reasons for this, but the subject of this interview has some strong views about the importance of one factor: the state of manufacturing automation, or rather the lack of it, in the UK.

Mike Wilson, chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association, says UK manufacturing needs a culture change in how it views new processes. He has some interesting things to say about what part Brexit will play in the next few years, too. Will it help or hinder manufacturing productivity?

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Amazon shareholders vote against limiting facial-recognition tech

Amazon's weak attempt to give shareholders a say in how the company commercialises its controversial facial-recognition software ultimately allowed shareholders to cast a vote on current proposals. However, the ballot saw the call for a business case and separate investigation into the software harshly dismissed, perhaps with some sneers by Amazon executives. Other ethical and moral proposals to improve the company’s environmental and equality measures were also overruled.

The question is: why bother in the first place? If senior Amazon staff have a majority stake that equips them with significant voting rights, why bother letting shareholders vote when, most of the time, there will never be enough to change the final outcome anyway?

The answer involves the US Securities and Exchange Commisison, which told Amazon it had to let shareholders have their say. The pressure was reinforced by the Open MIC group, which helps mobilise shareholder votes - despite perhaps knowing it wouldn't amount to much. But the SEC’s intervention alone must have made Amazon and its executive team furious.

The publicity surrounding the vote on sales of Amazon’s Rekognition image-analysis technology to US police forces should be a warning for regulators that shareholder voting procedures need to be re-thought and restructured. At present, they are based on the principle of 'one share, one vote'. This is never going to work with Amazon-like corporate shareholder structures. If 'one-head, one-vote' is too extreme for your taste, why not try coming up with a solution that accounts for who owns the shares the longest or some other fairer arrangements?

In the corporate world, the fact that a business practice is legal doesn’t make it ethical and the main responsibility of CEOs and executives will always be to maximise profits, even if workers or small shareholders beg to differ. If this principle would be more widely valued - for instance, what employees think of unethical business practices - it could help to make this charade of 'letting shareholders speak' redundant.

You could say that larger shareholders, who are ultimately very rich people with a keen eye on the dime, could well be waking up to the fact that ethics should stand above business profits. Perhaps controversial facial-recognition software shouldn’t be sold for use on the American public. It’s worth remembering that Amazon, together with other large tech companies, spent a record $14.2m on lobbying in 2018. As long as votes can be purchased and corporate voting rights structured unfairly, it will remain difficult to change corporate culture.

Executives can argue that US regulators are guilty of overthinking the implications of allowing companies like Amazon to participate in providing technology used in law enforcement - but then they should start recognising their own responsibility.

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