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Welsh jobs, UK skills, liquid luggage and more: the week’s top tech 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.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Ford to close Bridgend plant in 2020

This week, we picked up on news that US automaker Ford is poised to close shop at its Bridgend factory. This is, of course, a detrimental announcement for the many workers and their families living near the plant. The key reason is said that - what only a decade earlier was hailed as a 'top-of-the-class, world-beating engine production plant' - suddenly became too expensive. Other places like Mexico would be positioned to service the output of the operation more cheaply. A heartless and merciless statement that hits anyone who ever lived through a layoff while trying to feed a family 'right in the feels'.

Bridgend is a small town, with merely 49,404 people. After the decline for coal, it recovered quickly with other sources of employment. That includes also Ford's engagement, one of the largest employers in the area, in fact. What does one do when not only 3.4 per cent of the population is suddenly laid off, but also most connected businesses serving food or providing other services for those living near the plant and their families? They must reinvent. Work on new businesses. Perhaps relocate. Find a new niche or a new country. Make new things. Maybe, though, don't set up a massive new car manufacturer's plant, unless they serve a new and greener landscape of customers. The car industry as a whole brings problems, as we saw elsewhere. Dependence on Chinese customers is also tricky. In January this year, Jaguar Land Rover announced its plan to cut 4,500 jobs amidst slowing demand from the Asian superpower.  

One frustration the government expressed over Bridgend is also a bit confusing. It would have invested much; 'incentivised or subsidised' they call it. Why must a country pledge their loyalty with money, anyway, and spend millions to keep a company in the game? We know why, but we may want to question it further. Even if it works fine in luring foreign firms to set up shop, it doesn't mean that they will stay - and as we see, some will pull out without blinking an eye. The Government's short-term hedging and later 'begging' to avoid an exodus shows that the problem may lie somewhere else. 

If people really want to be nationalistic about their country's corporate strategy - and I am not counting myself here - then it may be best to build businesses that can grow and serve its own needs, foremost first. Trade is good, globalisation a way to expand, but not at the risk of domestic demise. If the UK really wants large overseas businesses to keep investing, it may also wish to reconsider matters such as Brexit and the constant talk of international collaboration. Instead, building strong local and domestic businesses that are better safeguarded against international turmoil could be a way forward (before depending on international alliance and customers). In this regard, one may also care to consider that the local authority of Bridgend decided to leave the EU, with 54.6 per cent in favour of leave. 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Businesses struggling with the UK’s growing digital skills gap, says CBI

No one’s denying that British industry has a problem recruiting people with the skills it needs to do business in a global marketplace. It’s a perennial finding from huge amounts of solid research, including the IET’s own annual skills survey.

Where the work reported in this story gets a bit confusing – and perhaps reveals one of the root causes of the problem – is bundling everything together under the banner of ‘digital skills’. In the same breath, it talks about the one in five firms unable to find employees who can use word processing or spreadsheet software and then about the half who can’t find software engineers or data analysts.

There’s a big difference between those skill sets, as the education authorities have recognised in recent years by doing away with the old ‘ICT’ qualifications that assessed all 16-year-olds’ ability to carry out basic tasks in Word, Excel and the like and replacing them with more challenging computer science courses which provide a better pathway to related A-levels, degrees and well-paid jobs. 

The CBI findings will cover people who left school long ago, so it’s hard to judge what impact the latest changes might have. What’s not in doubt is that digital literacy is a crucial area where the UK, if it can’t generate its own human resources in a post-Brexit era, will have to look abroad and be willing to pay commensurate salaries.

Simply deducing from the fact that every teenager is way more adept with ‘technology’ than their parents, usually as a result of observing how much time they spend tapping away on their mobile phones, won’t solve the problem in the short term. In the longer term, though, I wonder whether the skills that recruiters are looking for today will even be relevant by the time today’s youngsters join the workforce. Compare the office of today and what people are expected to do with the equivalent from 10 or 20 years ago and it becomes obvious how quickly that aspect of working life is changing. To stay competitive, businesses must bear that in mind when assessing not just their current needs but what they’ll be looking for in their staff in the future.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

3D scanning to allow Heathrow passengers to keep liquids in carry-on luggage

I hate airports for lots of different reasons (but don’t mind flying) and security is definitely the worst part. As time has gone on, security checks have become increasingly rigorous to the point where I’m pretty much cavity searched and my bags torn apart the moment I get to the front of the queue. Picking up the pieces of my tattered belongings is always a stressful process, especially when you know that boarding for your flight closes in 10 minutes.

This 3D-scanning tech should hopefully go some way towards remedying the situation and minimising interactions with the inevitably grumpy security staff. These things take time, though, especially when new technologies are being used in highly sensitive areas such as airport security, so don’t hold your breath. It’s going to take a few years, but one day the worst part of going through an airport might be made slightly less unpleasant.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

$1tn climate hit to business predicted by 200 of world's biggest companies

$1tn to help stop Earth roasting us all into oblivion sounds like a pretty sweet deal. You couldn't even cover the cost of a messy war in a Middle Eastern country with $1tn. But if it means the world's 215 richest businesses will lose some money, might as well just go for the death of the world and everything in it.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Russian trolls experimented with different methods to maximise political disruption 

It all sounds so easy. That’s what strikes me about this story. It appears all that Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA) did was throw human resources at the problem and before you know it you get the US President you want – or think you wanted, anyway.

Having only followed these shenanigans through headlines and TV news reports, I have only had a superficial grasp of what has been going on, but I think I expected it to be a bit more complicated. Effectively, this boils down to getting lots of people together tweeting with a common purpose. I thought more technology, more computing skills, would be involved. In a world where everyone is proposing that artificial intelligence can delve into problems and trend identification, I’m surprised that targets could not be spotted and shut down fairly quickly, quickly enough to shorten a sustained attack anyway, rather than waiting for three years for the truth to be revealed.

What I really don’t understand is why the Russian’s thought Trump was the best option, anyway. Most countries looking to establish good relations with a potentially hostile adversary would rather deal with someone who was consistent in thought and action. It might not be a perfect fit, but at least you know where you stand. Trump’s political idealism does seem to be based on what he has just read on Twitter – how can you base a good relationship for the future on that?

Or perhaps they just wanted to make America look silly?

Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief


Businesses struggling with the UK’s growing digital skills gap, says CBI

The engineering and technology sectors have long had skills gaps and in the UK and some other countries they are set to get worse over the next few decades. This gap is actually damaging industry now and that will soon be felt in the economy, if it's not already. How to attract those people with the right skills is a problem that has exercised industry and policy makers for years. One way is to look at the groups that are under-represented in the workforce and ask why that is. More diversity is not only the right thing to do, it could be good for business, too. Only 16 per cent of autistic people in the UK are in full-time employment, for example, yet as a group they tend to be stronger in the very skills the UK lacks right now. Our next issue will look closely at this dichotomy, focusing on the companies that are deliberately employing more - sometimes exclusively - those under-represented groups in their staff, finding out how they achieve that and what benefits it brings them.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

3D scanning to allow Heathrow passengers to keep liquids in carry-on luggage 

A very welcome long-awaited piece of news for all travellers! Due to the existing, fairly ridiculous, liquid-carrying regulations, security checks at airports have become messy and time-consuming, with would-be passengers awkwardly pushing their shampoos, perfumes and toothpastes (also regarded as liquids) into flimsy plastic bags, while simultaneously hastily finishing off (or throwing away) their drinkable liquids. I saw with my own eyes a ruddy-faced gentleman in the queue taking the last swigs from a small whisky flask before dropping it into a rubbish container. On another occasion, a young mother was asked to have a drink herself from a bottle of baby milk she was carrying - a fairly common procedure, I was told. She told me later she felt embarrassed and humiliated and I don’t blame her.

In my experience, the normally helpful and polite security staff can get quite nasty when it concerns the amount of ‘liquids’ you are trying to smuggle on board. Before my recent flight to Prague, I had to abandon half of my toiletries which did not fit into the tiny plastic bag provided and my timid attempt to use another bag was met with a stern stare and a clenched-teeth mumble: “Only one bag per passenger is allowed!”.  Interestingly, there was no problem with the second bag for my return flight, from Prague to London. Thank God for the 3D-scanning devices, which will, hopefully, stop all this mess soon. More than just facilitating and accelerating the security checks, this will be a good example of technology helping to preserve human dignity, too.

Smart medicine dispenser cuts waiting times from hours to seconds

Another bit of good news for people like myself: “patients with chronic conditions”, who have to take several prescription drugs until the end of their lives (I take five) and have therefore to endure long queues in pharmacies when collecting them. It is perhaps even better news for the chemists themselves, who now have to spend hours and hours sorting out medicines and placing them in separate pigeon holes – one for each patient. Time is our most precious commodity and people with chronic health conditions are normally able to appreciate it better and to value it higher than their luckier healthy comrades. On behalf of all the former, I’d like to thank the South African electrical engineer Neo Hutiri for his wonderful invention.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Smartphone makers tease ‘under-display’ selfie cameras

The global obsession with the selfie image persists, although I am old enough to remember holding an analogue film camera at arm's length to take group photos of me and my friends hanging out together, so it's hardly a new phenomenon. The smartphone has made this practice considerably easier, of course, with cameras now routinely situated on both sides of a device, to the extent that the front-facing camera is now commonly referred to as 'the selfie camera'. Some people definitely take a lot of selfies: it's almost an addiction for them. I was in a London cafe recently, absent-mindedly people watching through the window, with a very stylishly dressed young Japanese woman sitting alone to my right. For the hour or so that I sat there, stretching my large tea out for as long as I could, this woman incessantly took a stream of what must have been near-identical selfies. Her outfit, hair and make-up were all unquestionably 'on point', but none of it changed from minute one to minute 60. Perhaps the news that Chinese smartphone manufacturers are working on handsets with completely invisible selfie cameras hidden under the display will delight such people. Still, it's never the visible camera lens that gives you away as narcissistically self-obsessed, is it? It's duck-face and the unnaturally outstretched arm.

Humanoid AI robot becomes first to launch its own art exhibition

Inevitable and probably depressing news for human artists everywhere. As if it wasn't already difficult enough for artists to attract gallery attention or get their work displayed anywhere, now the robots have come for their jobs. To add insult to injury, naturally the humanoid robot artist in question just had to be made to look like an attractive young brunette, a stylised version of the archetypal glamorous, sophisticated bohemian - no exposed gleaming chrome Terminator-type skeleton on display here, although of course that is exactly what is underneath Ai-Da's cosmetically pleasing exterior. Yes, 'her' name is Ai-Da, apparently after the mathematician Ada Lovelace. As for the artworks themselves, well, Ai-Da's solo exhibition, ‘Unsecured Futures’, opens at Oxford University from June 12, so you can make up your own mind.

Swipe right for Putin: Kremlin demands Tinder user data

A headline and story that probably wouldn't have made much sense even five years ago. We are living in unusual and accelerated times.

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