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Phone addiction, cash for quantum, EV noise 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

Studies into smartphone addiction found to be flawed

In one of the least surprising results of a study ever, Lancaster University researchers have found that much research on smartphone addiction is based on flawed evidence. Most academic studies into smartphone use rely on self-reported measures of device use. This study compared self-reported data on device use with data collected from the Apple Screen Time function. While just 52 out of 238 iPhone users in the study would fit into a ‘high use’ category based on self-reported data, 92 could be placed in this category based on Apple Screen Time data.

This is a more serious issue than it sounds. Governments around the world are grappling in the dark to combat addiction to social media, excessive device use and other psychological problems without a substantial body of evidence to build their policy on. During a recent parliamentary enquiry into online harms, Professor Andrew Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute explained that while social media companies “collect, store and profit from extremely rich and sensitive data on our daily lives” (often collected through dubious means), it is unusual for these companies to partner with researchers. On his recommendation, the science and technology committee recommended that social media companies should be forced to share their data with researchers within the boundaries of data protection.

While I have little faith in our own government to base its policy on evidence, it is nonetheless important for researchers to be able to understand the psychological impact of heavy device use and I hope that companies will be forced to equip independent researchers with anonymised data.

Foxconn founder’s presidential hopes force corporate shake-up

Regardless of the dry details of Foxconn’s corporate restructuring, this is a wild story. Terry Gou, Foxconn’s founder, has taken advice from the local sea goddess and will be bidding for the nomination of the more pro-Beijing KMT for next year’s presidential election.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Review: ‘Driverless: who is in control?’ at the Science Museum

This Wednesday, the Science Museum in London opened ‘Driverless: who is in control?’ to the public. The exhibition explores how technology developers are using artificial intelligence and deep learning to create fully autonomous machines.

At the launch event, speakers including Science Museum director Sir Ian Blatchford and the minister of state for transport, Michael Ellis, emphasised the potential that autonomous technology has to transform and largely benefit a range of industries such as automotive, defence, health and the agriculture sectors.

If you ever have the chance to go, you will come across the recognisable autonomous underwater vehicle, Boaty McBoatface, which is tucked away in the furthest corner of the exhibition. Despite this criticism of the layout, it does however show a range of technology solutions in three separate sections: land, air and water. Each section takes visitors through the autonomous solutions already operating in these environments and the motivations of their developers, ranging from drones which can deliver a defibrillator to a person suffering from a cardiac arrest to an ever-so-quirky stained-glass car which you could sleep in as it transports you to your final destination.

Although the overall aim of the exhibition is to help people with limited knowledge of the subject matter gain a better understanding, I personally remain rather sceptical on the whole driverless concept. That being said, other people may feel differently about it. Perhaps visiting this sort of exhibition will make sceptics see the idea of driverless cars in a different light, perhaps not. I’d imagine that it is all a matter of moral and ethical views more than anything. However, I’d suggest visiting the exhibition nonetheless, whether you like the concept or not, as the visual displays are intriguing to look at. Also, you can’t really say no to a yellow submersible with a name like Boaty McBoatface now, can you?

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Studies into smartphone addiction found to be ‘flawed’

This story is just another episode in the ongoing debate between the proponents and opponents of technological progress, with both sides often quoting unverified, or indeed “flawed”, if not entirely false, data. Here’s one more fresh example.

Yesterday, an independent bookshop in the town where I live hosted Mark Boyle, an environmentalist and an up-and-coming author, who came to talk about his latest book ‘The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology’. The story behind that book is roughly as follows: after the success of his previous title, ‘The Moneyless Man’, in which he described a year of his life spent without receiving or spending a penny (I don’t mean the latter in its idiomatic sense), Boyle decided to try to live entirely without technology in a house. Not just without a computer or a phone: also without electricity, running water, gas, WC etc. He also vowed to avoid all technologies outside his house.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the event, but a friend of mine did. He told me that the talk was generally a success. The author, reportedly, told the audience that his moneyless experiment was now over (his wife, allegedly, left him in the process) and he was free to buy such essential household objects as, say, candles, which he used instead of electric bulbs (albeit one could argue that candles – no matter if manufactured or handmade - were also products of a technological process).

Prior to the event, I asked my friend to pose two questions to Mark Boyle:

  1. How did he get to the talk (for he couldn’t have possibly walked there from his techno-less den hundreds of miles away)?
  2. Was each copy of the book he was promoting both hand-written and hand-bound?
My friend didn’t get an answer to the second question. As for the first one, the author had, reportedly, confessed to using trains!

Vertical spaceport to be constructed on remote Scottish island

I welcome the idea to build a spaceport on one of the Scottish islands. Having visited a number of them, including the Shetlands, the Orkneys, and both the Inner and Outer Hebrides as a columnist for the Glasgow Herald between 2002 and 2004, I can vouch for the fact that the landscape on some of them, like Barra, Iona or Tiree, is barren, wild and otherworldly enough to pass for that of another planet. Starting a space journey from a place like that is bound to facilitate an astronaut’s transition period on arrival.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

UK government to invest £153m in quantum computing

Seems that if you have a few million here and a few million there, before you know it you are actually talking about serious money (or however the original quote went). It seems that British funding behind quantum technologies is now in the billions and all the signs are that this will be money well spent. In general, it is rare for us at E&T to dedicate one of our printed issues to a technology - we usually choose a theme to follow - so having a ‘quantum issue’ as we did in May hopefully demonstrates our enthusiasm for the subject.

Having governmental enthusiasm is far more important, of course, and I find it both commendable and surprising that this government announced a substantial further lump of funding last week. In E&T's quantum issuewe interviewed Sir Peter Knight, champion of the national quantum programme. When this was launched six years ago, he described it as a 10-year programme with a five-year budget, but it appears the long-term commitment is there. £235m was also pledged in last year’s autumn statement (I hope none of this money falls into the ‘re-announced’ category!)

My point is, we are in a time of such political uncertainty that making big financial and strategic decisions has been put on hold. Investment has retreated, unless for stockpiling. Barely a day goes by without news reports telling us this is bad for industry just in terms of making and selling things, but it is arguably worse in the R&D world. Long-term programmes need continuity and can’t be turned off and on to suit budgets available. One of the biggest concerns many Remainers have with Brexit is the continued involvement by UK institutions in European-wide research programmes.

Having this support for the development of quantum technologies is therefore a hugely positive thing, although I believe this latest funding is to support collaborative projects – collaborative projects generally require matched investment from industry and at a time when many quantum technologies still exist on the horizon and money is scarce in the present, finding those collaborative partners may not be a given. However, despite that small reservation, the projects this funding is aimed at are those that will come to fruition within two years – the low-hanging fruit of the quantum world – so it will be exciting to see these developments become reality.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

New EVs sold in EU will be required to make warning noises to alert pedestrians

Safety must come first, of course, but I can’t help thinking there must be a better way than making traffic noisier than it has to be. A new EU regulation forces electric cars to make a continual noise in cities when travelling at under 30mph – which is most of London, most of the time in real-life, even before the spread of a 20mph limit being considered by the mayor’s office. One of the revolutionary features of electric cars is their silence. Commuters coming into cities from the suburbs may not think much about it, but for those who are city dwellers it would be wonderful.

Electric vehicles wouldn’t only reduce particulate pollution, but noise pollution as well. Houses on main roads blighted by fumes and queues of idling engines or accelerating boy-racers would become liveable. It seems a shame to introduce more noise, albeit for good safety reasons. I predict technology will find a better way in the future and these mandated warning noises will go the same way as the man with the red flag who was required to walk in front of motor vehicles a century ago.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Hogwarts-style enchanted portraits created from art and photographs

For a second there, I thought they were going to recreate Hogwarts’ moving portraits, like full-on communicating with the wizard folk. Ah, well. They lied to me again.

Computer scientists at the University of Washington have developed a technique for transforming 2D images into 3D animations. Essentially, the subject ‘leaps out’ of the photograph. Interesting.

Previously, it was thought impossible to animate a person leaping out of a photo on the basis of a single image, due to the lack of photographs taken from different angles.

A professor said the big challenge was that the input is only from a single camera position, so part of the person was invisible. Their work combined technical advancement on an open problem in the field with artistic creative visualisation.

Whatever that means. The ‘Photo Wake-Up’ algorithm can take a person from a 2D photo or artwork and make them appear to run, walk or jump out of the frame and scare you poopless. Super-useful on a ghost train.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Leonardo da Vinaci at the British Library: considering ‘the urgency of doing’

Review: ‘Driverless: who is in control?’ at the Science Museum

Two exhibitions from opposite ends of the engineering ages - one looking back 500 years, the other looking ahead for years to come. The da Vinci exhibition, 'A Mind in Motion’ at the British Library, offers visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the tangible output of that Renaissance polymath's brain. For the first time in the UK’s history, one can pore over selected sheets from all three of Leonardo’s notebooks (his ‘codexes’) - ‘Arundel’, kept at the British Library; ‘Forster II’, from the Victoria and Albert Museum; and ‘Leicester’, kindly lent to the exhibition by its owner Bill Gates - and glean fresh insights into the moments inspiration struck and were recorded by da Vinci, as you review his own original physical documents. If Leonardo were alive today, he would presumably have jotted down his ideas on an iPad, but what sort of exhibition would that make 500 years from now?

Meanwhile, the Science Museum is looking ahead - naturally, the future being a large part of its remit - at driverless cars, assessing the current state of the art and wondering where the long and winding artificial intelligence road will lead us next. Are enough humans even sufficiently ready for fully autonomous vehicles? Do we trust the robots to deliver us to our destinations safely, in the same way that we inherently trust the Senegalese Uber driver who only arrived in the country six months ago and who we are only meeting for the first time when they pull up outside the convention centre hotel in a Toyota Prius in order to take us to the airport? [NB: this is a real-world example from personal experience; no slight is intended on either Uber or the good people of Senegal and those that choose to seek honest employment in other countries].

The future of motion is a topic of perpetual interest to every engineer, be that motion of the mind or motion on the road, and both of these exhibitions - now open to the public in London - come highly recommended.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Book review: 'AI in practice' by Bernard Marr

Last week, I visited the AI Summit at the London Tech Week. It presented a great jumble of commercially focused vendors, talking favourably about how they have found ways of using AI to tackle business problems. As is so often the case at innovation conferences like this, what was being described was aspirational, with implementation a long way off.

AI in law enforcement took up a great number of exhibiting spots. Hitachi, for example, is helping British police forces pull together data and evidence across information silos so they can use it to infer and correlate evidence, enhancing the information ecosystem within the police service.

Some of the major problems AI still has to tackle in this area are to do with racial bias. Few exhibitors were willing to speak openly about it and it remains controversial. False-positive rates for gender, different skin colour and similar features - as well as 'inaccuracies' - are all things vendors don’t really like to discuss.

Of course, there are exceptions. IBM has integrated a so-called 'fairness score' into its latest machine-learning platform. When the fairness score drops to deplorable levels, it will alert the user and recommend updating the setup.

The fact that the largest stand was occupied by a London university illustrates that AI in healthcare is still a popular field of research. It presented applications including one that uses bone marrow detection to help surgeons in their work. Nothing for the faint-hearted.

Babylon, a company that has been criticised by experts in the past, presented on stage. As usual, it will revolutionise the sector. Nothing new here. The room was full to the brim. It shows where the hype and hurly-burly lies.

I’ve also been reading how top companies are using AI. My review of Bernard Marr’s book ‘Artificial Intelligence in Practice’ describes how impressed I was with the author's ability to break down what can be very technical jargon for a mainstream audience. Nonetheless, like the AI Summit, there’s evidence that some of the real and ongoing challenges deserve more attention. Time will tell how companies fare with AI and whether the marketeers can keep their promises.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

IET and Beano challenge kids to design products for life on Mars

I don’t know. You look away for 40 years or so and comic characters completely change their nature from being troublemaking miscreants whose weekly adventures invariably ended with a brutal beating from the irate father to thoughtful dreamers who want only to inspire other youngsters to do constructive things like imagine how they would survive on other planets.

Mind you, I’m kind of surprised – and pleased – that in the age of Fortnite and so many other distractions the Beano comic is still even going. There must be something about the appeal of physical reading matter to kids that has sustained it after so many other print titles that looked like they would go on forever have packed in. (I still can’t believe the fondly remembered NME isn’t going any more, even if I didn’t bother picking up a copy when it was free every week prior to its demise).

The IET has collaborated with a lot of other organisations in its nearly 150-year history, but linking up with Dennis the Menace and his pals must be one of the most inspired moves. Here’s hoping that it, in turn, inspires the next generation to realise that engineering can be fun as well as rewarding.

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