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Robot incentives, Nasa Moon doubts, robotuna and more: best of the week's news

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

Robot take-up by UK businesses needs incentivising by Government

There still seems to be a negativity around robots that I can’t understand. More importantly, the Chinese can’t understand it. Apparently they have more industrial robots than the US, Japan and Germany put together, with the UK barely featuring on the same page. I’ll confess this is an uncorroborated ‘fact’, but one that has been bandied around this week at the ‘Manufacturing in the age of Experience’ conference in Shanghai.

This event, put on by Dassault Systemes, is aimed at board-level types who want to take – or are in the process of taking – their companies into the digital future. Robots and broader factory automation come into this, but are only one element. Only when combined and fully integrated with factory planning, supply chain management, digital twins, process optimisation, maintenance, product demand planning, product lifecycle management and more, will the true benefits of digitisation be felt. That is the message that appears to be resonating in China, but far less so in the UK. Rather than embrace the opportunity of entering a digital manufacturing environment, UK companies seem reluctant to invest round the edges. Would tax relief on a robot really pave the way to success? Or does that speak volumes about the lack of commitment to take the bull by the horns?

At this event there has also been much talk of the impact of 5G and AI. The former will, they say, ‘democratise data’ – or to put it another way, rolling out high-speed comms across an enterprise will be affordable. Yunhou Wang of analysts CCID observed that by 2025 100 per cent of big companies will be in the Cloud and a more surprising 97 per cent will be using AI in their business processes. In other words, the acceleration of manufacturing technology will be enabled by 5G and AI – they have become the digital champions. And the companies that embrace new technologies stand to increase the advantage they have over their more unevolved competitors

Bob Parker, senior VP of IDC, believes that if companies are going to be successful they need a long-term digital roadmap that starts now – the technology to digitise a company is already here. He quoted Boeing as an example of a company that has put together a 20-year digital plan and committed the necessary financial resources to see it through.

This journey was described by Morgan Zimmerman, CEO of Exalead, Dassault Systemes, as using: “the virtual world to expand and improve the real world. China is paving the way and has started that transformation.”

So where are we in the UK? Instinctively relating robots to job losses is a bad idea, simply because it should work out in the long term to be wrong. Perhaps tax relief on robots is a good idea, although maybe equivalent to replacing a seal when a whole pump system needs updating. Unless we are really going to get left behind we do need to explore the bigger picture and embrace the opportunity rather than resist it.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Nasa manager casts doubt on 2024 Moon landing deadline

You might wonder what the hold-up could be, given that 50 years ago some much less advanced technology managed to achieve the same feat. It also then repeated the success multiple times over the next five years. Of course, technology has advanced immeasurably in the intervening years since a person last walked on the Moon, but this doesn't make flinging a spaceship up to there any easier. As it was in the 1960s, so it is today: it largely comes down to that old bugbear of the space programme - funding. If the nation just isn't that awed by space travel any more, that makes it harder for space agencies such as Nasa to persuade the government to pony up the many billions of dollars that a Moon landing demands.

As with so many other endeavours, if the government is unwilling - it's too busy oppressing immigrants and diverting military funding to build egotistical border wall vanity projects, say - then private finance and private space companies might have to step in to help make up the shortfall. That's not a bad thing, but it's another wrinkle in the silk that has to be smoothed out. Whether or not Nasa makes the 2024 Moon landing deadline is much less about technological ability and much more about the administrative rabbit holes its personnel may find themselves being sent down. 

Isle of Wight gets new trains and railway upgrade

As a good friend of mine, resident on The Island for the last 10 years, said on hearing about this announcement: yeah, we're all looking forward to having our 80-year-old trains replaced by 40-year-old trains!

‘Renewable is doable’, says Unilever, as it hits 100 per cent green energy goal

Being one of the world's largest FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] companies, and thus no stranger to the power of good copywriting, it was no surprise that Unilever sought to encapsulate its commendable environmental achievement in a snappy tagline. The firm that recently gave us the on-trend, social media savvy ‘Perf with Surf’ campaign sought to boil down its presumably tremendously complex and expensive logistical readjustments, in order to achieve 100 per cent green energy use across all aspects of its operations, to a memorable three-word phrase that anyone can remember. 'Renewable is doable'. It's a new spin on 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle', which became Bob the Builder's environmental rallying cry for years. This is no sly criticism, either. 'Renewable is doable' is brilliant in its all-encompassing simplicity. Whatever sustainability challenges your company faces, it's doable. It works on a personal level, too. For all of us, renewable is doable. No more excuses. Play your part and take responsibility for your actions. If 'Renewable is doable' can become a mantra for individuals as well as corporate behemoths, there is hope yet for humanity and the planet.

Wasted gas levels worldwide reach record high; enough to heat every home in UK

No surprise to learn that Russia, Iraq, Iran and the US were the four most wasteful nations of natural gas in 2018. These are all countries that don't have the greatest track records on environmental issues and for some, they are even actively taking steps now to go backwards on any previous advances made *cough* Trump Administration *cough*. The amount of gas being wasted is phenomenal, as reported by this story. There are legitimate reasons for ‘flaring’ gas, but not to these record-breaking levels. It's laziness and irresponsibility, done simply because it's easier to burn the gas off than do something more constructive - i.e. more expensive and time-consuming - to tackle the problem. It's the fossil fuel industry equivalent of dumping an old mattress over the back of your garden fence because it's too much hassle to take it to the tip and dispose of it properly.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Human rights groups back MPs’ call to halt police use of facial-recognition software

This week I attended the Global Grand Challenges Summit 2019 in London, where a central theme was the debate around AI, bias and public concern with automation. Two panels featured arrays of experts talking about AI, automation and privacy concerns. The first question that struck me as important was whether engineers may be complicit when they develop the next generation of AI applications - which may cause intrusion into our privacy. In other words, should engineers become more conscious of their power and their responsibility? Yes, without a doubt. Faithful to the so-called ‘Peter Parker principle’ named after the secret identity of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man that "With great power there must also come great responsibility," more universities and workplaces are adamant to teach ethics, according to several people I spoke to.

On the other hand, is it enough to attach an ethics committee to every project that’s publicly pushing the boundaries on the controversial side of AI and machine learning? I’d argue, perhaps not. Usually, the ethics committee bears limited or no legal powers. Human rights experts are aware of that. We should all be.

China is currently at the forefront of criticism around using AI and facial recognition. It’s at the crossroads and engineers are making decisions that could lead to making or breaking the system.

When Dr Zhonghan Deng, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and Vimicro co-founder, was asked by the audience whether he was worried, he surprised me by replying that he is concerned. The solution, in his view is to establish reliable standards (in his talk, he introduced the national SVAC standard, his company proposal). But, is this really enough and how much say does the public have in shaping these standards? I am sceptical that a standard is sufficient. A law that serves the weakest member of the public is more reliable in this regard. 

Other panel members, such as Azeem Azhar, host of the Exponential View podcast and AI expert, said that we are simply not able to address and manage people's consent. Recent examples such as Amazon's ‘Ring’ doorbell camera that works with police, is sending alarm bells throughout the system. Now privacy experts and the public are all the more suspicious. If these public-private partnerships are not being handled with care, AI applications will face massive challenges in the future - even those ones that are clearly good-natured.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Analogue redux: the reel-to-reel rebirth in recording studios

40 years of the four-track, as the Portastudio powers on

I bought my very first hi-fi component with money saved up from my very first Saturday job. I couldn’t afford the speakers, let alone one of the expensive new CD players but I loved my cassette deck and my first few home-taped TDK C90s. Cassettes were never a lovely format really, lacking the expansive cover art of vinyl and the convenience of CDs. But you could record on it and that meant you could make mix tapes as well as record family and friends’ LPs. Luckily home taping didn’t kill music after all. CDs killed cassettes and digital recording killed studio tape. Nearly. CDs are on the wane while vinyl and even cassette sales are rising. From our last issue, Chris Edwards hears why musicians and studio engineers are messing around with tape once more, while Jonathan Wilson looks at the legacy of the portable four-track mini home studio launched 40 years ago.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Realistic tuna robot created to improve next-gen underwater vehicles

The tuna is one speedy and impressive fish; no wonder engineers are looking to them for inspiration. A robotic fish, designed by engineers at the University of Virginia, mimics the speed and movements of yellowfin tuna and will help design more efficient next-gen underwater vehicles and robots.

Underwater robots can be used for lots of things like defence, marine resources exploration, spying like James Bond. Collaborating with Harvard University biologists, the engineers have said the fish is the first step to achieving greater understanding of how fishies and other sea creatures move through water to improve future propulsion systems.

The team say they didn’t just want to build a robot – they wanted to make something to test hypotheses on what makes biological swimmers so fast and efficient. Perhaps flippers, fins, or something flappy like that? The ‘Tunabot’ – such an inventive name - moved like a fish underwater and beat its tail fast enough to reach nearly equivalent speeds when compared with live fish.

Tunabot has no eyes or fins and is only 25cm long – nothing like the often-huge tuna, which can grow to over two metres. And can see. A fishing line tether keeps the robot steady, while a green laser light cuts across the midline of the plastic fish.

‘Electronic nose’ can detect the presence of bacteria in patients’ breath

Remember the nose that could smell out counterfeit whiskey? Well, here’s something even more useful than that! There’s now an ‘electronic nose’ that sniffs out bacteria, which could curb antibiotic use when it’s not necessary.

Scientists at Warwick University made the nose, and the tech could help doctors at GP practices to quickly diagnose the common cold or the flu, conditions that antibiotics cannot help with. The nose analyses the breath sample after a patient has blown into a breathing tube, like a police breathalyser. Certain chemicals are then identified, signalling whether or not bacteria are present. Fun!

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Parental monitoring tech could force young drivers to be more responsible

Driving culture in the US, where the research behind this story was carried out, has always been markedly different from that in the UK. Cars are seen as such an intrinsic part of life that young people grow up assuming they’ll be on the road at a young age, bolstered by the knowledge that the roads are so much bigger and traffic outside urban areas so much sparser that they can afford to make a few mistakes.

That doesn’t necessarily make them safer though, and a study in Maryland has found that new drivers are likely to take much more care if they think their parents are keeping an eye on them through on-board technology. Kind of making them a virtual back seat driver, and who wouldn’t be more cautious with Mum or Dad sitting back there?

In fact one of the features that’s improved my own driving most in various cars I’ve owned was having a big digital display of the vehicle’s speed that was clearly visible from the back seat. As soon as my children were old enough to monitor it, and check out roadside speed limit signs, they took great delight in warning me if they spotted me going even 1 mile an hour over the maximum.

A bit annoying maybe, but hard to ignore and – as this research shows – a cheap but effective alternative to high-tech speed-limiting software.

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