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Samsung China pullout, whale-watching drones 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.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Samsung ends smartphone manufacturing in China

In the same week that Samsung relaunched its Fold phablet to an enthusiastic audience in India – ongoing screen technical issues notwithstanding, apparently – it is interesting to read that the company has pulled all manufacturing out of China. Not just Samsung either – many other high-tech companies have made or are considering a similar move. That 'Made In China' label is finally peeling off a lot of major gadgets. Partly this is due to the ongoing US-China trade tariffs war, as companies are concerned about the economic repercussions, but it seems also partly down to a shift in local consumer behaviour. Samsung's market share has dropped to almost zero in China, as the Chinese are buying either cheap and cheerful homegrown brands such as Xiaomi and Oppo or luxury high-end smartphones from Apple and Huawei. As with almost every other aspect of retail, the middle ground has evaporated completely. It's either cheap as chips at the low end or luxury at the high. Samsung's products fell awkwardly in the middle, hence the slump in market share. A broader cultural shift away from China might see other companies, such as Japanese firms, choosing to project a sense of national pride and identity, making their products if not actually at home then at least closer to it. If this trend continues and more companies start moving out of China – Apple has already shifted some iPhone production and has also announced that it will make its new Mac Pro computer in Austin, Texas – suddenly China's previously unassailable position in global manufacturing might not be so solid.

2,000-year-old Roman scrolls to be ‘virtually unwrapped’ with machine learning

A perfect example of the old and the new coming together, in this fascinating archaeological application of cutting-edge machine learning to better understand ancient artefacts. These carbonised scrolls, virtually petrified by the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, will be ‘virtually unwrapped’ by a team at the UK’s national synchrotron science facility in Oxfordshire. A powerful light source will scan the scrolls and the information gathered will be processed and used to train a machine-learning algorithm, which will eventually enable the visualisation of the carbon ink used on the papyri. It's going to be a long process before the writing and meaning of the scrolls can be deciphered, although as it's already been 2,000 years, a few more years won't make much difference.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Drones deployed to determine the weight of whales

Drones have lots of uses, and this is a new, inventive one! Also, I love whales, and it’s great that we can find out more about them. So researchers have developed a model that can calculate the body volume and mass of free-living southern right whales by measuring body length, width and height using photographs obtained by drones.

Before this, scientists could only get the data of how big the giant boys were by weighing them when they were dead or stranded when they washed up on beaches. Aerial photos and videos taken by drones mean whales don’t need to be dead or stressed out in order to get this information.

As well as getting the weight and what not, the researchers investigated movements of southern right whales, which gather in large numbers at their winter breeding grounds off the coast of Península Valdés, Argentina. The team flew a drone over whales swimming in clear water, capturing photographs when the adults and calves came up to the surface to breathe, including their backs and sides when they rolled over. From these photos, the team were able to obtain length, width and height measurements for 86 individuals. Aww. Baby whales.

Old whaling literature helped them get a good representation of the body shape of the whales, and they were then able to convert body shapes, or volumes, to mass. The drone method could help us learn about the physiology and ecology of whales. Sweet!

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

E-bikes: cycling with the current

I wouldn't hesitate to agree with my esteemed colleague Tim Fryer that e-biking, rather than being “an excuse for laziness”, is a fair and proper exercise, particularly for those whose mobility had been somewhat restricted by a chronic or temporary medical condition. I learned that from my own experience, or, as we used to say in Russia, “on my own skin” – an idiom which proved highly appropriate for my first (and so far last) e-biking adventure.

Early in 2018, I received an invite from Switzerland Tourism to do some e-biking in the Alps. They were obviously unaware of the fact that only one year before I had undergone a massive open-heart surgery and was still experiencing some post-operational complications.

I then phoned my cardiologist and told him about the invite. “You know what,” he replied, "a bit of e-biking therapy may be just what you need to keep you firmly on the recovery path.” He went on to explain that, contrary to what many people think, some strenuous exercise – and cycling in particular – is essential in healing the patched-up heart. “Your main enemies are immobility and stress,” he said. “Believe me, in your situation, heart failure and other cardiological episodes are much more likely to result from a domestic or office quarrel, being stuck in a traffic jam or too much pressure at work than from open-air cycling, particularly e-cycling.”

He then emailed me useful links to the website of the British Heart Foundation and other respectable sources – all stating in chorus that, according to a British Medical Association study and other surveys, riding a bicycle for at least 20 miles a week lessened the risk of coronary heart disease by almost 50 per cent, that mountain biking in particular increased heart fitness by 3-7 per cent, and so on. That was all very good, but how about someone like me, who has already undergone a heart valve replacement?

Looking back now, I can say that those three days of mountain cycling in Valais were among the hardest in my life. They were also among the most satisfying and fulfilling.

On a couple of occasions, while negotiating particularly steep near-vertical slopes, when not even the ‘high’ or ‘turbo’ modes of my e-bike were of any help whatsoever, or while sliding slowly down (as any hardened mountaineer would tell you, descending is always much harder than climbing up) the seemingly endless narrow mountain path, with precipices on both sides and with my right brake suddenly failing, I was close to aborting the adventure and walking down (or up) the mountain pushing (or pulling) my bike by the handles, even if it took me a couple of weeks. To be completely honest, it was not stamina that made me carry on, but simple realisation that e-bikes, albeit much lighter now (and with much smaller batteries) than several years ago, were still heavy, so pushing/pulling one up or down the mountain would be like trying to steer an obstinate Swiss cow by the horns and would probably take much more effort than cycling itself.

Treating my fresh scratches and bruises in the Alpine village where the adventure ended, I felt hugely proud of myself. I could now say to everyone who branded me foolhardy and plain crazy (and they included some of my friends and family): e-biking therapy works!

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

High-res imaging technology promises to improve cancer diagnostics

The British public’s concern about the state of the National Health Service hasn’t diminished since the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016, when it was influential enough for one side to literally write about it on the side of a bus. Yet inevitably – as of this week at least – it’s been superseded in terms of implementing the UK’s departure from the EU by more practical concerns about whether ‘technology’ can solve the intractable problems associated with having a border across the island of Ireland.

Away from Brexit though, the NHS remains a perennial political football with government promises of funding for new hospitals announced during the Conservative Party conference rapidly being punted back and forth as various stakeholders analysed the facts behind the headline announcement.

One thing that heated debates about whose hands our health would be safest in tend to ignore is the importance of actually avoiding having to spend time in hospital in the first place. It’s far easier as a politician to make pledges about how many  millions or billions of pounds you’re going to invest at some time in the future in physical infrastructure, it seems, than to talk about the importance of spending money on preventing people getting sick or making sure they’re diagnosed as quickly as possible.

Trials starting in Edinburgh this year of a new technique that helps spot cancers sooner and less invasively are a great success story, but one that won’t get as much attention as the possibility of four, forty or four hundred new hospitals perhaps being constructed at some point in the future. And as it’s based on existing ultrasound technology, it can be carried out in an outpatient clinic with current equipment that’s been adapted.

Yes, Brexit’s important, and the increasingly polarised nature of Britain’s political environment surely can’t continue and needs to be resolved, but let’s take some time to think about things that are going to be just as significant once the dust has settled. And what could be more significant than the possibility of spotting cancer as early as possible?

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