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Apocalypse scenarios, hydrogen police cars, VR mat 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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

The final countdown: the top 13 apocalypse scenarios

Our Armageddon issue, which has been hitting desks this week, was, despite its sinister overtures, an entertaining edition to put together. Partly, I think, because the scenarios that Rebecca Northfield summarises in this lead feature are largely the stuff of sci-fi movies. They’re big, they go bang and they’re usually averted by a small team of brave and clever Americans.

We know that a zombie apocalypse isn’t going to happen, and we know that the Sun will someday run out of energy, but that’s so far off it’s of no consequence. And things like asteroids and volcanoes may happen but that’s where the brave Americans will save us. As covered in other articles in this issue, pandemics and ‘cybergeddon’ are actually quite likely, but will not be apocalyptic.

The real problem is with climate change. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that it’s lumped in with the others in our whistle-stop tour of Armageddon alternatives – things that are too big and bad to actually happen. I still think that despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to demonstrate human-influenced climate change, people don’t feel it’s their responsibility to act. Yet it’s the one Armageddon threat which is a reality. Humans will survive it, but not the full eight billion of us – we will simply run out of food production capability. And when the ice caps do fully melt then that 65-metre rise in sea levels will severely affect the places where we can live. Most major cities are on the coast or tidal rivers so we can sing ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’ to them as they disappear under the waves.

I’m being flippant of course, and the majority of people do take it seriously, even if they don’t act on it. The frustration as ever comes from deniers sitting at the pinnacle of corporate and political power, particularly in America, without whose backing real change becomes even more difficult. Maybe there would be poetic justice if their beach-front villas were the first to be submerged. Or maybe ironic justice if they were hit by an asteroid or eaten by zombies.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

How will it all end? The apocalypse, survival... and Brexit

It's not the end of the world. Yet. But is it nigh? This month E&T has a countdown to the most likely apocalypse scenarios that could hit planet Earth. Some are as old as the Old Testament. Yes, we even have the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Others, though, have only emerged in recent decades. Could we really be heading for a digital Armageddon?

We look at how the worst could be avoided, if it can, with the science or engineering to dodge it. We also provide a cut-out-and-keep survival guide, just in case. And how would we rebuild after Armageddon? How would you go about rebuilding civilisations's technologies from scratch? All that and Brexit. Which is coming. Probably.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Met Police trials hydrogen cars as it launches 2050 zero-carbon goal

I suppose this is a timely announcement from the Met, just as central London is being invaded by climate protesters; it demonstrates that ‘the Establishment’ takes care of our planet seriously too. It also illustrates the important role that vehicle fleet operators can play in helping to get new technology into the market. That’s partly because large organisations are better placed than many private buyers to look at whole-life costs (trading off a high purchase price against lower running costs), and partly because it’s much easier to provide the necessary infrastructure (in this case, a supply of hydrogen) when vehicles go back to base every day.

Autumnal rail delays could be foiled with dry ice clean-up

Yes, it’s that time of year again, and before long we’ll be reading stories from aggrieved commuters complaining that their trains were late because of ‘leaves on the line’ – usually with the sub-text that this is somehow a feeble excuse. In fact it’s a significant problem and Network Rail puts a lot of effort into dealing with it. Now researchers at the University of Sheffield have come up with a new idea, using dry ice to blast away the compressed leaf mulch that can cause wheelslip and interfere with train-detection circuits. The system was tested on a low-traffic freight line last year, with trials taking place at more locations this autumn. Other projects are also looking at this problem; it’s a sign that it really is being taken seriously.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Microsoft files patent application for vibrating VR mat

Excitement over the possible experiences that VR could produce probably hit its peak sometime around 2016 and has been tailing off ever since. First positioned as an essential tool for the next generation of digital games, gamers quickly realised that there were some very difficult problems to overcome. Running forward in a game, while sitting stationary in real life, often produces nausea equivalent to car sickness as the subconscious mind struggles to reconcile the two opposite states happening simultaneously.

Maybe this mat could help, as it provides you with a full digital space to walk around in and sensors that will tell you when you’re about to smash your TV screen in. Microsoft’s patent includes the possibility of installing haptic feedback in the mat to let the user know when they are reaching the safe boundary of the play space or simply having a different texture around the edges as a simpler solution.

The only problem to solve now is making a VR game that’s actually fun and would make sense to be played on a small mat that fits in a living room – Portaloo Simulator 2019? Some kind of 'Doctor Who' game where the Tardis has lost its ‘inside bigger than outside’ powers? Car Park Security Officer Booth? Let us know if you have any other amazing game ideas for this mat.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

GitHub employees protest over renewal of immigration agency contract

This week, it was revealed that GitHub was renewing its contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency; the same ICE that is separating migrant children from their parents and putting them in cages. GitHub CEO Nat Friedman acknowledged that while deporting migrants and keeping children in detention centres is Not Cool, the agency probably isn’t going to use its GitHub server licence for anything too evil, so that’s that. GitHub employees were up in arms against the decision, calling on leadership to cancel its contract with ICE. “Now is the time to take a stand, or be complicit,” they wrote. They’re absolutely right. It’s not good enough to acknowledge that a lucrative business partner violates your ethical standards and then continue to work with them regardless. I hope that pressure from its employees and users will give GitHub cause to reconsider its decision.

PayPal first to withdraw from Facebook currency group

This is going to be fun.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

1,000 ancient monuments discovered with lidar on Isle of Arran

As an archaeologist by degree, anything ancient piques my curiosity. I’m especially drawn to properly ancient finds, the ones that go back past that artificial year zero a little over 2,000 years ago. Mention anything BCE (Before Christian Era) and you've got my attention. That was a time when humankind in Europe was really starting to push at the limits of what was possible, learning crucial new skills, becoming braver and more peripatetic, roaming across the continent and trading goods with other tribes encountered. And they really got about, those ancient folk. They went everywhere.

This news that a thousand ancient monuments have been identified on the Isle of Arran with the help of lidar is fascinating. One of my modest achievements in my short archaeological career was finding several new, previously unrecorded ancient settlements on the Isle of Skye – previously unrecorded for three likely reasons, (a) because the Isle of Skye is really far north and not many people go there; (b) because you have to walk across forbidding landscapes for hours, in all weathers (mostly rain, to be honest), and (c) because you have to know what you're looking for. I imagine the remains of a prehistoric stone hut look to all intents and purposes like any old pile of stones to the average rambler or local sheep crofter. We didn't have lidar to help us back then (I can legitimately, if ruefully, say last century). Now that we do, I'm sure there are many more ancient sites waiting to be discovered across all the Scottish islands. Keep me posted.

Technology apocalypse: could we start again from scratch?

Having contemplated the achievements of prehistoric man, here's a depressing counterpoint: the possibility of our failure to live peaceably and in a sustainable manner on this Earth, casting us back to pseudo-Neolithic times in a post-apocalyptic world. Could you survive? We're quite an ingenious species, when push comes to shove, and this article is a decent primer for how to make do and mend with what little you can find to hand, hopefully enabling you and yours to eke out some kind of precarious existence until the sweet release of death puts you all out of your misery. Here's a thought: let's do all we can now, right now, instead and hopefully avoid such a bleak and joyless future. Sustainable progress: that should be our watchword from here on in.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Digital Doomsday

Economics, and my own conversations with cyber-security professionals, support Martin Courtney’s argument in this feature from the new issue of E&T that some kind of ‘cyber Armageddon’ is unlikely, despite recent attacks.

For a start, if cyber criminals were to  take down the ’system’ as we know it they would be destroying their own market and any future profit. It would be nothing but self-destructive. Big crime, some argue, is rarely much different from business. You have a buyer and a seller. I enjoyed reading ’Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel’ in which Tom Wainwright argues that drug cartel bosses often think in similar ways to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. So why should it be different in cyber crime, where the rule of the club is: “Never destroy the system that keeps you alive.”

Yes, there have been cyber attacks on energy systems that have caused electricity blackouts and threatened national grids. But from discussing this with cyber-crime experts at the Infosecurity Europe conference a few months ago, it seems the incentive for dozens of private hackers to attack critical infrastructure is very low. This is due to the severe penalties associated with such offences. Some hackers do it for the kicks. Being jailed for many more years than you would be for stealing a financial identity is simply a turnoff, some argue. For the rest – the professionals – there is a big question mark over how much more profitable it is going to be to access the crown jewels of operational technology, geospatial information and ICS that are power suppliers’ core business infrastructure compared to cyber crime within the financial services and healthcare sectors. 

It’s hard to see how the first malware-targeting safety systems of critical infrastructure, triton – the first malware that targets safety instrumented systems – can make money out of shutting down industrial processes "when unsafe operating conditions are reached". While successful exploitation of such systems could lead to serious implications, does it lead to a real payoffs for most hackers?

Part of the reason why cyber crime took off in healthcare in the US was because there was something to gain, largely from a crippling and private reimbursement system. The incentive opened up a new line of credit. Who’d have guessed, in a system that hit $3.65tn in spending last year? Yes, it is undoubtedly a tragedy for patients and whoever pays into the system. But it was largely not because of ‘evil hackers’ that wanted to kill patients. That was not the incentive. It was cash. Will those ongoing attacks take down the system in the future? Unlikely.

The question we need to ask more frequently in cyber security is 'why?'. For this, it is worthwhile to remember that both players in the game, cyber security and cyber crime, feed off each other. If crime disappears or is limited to geopolitical conflicts (a real threat for the stability of nations), cyber-security firms will not like it – unless they are hired and paid by governments. If cyber crime were to drop to a negligible level, firms could divert funds spent currently on cyber security to other things like equal pay and opportunities as well as training for employees. Simply put: with no cyber crime, a whole sector would be pissed off.

One just has to note the wealth of the number of cyber-security reports that come out every year and the jaw-dropping valuations of cyber-security firms – most of which it’s likely you have never heard of. 

Anyway, reports on cyber-security development by governments (not private firms) may calm your nerves a bit. The European Union Agency for Network and Information Security suggests in its 2018 report that, despite increases in phishing/spear-phishing attacks, some hacks seem on their way out, such as consistent year-over-year decline of financial trojans. Nonetheless, the conclusions of such reports are music to the ears of cyber-security companies. Business needs to do this and that – respond to the trend of cyber-attack automation, define processes for CTI knowledge management, develop viable CTI services and similar. Despite the irony, I would suggest that cyber-security firms would not be happy to eradicate cyber crime. It’s their bread and butter. And as unlikely as it is that we will have a cyber armageddon, it is also unlikely that we’ll see cyber crime disappear.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Met Police trials hydrogen cars as it launches 2050 zero-carbon goal

So how fast do they go? Will they be able to catch up with baddies? Will they be able to keep up with high-speed chases? I’m all about saving the planet, but then I’m all about saving lives and protecting people. If they’re like the electric Teslas, which are super speedy, then perhaps they could be a great addition to the force.

According to carbuyer.co.uk, the Toyota Mirai goes from 0-62mph in a claimed 9.6 seconds and on to a top speed of 111mph. The Met’s 21-strong fleet of hydrogen-powered Mirais have clocked up over 260,000 emission-free miles. But they probably didn’t clock-up those miles going very fast, or when pursuing criminals.

Ten of the cars have been partly funded by the European Commission as part of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking research programme. So far, the Met has more than 500 zero- and ultra-low-emission vehicles in operation, including hybrids, fully electric and hydrogen. It started trialling lower-emission vehicles in 2017 when it bought 30 BMW i3 Range Extenders, which feature hybrid engines.

The final countdown: the top 13 apocalypse scenarios

Another shameless plugging of mine. So I wrote about the best ways in which we all die. What a cheerful subject, am I right? Give it a read!

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Technology apocalypse: could we start again from scratch?

‘What if all the engineers died?’ was the intentionally thought-provoking title of a debate I remember seeing advertised years ago as part of an event organised by one of the IET’s many local groups. I suspect the intention was to come up with a shopping list of all the invaluable things that the profession does and without which society as we know it would cease to function, in the style of ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’.

I’m not sure whether the public were invited to attend and be regaled with a hundred and one reasons why British engineers are deserving of the respect and status they believe are afforded to their counterparts in most other parts of the world. If not, it must have risked ending up as a harmless but ultimately pointless exercise in self-congratulation, but would at least have highlighted the aspects of modern life that we take for granted and would be pushed to reinstate if the people with appropriate expertise suddenly weren’t around any more.

Nick Smith follows a similar line in this feature for our new ‘Armageddon’ issue, which looks at how technology might cause various doomsday scenarios, save us from them, and possibly help rebuild society post-disaster. Nick suggests eight fundamental starting points for rebooting the world, from making a magnetic compass from scratch to telling the time and communicating with other survivors.

Of course, you’re likely to think of things that he’s missed, but the point is to get you thinking about how reliant we’ve become on things that, although we take them for granted, we don’t really understand at a fundamental level. And the advantage of being an engineer, I think, isn’t that you possess a vast reservoir of knowledge about things like how to build a basic battery from waste parts, for example, but that you’ve got the sort of mindset which instinctively realises where to begin.

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