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Weed-mapping, TikTok, tech tax and more: the week’s top tech news

Image credit: Philip Mynott/PA Wire

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

Weed-mapping robot cuts chemical usage

As it turns out, this story isn’t about a marijuana-locating GPS app to obviate the need to turn to liquid ecstasy during periods of cannabis shortage, but rather describes the National Trust's latest farming innovation. 

'Tom' the autonomous agricultural robot will be covering 20 hectares per day and 'he' can distinguish plant details at sub-millimetre resolution, with less than one millimetre per pixel resolution on the ground. Having spotted an errant weed, Tom can eradicate it without resorting to the use of harmful chemicals – neither spot nor blanket spray. This is a very neat use of technology, keeping those plant-control chemicals out of the wider ecosystem.

It might only be a one-off experiment at the moment, but it demonstrates what could be achieved through real-world effort and points the way to a more sustainable and less chemically dependent future. As with people, so it is with agricultural robots.

Russian rules for mobile devices criticised by Apple

Putin, in his dubious machinations to close the doors to the World Wide Web in favour of a solely Russia-wide web, has identified a new avenue to further his ambition. All those gadgets coming in to Russia from untrustworthy Western sources (and China) must be either stopped or controlled in some way. The idea is that any company wanting to sell smartphones and tablets in Russia will have to agree to having Russian-approved apps installed and shipped as part of the OS.

There’s a valid social argument for offering local people in any territory some more 'indigenous' apps, as opposed to merely pushing a translated version of a company's core system app to them and calling that 'localised services'. 

However, I also have sympathy for the objections expressed by the likes of Apple, who fairly point out that if they have no control over the apps that Russia obliges them to install, they then have no control over how these apps might negatively impact on the operation of the phone or tablet in question. Apple would also have no knowledge of the coding of that app, nor of any hidden intentions, such as data harvesting or behaviour monitoring by the state. 

This is why Apple has always maintained its 'walled garden' approach to software: it keeps control over hardware and software in its own hands, which is ultimately to the benefit of end users. Is handing all that control over to Putin and the Russian security forces really worth the extra revenue of being able to sell iPhones in Russia? Is kow-towing to state paranoia and dictatorial leanings really worth the damage to a company's hard-won reputation?

Apart from anything else, the Russian people have a long history of acquiring whatever they crave via a robust and thriving underground black-market culture. From Beatles records in the 1960s to Levi's blue jeans in the 1980s, no matter how forbidden the controlling state made something, the people found a way. I sincerely doubt that Vladimir Putin can stop the Russian people from acquiring 'unrestricted' iPhones, if that's something they really want.

Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief

Automation risk could be strongest predictor of Brexit vote

Research published this week found a strong correlation between the vulnerability of a voter’s job to automation and the likelihood of them voting for Brexit. It’s only a correlation of course, no proof of cause, but it is interesting and not without some irony. The fear of losing work due to competition from European migrants might be a reason to vote to leave the EU and thereby end free movement inbound from the continent. Conversely, those UK voters who want the chance to work abroad might be more in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, as might employers concerned about finding high-quality employees in sufficient numbers.

With fewer immigrants, those employers might be more inclined to look to automation. As the authors of the report point out, we’re not necessarily talking about the futuristic possibility of artificial intelligence taking skilled jobs. The UK is lagging in its productivity and could use more investment in automation right now. Brexit may well hasten that – and threaten the jobs of those that voted for it. Economics is more complicated than that, though, so we will all have to wait and see.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

TikTok faces class action lawsuit in US

TikTok's owner, ByteDance, is fighting a lawsuit that accuses the Chinese firm of having violated US child-privacy laws. That's surely not great for marketing. 

First off, TikTok remains a stunning success story. Notably, it is the first social media platform that has successfully ventured beyond the walls of China to compete on the world stage against tough competition. It’s very popular among the young, especially teenagers, which suggests to me that it hits a nerve where other Western social media companies have failed to win over users. 

Secondly, perhaps unsurprisingly, it does face challenges in the US. As one source familiar with the topic shared with me, US authorities are not happy with what TikTok does in their country, nor where it comes from. The ongoing trade war and Trump's accusations against China surely do not help there. TikTok is currently under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) over concerns that the app may pose a threat to US citizens. The last word on this is yet to be spoken. 

Thirdly, TikTok and its parent company are said to follow a very typical path of platform evolution. The next stage may well involve more irksome moves that irritate some of the established actors in the US market. As many successful social media companies with a similar level of success have done, TikTok will likely broaden its spectrum. The next step is to challenge tech giants such as Apple and others in the music-streaming business. Nothing wrong with that; totally normal. Yet, it will further aggravate US lobbyists, nationalists and the incumbent media firms.

Finally, I think there is a problem in TikTok's claim that it never, ever intended to be in any way politically inclined. If you have millions of users, how can you be sure? The claim they are merely interested in sharing silly videos doesn't stand up in this day and age. 

True, it claims never to have bowed to Chinese state censorship, but allegations remain of occasions when it did. In short, the game for TikTok in the US is on and will only become more complicated from here. Still, in my view, it remains a remarkable success story.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

UK to pursue tech giant tax despite Trump grumblings

OK, so this is low-hanging fruit as far as analysis goes, but it’s the sort of thing that once more highlights the Prime Minister’s lack of integrity. The Conservatives have had a decade to sort this out and they haven’t. During that time all right-minded people – even the opposition – have called for fairer taxes for the global tech giants. This is fundamental social justice – why should everyone else pay their taxes while the richest don’t (although there seems to be an inherent belief among some of the more wealthy that this should be the case).

Given the long-standing high profile of this issue, I can think there are only two possible reasons for it not being properly resolved. One, which I am quite happy to accept as a reasonable excuse, is that it is extremely difficult. These global corporates know how clever accounting works. If this is the case, then Boris Johnson should tell us so. The other possible reason is that they haven’t tried – and if they haven’t in the past, they are clearly not going to start now. Again, if this is the case, Johnson should not be telling us that he will.

What we have, therefore, is Johnson jumping on a bandwagon and lying about a policy, which then becomes devalued. If every political party makes promises that it can’t keep, the public stops believing any promises that any party makes.

While this tax-dodging by the world’s biggest companies is a case in point, it is typical of the political rhetoric that is reaching fever pitch as we head towards next week’s election. Never has British politics been so dispiriting.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Russian rules for mobile devices criticised by Apple

I’m inclined to believe that the true reasons for introducing Russian versions of Apple apps are not technical but political – the latest step in the Kremlin authorities’ continuing clampdown on freedom of expression and free thought. The recent arrests of huge numbers of peaceful street protesters in Moscow speak for themselves. Only yesterday, Radio Svoboda (Liberty) reported about both the trial of a rebellious Moscow Higher School of Economics student Egor Zhukov, falsely accused of anti-state propaganda, and the sudden banning of an exhibition of anti-Putin satirical posters by artist Evgeny Dubrovinsky, who said in his subsequent Radio Svoboda interview that the situation with freedoms in modern-day Russia is even “more disgusting” than it was in the Soviet Union.

Against this background, Russia’s technological striving for its own version of the internet that would allow the country’s rulers unlimited control over the entirety of its online content appears only logical: the introduction of a ‘Russian internet’ can be only a question both of time and the country's technological capabilities. The latter are quite impressive, if judged by the much-publicised ‘achievements’ of Russian hackers who have so far managed to interfere with digital communications of many a Western country. 

I won’t be surprised if the Russian Federation follows in the footsteps of China, where the Google search engine has been banned, or even tries to imitate North Korea, where internet access is very limited and citizens are offered instead a heavily censored version called Kwangmyong. 

I’m not sure what that word means in Korean, but what name would be appropriate for a Russian internet? I suggest ‘internyet’. As everyone knows, nyet is Russia’s most popular and most frequently used word. It means ‘no’, of course. 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Labour promises to cut rail fares by a third if it wins the General Election

Having pulled apart the Conservative party’s pledge to make rail travel more appealing by rolling out ‘pay as you go’ e-payment services across the South-East in this slot last week, it seems only fair that I take a look at how Labour’s plans to tempt us out of our cars and onto the trains stand up.

Not to mention that it’s at the forefront of my mind as I write, with my own car in the garage for its annual service, a state of affairs that means a commute to the E&T office by train, rather than the usual drive through the Hertfordshire countryside.

Every time I do this – pumping the thick end of £5 into a ticket machine for my peak-return, one-stop journey along the line heading into London – I experience mixed emotions. Glad I don’t have to do the full journey to King’s Cross or St Pancras every day, which would probably involve starting the day by standing for half an hour or so, combined with a little guilt that I default to jumping in the car each morning.

Then I start doing some mental arithmetic, usually working out that even taking into account the cost of today’s service, other maintenance costs and petrol, I’d still be paying about the same for the much less convenient train journey. Would cutting the fare by a third be enough to entice me into doing it every day? Presumably I wouldn’t be the only person doing that, so I’d want to be confident that services would be increased to cater for the additional number of passengers. Plus I’d have to keep my car on the road, anyway, because with a family of five it’s just not practical to give it up, so I’m not really saving much on overheads like tax, insurance, MOT or servicing.

I wonder how many of the people being targeted with this policy would actually not mind fares remaining the same if they could be sure that more investment was going to be made in infrastructure. That’s implicit in Labour’s promise to renationalise the railways, an idea that’s probably designed to appeal to young travellers who have only experienced a privatised network and might well wonder whether it could be any worse under state control.

It’s a situation where you literally pay your money and take your choice. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be an issue that is the dealbreaker in deciding which way anyone casts their vote. Personally, I’m looking forward to this episode in British political history being over by this time next week – at least until the next crisis, because I have a feeling that this election is going to resolve very little, let alone the price of train tickets.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Weed-mapping robot cuts chemical usage

The National Trust is trying out a weed-mapping robot on the farm at its Wimpole Hall estate to see if the latest in agritech can help cut its use of herbicides. The robot, called Tom, moves back and forth autonomously across the land while scanning the ground in detail, covering 20 hectares a day and using artificial intelligence to distinguish between emerging crops and broadleaved weeds (it can’t yet identify grass-type weeds). The associated software creates a detailed map showing the farm manager which areas would benefit from herbicide treatment and avoiding the need to spray the entire field. Most farmers can’t afford to invest in every new bit of technology, but the National Trust is a big enough landowner to be able to try these things out, so the technology can improve and gradually find a commercial market.

Engineers team up to make EVs more efficient with composites

Electric vehicles have been commercially available for a good few years now, despite the general public’s continuing reluctance to actually buy them, so we don’t always realise that there’s still a lot of work to be done on the underlying technology. The big car-makers have invested heavily in developing their own models, but manufacturers of more specialised vehicles, working at lower volumes, need to buy in electric-drive packages that will fit into their existing models without a total redesign, while providing enough range at a low enough cost to make the end result saleable. This project will see an engineering consultancy working with the National Composites Centre to develop a more efficient and energy-dense drive system taking advantage of the properties of composite materials. There must surely be customers champing at the bit for a suitable package.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

TikTok faces class action lawsuit in US

This Chinese-state social media app just needs to die already. We’ve got enough atrocious social media platforms ruining evidence-based discourse across the internet; the last thing we need is yet another one adhering to the kind of values the Chinese government holds dear, namely uniformity and a clear disdain for individual expression (and lots of other crimes against humanity I won’t go into here).

TikTok has been systematically removing videos that reference or acknowledge LGBT+ issues, while simultaneously collecting the personal data of children. If any of the other Western social platforms were to commit such cardinal sins, they would be struck down by regulators faster than you can post whatever crap you’re digesting right now on Instagram. TikTok can only be regulated from afar, like all things Chinese. I am not an advocate of internet censorship 99.99 per cent of the time, but in this case I think Generation Z's citizens simply don’t know what’s best for them and the decision should be taken from the top to block the site altogether.

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