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Smart-home Santa, AI PM, our bonus issue and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Rfischia - Dreamstime

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.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Tech the halls: parents use smart gadgets to bring Santa to life

It’s nearly Christmas, so it’s that time of year when parents traditionally take their young children to visit Father Christmas at Santa’s Grotto and ensure the holiday magic stays alive throughout the festive season. What better way to keep those spirits up than by convincing your children that a plump, white-bearded, red-suited, jolly old man is sneaking into your house and putting presents underneath the Christmas tree?

In fact, a study by home gadget company Hive reveals that tech-savvy parents are turning to smart technology to keep the “sparkle” alive around Christmas time. The study, called ‘Christmas Detectives’, found that 67 per cent of parents in the UK have used smart technology – such as view cameras and motion sensors – to convince their children that Father Christmas is real, with 56 per cent saying they would do so again.

Children surveyed as part of the research (54 per cent) said they were eager to get a view of Father Christmas, requiring physical proof of his existence. As a result, 24 per cent of parents have used smart technology such as indoor security cameras, motion cameras and voice assistants to convince their children that Father Christmas has stopped by. Seeing is believing, as they say.

Hive has also suggested a couple of their top ‘Santa spotting’ gadgets for this festive season, including its Hive view indoor camera, to capture a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve, and its motion sensors, which can send users notifications straight to their smartphones whenever anyone enters the room.

It’s all well and good to go to such lengths to make sure that your children are happy during this festive season, and I’m sure smart technology is one way forward to maintain this joy. If I ever plan to have children of my own, I would personally do anything to keep the Christmas spirits high. Last thing you want to do is to have a miserable child on the magical day because you decided it was a good idea to tell your four-year-old that Santa isn’t real (spoiler alert!). Nevertheless, the deception is still there.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Our digital Christmas bonus for readers

It's a very special time of the year: it's time for the digital-only bonus Christmas issue of E&T. This is in addition to our ten print issues of 2019, only this one is available solely in our E&T app - available to download free from either iTunes or Google Play - and here online.

Is the Bloodhound land-speed record car now looking just a bit too Jeremy Clarkson and not enough Greta Thurnberg? Crispin Andrews catches up with the latest on this much-delayed but now revived Bloodhound project, talking to engineers, teachers and the children themselves about the pros, the cons and whether it inspires or infuriates young people.

Also, the morning after the UK election, we look (a long way) forward to the government of the future. Some people would say we've already had one or two, but could a robot leader do a better job than a politician? Should technology go into politics? Rich Wordsworth looks at the chances of installing an impartial AI Prime Minister.

We also look forward to Christmas in our special gadgets section, with gift ideas for children as well as for yourself. We read the best Christmas books and Hilary Lamb's award-winning Evil Engineer column answers a question from a reader who wants to stop Christmas from coming. "I must stop Christmas from coming! But how?" The Evil Engineer may be able to help.

In the app version we have even more: interactive graphics, 360-degree 'wraparound' photography and the IET's Christmas campaign video, 'Santa Loves STEM' (let us know if you love the video or not!).

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Economic output connects with mobile coverage

The analysis we ran this week on 4G coverage across the UK includes interactive maps to help readers to find and critically view their own local authority area. The point was that 4G may well matter much more to our local economy than perhaps people and politicians assume. There are a couple of things that strike me as noteworthy.

Firstly, as mentioned, we found that gross added value (GVA) in the most poorly covered areas is much worse. This doesn’t mean that poorly covered areas correspond with greater levels of deprivation. The opposite seems more to be true. When comparing local authorities’ 4G outdoor mobile coverage with the index of multiple deprivation (IMD) - sourced from administrative data, such as benefit records from the Department for Work and Pensions and census data, but limited to England - a positive correlation was found between LA’s 4G signal and deprivation. So, in Blackpool, Kingston upon Hull, Middlesbrough and Manchester with some of the highest deprivation scores, 100 per cent 4G outdoor coverage was achieved. 

This means areas where outdoor mobile coverage tends to be poorer, authorities appear less derived - equally true for the inverse. It is not down to me to interpret these findings as an analyst; I’ll leave that to the experts. However, from the data it does strike me as noteworthy that for areas with strong 4G mobile coverage, it seems there is a higher population density. For some city districts mentioned above, they are much more deprived compared to the national standard.

I also found that areas with the strongest 4G signal were much less inclined to have voted 'leave' in the 2016 referendum - again, with many larger cities at the top. Areas with 100 per cent 4G ‘outdoor premises’ coverage were found 20 per cent less likely to vote leave compared with the referendum result. Again, over to the experts to draw their political conclusions, if there are any.

My second point concerns accurate measurements or the lack of it. How can we be sure the data is reliable? We saw great strides in coverage in some areas between 2017 and 2018, but we have also been warned about concerns on how success could potentially be ill-defined. In my view, and going through the vast array of data documentation provided by Ofcom, the regulator must up its transparency game in explaining the shortcomings in its ability to quantify 4G coverage - perhaps even by attaching an error rate or adding more info on measurements. To the outside data journalist, it remains difficult to understand how reliable these datapoints are. 

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Deer prudence: technologies for better wildlife protection

I have to include this story, not only for the 'fab' Beatles pun in the headline, but also for the remarkable efforts being made worldwide to keep wildlife - and humans - safe from road traffic accidents. Many of us who are drivers will likely have encountered a large animal crossing the road in front of our cars at one time or another - be it badger, deer, wild boar or moose - and striking any such fine creature is always a distressing experience. The impact can also do considerable damage to the car itself, as well as our own bodies - what with airbags exploding in our faces and seatbelts cutting sharply across our torsos - so the more we can do to avoid this type of collision, the better for all concerned.

Bloodhound LSR: inspirational or irresponsible?

Short answer: irresponsible. It's been over a decade since Bloodhound LSR (nee the Bloodhound Project) first tried to gain traction and get up to full speed. While solid progress has been made, the land-speed record racecar is still lagging behind its ambition, burning through piles of owner and sponsorship cash as quickly as it burns through gallons of rocket fuel. Surely by now, with the climate emergency conversation hot on everyone's lips, rocket-powered cars are the stuff of yesterday's dreams, a boys' own passion for grown men (a fact underscored by Top Gear recently awarding Bloodhound LSR CEO Ian Warhurst its 'Man of the Year' award). This project should either switch to electric propulsion - and help really drive that technology forward - or be parked up for good. 

First, blood: drone deliveries arrive in Africa, saving lives

As a counterpoint to the high-concept 'inspirational' technology justification for Bloodhound LSR, here's a great story about cutting-edge technology being used in the real world to directly improve the lives today of people in dire need of help. Forget about the trite notion of drone delivery for pizzas or frivolous impulse purchases from online retailers. Drone delivery is already bringing crucial medicines and sorely needed blood supplies to doctors in remote areas of Africa. To give the next generation due credit for having mature emotional intelligence, I believe most young people would see this as a truly inspiring example of engineering and technology for the benefit of all mankind - not a car that can go really, really fast, once.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Electing an AI Prime Minister: please, don’t be evil!

Referring to the headline, I think the problem here could be that an AI Prime Minister might not be evil enough. Or kind enough, or funny enough, or serious.

If one thing has become clear in this election, it is that people vote with their hearts and their instinct. Perhaps an AI system could learn to factor in such aspects over time: what makes someone believable when they are telling a lie; what makes someone likeable when they are behaving badly; what makes someone insipid or ineffectual when telling the truth, or disliked for behaving honourably.

This election has seen all of the above behaviours and I can’t imagine what a ‘pure logic’ analysis of it all would come up with. The truth of the matter is that those human factors are critical in the way we perceive and create our society and any of the other societies that we rub up against. It is hard to imagine an AI system that can distinguish between the value of the content depending on the charisma of the person delivering it.

Surely there must be a role in the future for such systems, but you only need to look at the world around us – the sort of people who lead our companies and organisations, both well and badly – to see that human factors cannot ever be removed from the system.

If you haven’t read this article, then I suggest you do – it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

£184m overpaid on paper tickets by London transport passengers

This makes it three weeks in a row that a story related to transport, and specifically rail travel, has prompted me to think a bit more deeply about the issues it raises. This time, though, it’s not about politicians making promises about how they’re going to fix Britain’s railway network. Instead, consumer website moneysavingexpert.com has been digging into how much more passengers pay travelling around London when they use a traditional paper ticket rather than an electronic alternative which caps the charges based on the journeys they've made.

Buying a travelcard that gives you unlimited journeys in different zones, it turns out, can be nearly £6 a time more expensive than tapping in and out at the barrier with a contactless card which automatically caps spending when it reaches its daily limit. Whether you look at this as paying a premium for a paper ticket or as a discount for either investing up front in an Oyster card or embracing the digital option depends on your point of view. The knock-on effect which this research has uncovered, however, is that while you can save in terms of both cost and convenience by making a little bit of effort, it could mean that you’ve got money sitting on your Oyster card waiting to be used.

Collectively, this has added up to more than £300m in unspent funds on contactless cards being retained by Transport for London. A lot of that is from people who only make an occasional trip to the capital or maybe visited on holiday from abroad and never bothered to cash in what’s left on their card. We’ve all been there, I suppose, thinking that just in case we ever need it again, it’s easier to just stick the card in a safe place ready to reload and use again.

Now think about all the other situations where this is true. Foreign currency cash cards, Amazon credit and so on. Once I’d started thinking about this, I decided that one of my New Year resolutions will be to do an audit of where I’ve got cash tied up and decide whether I really need it there. Oyster card user or not, maybe you could consider doing the same as we move into 2020.

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