2019 in tech: editors’ picks of the past week’s and year’s news
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As we approach the end of 2019, E&T editors reflect not just on this week’s news, but on how it evokes the events of the recent – and not so recent - past.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
The last decade has been one of contrasts. We started it in recession and are only now ending the ensuing period of austerity (hopefully). A decade of economic woes then, but it has not led to any slowdown in the march of technology. Smartphones were only three years old in 2010, and touchscreen Android phones only made their introduction that year. Television has evolved out of sight, cars are actually going electric and, most importantly from my point of view, it looks like Liverpool might finally be on course to win the Premier League (still not counting any chickens there…).
Industry has also changed out of all recognition. Industry 4.0 has made 2010’s factory of the future the factory of the present for 2020. The digital thread that runs through design, manufacture, supply chains, maintenance and full product lifecycle has evolved incredibly quickly and is having an effect on every job function, every product and every business. And as we move into the next decade it will be augmented reality and, most importantly, artificial intelligence that keep this evolution accelerating.
So it has been a fascinating time to be a technology journalist, particularly on a magazine such as E&T with its broad scope of topics – the whole gamut of engineering and technology at our mercy! Once again it has been a pleasure this year to work with our team of excellent contributors who bring so much imagination, craft and knowledge to our pages.
But if I was to think of a highlight of the year, or decade, it would have to be something that was more than just a good story, it was a personal experience that was inspiring and made me happy. So I will pick my trip to the Orkneys last year, which I have written about a couple of times, as that highlight. Brilliant engineering (wave, tidal and wind renewables) as the basis of the story, but even more so was the collective spirit of the islanders. They have created such a positive model for how renewable energy can work, and also a lesson in adaptability for a progressive and inclusive society. I was completely enamoured by both the people and the place.
Happy Christmas to all our readers and here’s hoping the next decade is as enthralling as the last!
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
As we sit on the brink of a new decade, peering over the edge into the blank unknown of the 2020s, the world ever more a teeming ball of confusion, how far have we come in the last decade?
The emergence of cyber security as a leading-edge issue for all nations was on the agenda in 2010, with E&T reporting how "online security is a growing concern for governments around the world". "What is being done to protect industrial control systems and who cares?", we asked. A question that will probably be more pressing in 2020 than it was in 2010.
In December 2010, UK car production was riding high, recording an 11.1 per cent rise in output compared to year-on-year figures from 2009. Fast-forward to today and the same Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has a much more gloomy forecast for its members. It has spent the better part of three years warning against Britain making a hard Brexit from the EU and recent figures show a dire reversal in fortunes by the same percentage which the industry enjoyed in 2019.
Recycling was on the up in 2010, according to Caterpillar at least, which claimed that two of its UK sites achieved zero waste to landfill during 2010. My local recycling centre - always impressively busy whenever I go there - was at around 92 per cent of waste saved from landfill (another way of saying the same thing) last week. Whether this means that we're all recycling more, making it harder to hit 100, or if the recycling chain is starting to fail us is an open question. Certainly, many of the overseas destinations that took in our rubbish in 2010 have shut their doors to us since then. It's much more our problem to own again now - which is why in 2019 E&T looked closely at the recycling problem, with particular focus on plastic waste.
Wind power was setting new records in 2010, with the 5GW mark passed. As the focus increasingly shifted away from fossil fuels towards a low-carbon economy over the decade, intensifying after the watershed Paris Agreement in 2015, renewable energy sources stepped up. In 2019, even loftier heights for renewable energy were reached, with the UK's largest onshore wind farm, Whitelee, near Glasgow, hailed as a “national success story” after generating enough power to provide almost 90 per cent of the total annual electricity consumed by households and businesses in Scotland. Whitelee has a total capacity of 539MW - in 2010, the record holders were the 180MW Robin Rigg and 173MW Gunfleet Sands wind farms.
In the run-up to Christmas 2010, E&T reported on how the consumer electronics market was set to bounce back in 2011, post-global recession, gearing up as it was to show off a fresh slew of electronic doodads at the big CES show in January 2011. A decade later, with the world teetering on the potential precipice of another recession, CES 2020 is almost upon us, gearing up to show off a fresh slew etc. Gadgets are the cockroaches of the electronics world, seemingly able to survive one way or another in even the most extreme economic conditions. After nuclear war, only cockroaches and wireless earbuds will remain.
In 2010, we also looked at the UK Government census, comparing the most commonly owned household gadget results with those of 2000. The portable cassette players and VHS recorders of 2000 had disappeared by 2010, replaced by MP3 docking stations and DVD players. What will the 2020 census reveal? Judging by the analogue revival, portable cassette players might actually have staged an unexpected comeback. Record players are definitely back in many homes in 2019 - as we discovered.
In 2011, E&T wrote about the state of music production in the 2010s, looking predominantly at digital solutions, such as CDJ turntables and mixers and iPad apps. By the end of the decade, with the analogue renaissance in full swing, we turned our attention to the resurgence of multitrack tape machines for professional studios; the 40th anniversary of the cassette-based Tascam Portastudio, and the lasting legacy of the upsurge in sales of vinyl records.
Sometimes, older technology outlives the newer solutions that were expected to replace it.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Looking for ideas about how I could use something from this week’s news to look back at the year or decade just coming to an end, I picked up a copy of the issue of E&T that came out ten years ago in December 2009 and started flicking through the pages. I didn’t have to go far – there on page 4 was the headline ‘Bloodhound sets sights on 2011’. Accompanied by an artist’s impression of the Bloodhound SSC roaring across a desert floor, our story reported on how the team behind it were planning to try and reach a speed in excess of 1000 miles an hour in South Africa in two years’ time.
Fast-forward to 2019 and after a series of hiccups described in this story from our bonus digital edition available on the E&T website and for mobile devices, Bloodhound’s latest backers find themselves where they expected to be in 2011, carrying out tests yet still a year or two away from an actual crack at the record.
What makes this saga such a good example of how the engineering environment has changed is that we’re now questioning whether projects like this are a good way of attracting young people into the profession. Our 2009 story focused largely on impressive numbers like the amount of thrust that Bloodhound’s engines could achieve, only mentioning briefly at the end the hope that it would inspire the next generation of engineers to “join the adventure”.
That premise helped secure additional funding along the way, with Bloodhound’s education arm going into schools to talk about the vehicle. No doubt that got some young petrolheads now in their late teens and twenties, and possibly even studying engineering, interested. Greater awareness of climate change, not least among young women, may have shifted the goalposts.
In fact, Crispin Andrews’ article, which looks at Bloodhound’s credentials from several different perspectives, is a fascinating read that elegantly sums up why engineering probably needs to rethink how it goes about tackling its skills gap and improving diversity. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be interested in big, fast, noisy cars, but evidence from the coal face is that they’re more likely to be engaged by solutions to what they consider the world’s biggest problems. And those don’t include designing a vehicle capable of travelling at 1000mph over a short distance, burning large quantities of fossil fuels.
This isn’t a Scrooge-like call for Bloodhound to pack up and admit defeat before it burns through even more funding. I’d just like to see everyone involved taking a bit of time over Christmas to think about the spirit of engineering yet to come as well as past and present, and how we might be looking back on their efforts when we reach this point in 2029.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
So I’m going to do some shameless plugging of my own stuff to round up the year. Because, well, I can. So nerr.
I very much enjoyed writing my ‘Bizarre Technology’ column this year. It seemed 2019 was just chock-full of randomly terrible and weird tech and gadgets, so I had plenty of choice when it came to lightly mocking products that companies thought were a grand idea to release to the public. A lot of tech failed to entice the ever-inquisitive minds of the everyday person, so much of it is no longer for sale. Plus, a lot of the tat was looking for funding on sites like Kickstarter. And people didn’t want to invest. Obviously.
For this though, I’m going to pick a couple of examples of the best tech I found. Not the stuff you’d think would be a good stocking filler or a decent present for your ‘nerdy’ relative, who would just chuck your gift in a corner in the spare room somewhere because they have a relatively reasonable idea of what is not lame.
I loved the fruit clothes in this column. Great idea, good use of recycling material, especially in countries that have a lot of ‘pastazzo’, a waste product from citrus juice leftovers. Orange Fiber is the company they have created. In the pilot plant in Sicily, cellulose is extracted from citrus waste. This process was developed with the Polytechnic University of Milan. The cellulose is spun into fibres which are then turned into clothing. Pretty juicy, right?
The September column had the lifesaving UAV, which does what it says on the tin: its pre-formed shell can be reused to provide shelter, the frame can be burnt safely to cook food, and the payload, which is food and water, provides the nutrition. The company claims that one day, even the frame may have edible elements. Bizarre. And a damn good idea.
Anyway, you can look at my other columns if you like. I’m too pumped for Christmas to concentrate.
Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor
My, my! This year has been a wild one here in the UK – especially concerning politics. I, for one, never like to discuss politics, but so much has happened on the UK political scene over the past three years or so, it’s hard to avoid... Indeed, you’ve been living in a bubble if you haven’t heard the word ‘Brexit’ being plastered all over the news and social media over the past few years. It’s probably the most talked-about subject of the decade or something (probably alongside Donald Trump).
Anyway, I won’t go into all the nitty-gritty about the B-word, but to try and ‘get Brexit done’ as soon as the government can, we saw our first December general election in over a century (1910)... and the results show that we still plan to leave the EU, but this time with a majority Conservative government who won by a landslide – a very very steep one.
Of course, this doesn’t come as a total shock, but it was certainly surprising to see the number of constituencies that have been hardcore Labour voters for decades now turning to the blue team.
Indeed, we’ve had a crazy – and surprising – few years in politics, and this month alone has been hectic. From Brexit to Boris Johnson becoming our Prime Minister and even Donald Trump becoming the president across the pond, it’s been a whirlpool of political drama since 2015 or so.
With all these surprise wins taken into consideration, Rich Wordsworth explored the possibilities of an impartial AI Prime Minister for our December digital issue – and it certainly makes you perhaps question if we should look to technology for governance.
The election just gone proves that people voted based of their own moral and values and out of instinct or emotions – and dare I say it, some may have even voted for certain parties based on other people’s opinions. If we were to ever have an AI system governing us, perhaps the technology will learn to adapt to these certain aspects. Is an individual making a convincing argument when they’re lying about certain promises? Does bad behaviour equate to likeability? The list goes on...
It’s difficult to picture a pure AI-system-based government making decisions about the country based off merely logic. Human factors would always play a major part in these decisions, especially seeing as humans will be the ones creating such systems. Depending on the organisation, and their perception of the world, an AI system will likely to follow suit based on those values. But we’ll see if this ever comes into play.
This sounds like a shameless plug, but all politics and AI aside, Rich Wordsworth is most certainly one to watch out for here at E&T. This piece is thought-provoking and a very good read – as is his ‘What to do with pandemic flu’ piece that was in our Armageddon issue this November. I’d suggest having a read of that too. Also, watch this Rich-filled space!
Ben Heubl, associate editor
As we bid farewell to the 21st century's teenage years, let's look back over the past decade and speak about something that seems to be increasingly threatening nations’ democratic development: internet freedom and fake news.
One of the most concerning stories for me in 2019 was Hong Kong's protests. In August we published a news piece covering protesting Hong Kongers who made their voices heard against a proposed bill that they feared would allow the extradition of wanted individuals to mainland China and other countries.
Since the summer, clashes between the police and activists became increasingly violent. Many Hong Kongers felt that their nation's democratic development was under attack. The spreading of fake news played a key role, triggering a powerful response by protesters in early November. One example included posts about a 22-year-old student, allegedly chased and “maybe even pushed” by police who were clearing protesters with tear gas nearby. Other incidents followed. The city was reportedly swamped with online rumours, fake news and propaganda from both sides of the political divide, one Bloomberg article claimed. Fake and unsubstantiated news clearly played a part in how protesters reacted.
Was fake news in Hong Kong something that emerged out of nowhere? Data suggests otherwise. Indicators of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, which measures democracy with a wide array of factors, concluded in its 2019 report that "the primary threat to democracy perpetrated online comes from the dissemination of false information”.
V-Dem’s index on Hong Kong’s government spreading false information on social media domestically and abroad suggests that fake news was long in the making. Scores deteriorated since 2008, when activities increased both abroad and at home.
In Hong Kong, journalists are said to be increasingly under pressure as independent outlets struggle to counteract strong pro-Beijing influence. This is not likely to change as we enter a new decade. The next concerning case is Taiwan, which finds itself in the midst of an information war that some claim is led by China.
Of course. Hong Kong - which does not have a fake news law - is not alone in the fight against false information in the digital age. There is for example war-torn Syria, topping the list of those that spread more false information than in 2008. Other candidates that changed their face include Yemen and Haiti for increasingly falsifying information abroad as well as Brazil's and Poland’s governments for domestically tinkering with information. There is also Serbia, Venezuela and of course, Russia and China ranking high where political parties and candidates running for oﬃce use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to inﬂuence their own population.
Next year, the United States will elect a new president. It would be foolish to assume that online fake news practices will simply disappear. It is our responsibility to make any possible efforts to counteract misinformation. The next decade will bring a whole load of new fake news challenges and it will require vigilant analytical journalism to factcheck claims made.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
The brief for this week’s blog was “Final picks of the week/year/decade/century” – which is ambitious, to say the least. I’m going to keep it simple and stick to 2019, and to an area I know something about, which is railways. In terms of headlines it hasn’t been a particularly good year for the sector, with Crossrail running seriously late and progress on HS2 subject to a review whose publication is itself delayed, while various fleets of new trains that work beautifully on test tracks are either suffering from or causing problems with real-world signalling and power supplies, with all the consequent disruption for travellers and freight customers. The railway is a system, and interfaces matter.
What also matters is expertise, both within the industry and in the Department for Transport and its devolved counterparts. That’s best achieved with stability and long-term planning: if companies know that there’s more work to be had when the current project ends they’ll be more inclined to take on permanent staff instead of contract labour, and to invest in their development. If the DfT has people who can give informed advice to ministers we’ll be less likely to have political decisions swayed by the most vocal lobbyists, regardless of what’s realistically achievable.
There is plenty of innovation happening, for example in hydrogen and battery-powered trains, but change takes time and a sense of realism is needed. For example, I would venture to suggest that removing all diesel trains from the railway isn’t realistic in the short term, but a rolling programme of electrification could certainly get us a long way towards that aim - especially if it’s properly planned so that teams and equipment can move on from one project to another.
Talking to the power industry will be important, too, as it faces its own feasibility issues around meeting vastly increased demand while phasing out fossil fuels. Once again, skills and supply chains have to be considered. 100 per cent ‘green’ electricity may well be achievable - but not next month or next year.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of work going on to develop ‘less-diesel’ hybrids and cleaner diesel freight locos for the short term, while hydrogen and battery alternatives might be longer-term options for the lines that are bottom of the list for electrification.
A lot of good things are happening. Long may it continue.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
As an editor who has commissioned dozens of features and columns throughout 2019, it is very hard to choose the most appealing one. And yet, this time I was in little doubt when asked to pick my favourite story of the year. To me, it stands out against the rest of E&T’s terrific 2019 contents for one main reason. Not because the idea was conceived and commissioned by myself. Not even because it was thoroughly researched and confidently written by one of our leading contributors Crispin Andrews, whose journalistic skills and knowledge of technology keep getting better and better. No. In my view, in its underlying meaning, this seemingly unimportant feature about adjusting a London soccer stadium to the rules and technological requirements of the American NFL, so that it could host NFL games which are gaining popularity in Britain, represents the quintessence of journalism – not just technology journalism, but journalism in general. In it, technology comes through not just as a selection of gadgets to facilitate our daily existence but as an ambassador of sports and culture and, even more importantly, as a stereotype-breaking tool of international co-operation.
Football fan or not, anyone reading this feature is likely to finish it with the feeling that technology and engineering are also about mutual adjustability of different – at times, incompatible – concepts, tastes, games and ways of life. The fact that the narrative is matter-of-fact and devoid of pathos makes its impact even more powerful. It is one of those stories that the reader may initially skip through, but will then repeatedly come back to.
A very Happy New Year to everyone!
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
It's not the most important story we ran, but one of our exclusives stories this year revealed how easily fake news can spread even without the malign players pushing it. It was a fun Friday sort of story: a giant holographic lion had made a surprise appearance at the reopening of a South American football stadium and wowed the crowd of many thousands. Or that that was how it was reported over many respected broadcasters' and newspapers' websites. When we watch the video we were suspicious; the fire-dripping lion was too just way too big to be a hologram. Twitter threads had been questioning the accuracy of the story as well, with some amusing Tweets too like: "That's not a hologram, my fire lion got loose yesterday".
It looked more like augmented reality on a mobile phone but we couldn't at first be absolutely sure what it was. Our research got to the rather more mundane truth, putting us high up in Google search for the holographic lion but still below the inaccurate stories from more famous media brands than E&T, some of which later corrected their stories and others who still haven't. It's not the most important landmark story of the year, so it's not a disaster for democracy or the truth, but it just goes to show how easily wrong information can spread even unintentionally. It was more a case of innocent 'Chinese whispers' than malign Russian interference, so imagine what you could make people believe with a state's covert electronic operations behind you.
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