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HS2 costs, data harvesting, Toyota future city and more: best of the week’s tech news

Image credit: PA

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.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Parliament ‘seriously misled’ over HS2 costs, says deputy chair of review panel

I’ll be honest. I haven’t (yet) read all 71 pages of Lord Berkeley’s ‘Dissenting report’ on the Review of High Speed 2 – a review of which he was deputy chairman until 31 October, when his appointment terminated while drafting of the final text was still in progress. That’s an indication that things were running a bit late even before the intervention of a general election, but publication of the 'Oakervee Review’ must surely be due soon – maybe in tandem with the Budget on 11 March, given that Chancellor Sajid Javid is promising “an infrastructure revolution”.

Meanwhile, we have Tony Berkeley’s pre-emptive strike. From what I’ve seen so far, he makes some apparently legitimate criticisms of the project’s management and oversight, as well as its spiralling costs, and speaks of its “unnecessarily high specification”. No one would dispute that all those things need to be addressed. However, he concludes: "HS2 is the wrong and expensive solution to ‘making it faster and easier to travel for work and leisure’ by providing better North-South intercity services (which are already good) but not within and around the NPH [Northern Power House] and MC [Midlands Connect] areas where services are very much worse and demand very much greater.” That seems to be missing the point. No one is suggesting that his quoted purpose for HS2 is the ONLY reason for building it; nor is anyone in the Midlands and North arguing against better regional transport services. It’s a project in urgent need of improvement, and maybe a merely ‘fast’ new line would achieve most of its objectives more cheaply, but that’s no reason to scrap it entirely.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Police vs privacy replay at Cardiff-Swansea football match

Privacy is not protected, FTC tells Apple and Facebook

CES 2020: Google announces new privacy and scheduling features

Facebook upholds politicians’ right to lie in online ads

2020 – and the coming decade it foreshadows – is barely a week old, yet here's further proof if you need it that the critical battle lines are already deeply drawn in the digital world, in terms of the dubious surveillance to which every citizen will inexorably find themselves subjected. An individual's basic right to privacy and ownership of their personal data are under constant threat of erosion and surreptitious theft, with 2020 picking up right where 2019 left off. The casual, indiscriminate – some might say mindless – vacuuming up of every individual's data is relentless. If it's not some cheap 'smart' device, casually introduced to your home 'for fun' but always listening and logging every interaction you make with it, or your smartphone, or your smart TV, or your internet browser, it might be your local police force, tracking every face it can point a camera at during a public event.

This is a war of attrition we're facing (as if the world needed any more wars), as the remorseless acquisitive nature of the likes of Google and Facebook – not to mention law-enforcement agencies and governments – seek to wear down our resistance until we all finally drop our heads, concede defeat and become subservient to our new data-driven overlords. The digital-native companies in particular desperately need data to survive. Never mind data being the new oil (not even true, as oil supplies are finite, whereas data streams are endlessly renewed); data is the new blood for these digital vampires. Without our data, they will wither and die.

If all this rampant, exploitative data harvesting wasn't already enough to concern you, you can always rely on Facebook to do something new that is grotesquely cynical and self-serving, showing once again its utter contempt for any sense of corporate responsibility in causing real-world societal damage. Nope, Facebook's avaricious lust for making money – by any means necessary! – overrides any such worthless, mimsy liberal, people-oriented concerns. Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of making money at Facebook. Politicians placing ads with flat-out lies in them? Great! If they pay, they can have their say. Ker-ching!

We're well used to politicians bending the truth or being selective about the facts, but knowingly permitting online ads that are 100 per cent false? It's not a principled stance in the noble defence of free speech to allow the worst kind of politicians to make up lies about opposition candidates, blithely leaving it to your platform's users to 'make up their own minds' about any dangerously wild and misleading claims or accusations being made. That is a disingenuous position in the extreme. I wonder how eager Facebook would be to maintain this 'defending free speech' position if online political advertising was entirely free?

One's personal data is a very valuable commodity. Commercial companies value it very highly indeed – increasingly so, as the digital world closes in on every aspect of our lives. Perhaps we shouldn't give away our personal data so readily and so cheaply – in fact, all too often, far too eagerly and for free. In exchange for what? As has been said before, if something is free – an online service, for example – then you are no longer the customer: you are the commodity. Which would you rather be?

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Toyota announces futuristic city plans, autonomous vehicles only allowed

This is a big year for Toyota. It will be looking to maximise the global exposure it gets for being a headline sponsor of its ‘home’ Olympics in Tokyo. I am also in discussions with the company about the new breed of hybrid and electric cars with both Toyota and Lexus badges on them. And then there is this city!

My initial thought was how can it be a ‘city’ with a population of only 2,000 people. I live in a village with more people than that. And when I asked about this it wasn’t clear how much bigger this city can get than the initially planned 175 acres – my nearest town incidentally, Maidstone, has an area of over 6,000 acres. But putting aside the pedantry, this is a fascinating project. There have been several ‘model town’ type projects in the past – like Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight on Merseyside and Cadbury’s Bournville in the West Midlands – in fact I am currently looking at one at Dunsfold Park in Surrey, which has an interesting penchant for hydrogen-based technologies.

This Toyota project is interesting because it will be a ground-up attempt at ‘smart city’ technology. It will be very interesting to see how it knits together new technologies with the environmental goals and the need to create a nice place for people to live and work. With Mount Fuji in the background they will have a nice view at least!

Hopefully we will bring you more on this project as it progresses. 

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Transparent sun visor for drivers’ eyes revealed at CES 2020

This would be very helpful. Like a lot of people, putting the visor down means I can’t see, push it back up – blinded by the sun. Lose, lose.

At CES 2020, Bosch unveiled its transparent sun visor for cars that only blocks a thin band of light over the driver’s eyes. The visor uses a transparent LCD and intuitive camera, which replaces the traditional vehicle sun visor completely.

So how does it line up with your eyes? Well, AI is deployed to locate the driver within the image from the driver-facing camera and determine face landmarks, like eyes, nose and mouth, so it can identify shadows on the face. Sweet.

The algorithm analyses the driver’s view, darkening the section of the display through which light hits the driver’s eyes. The rest of the display remains transparent, so a large section of the driver’s field of vision isn’t obstructed. This means you have a wider view of the road and surroundings that normal visors often block.

Bosch usually does home appliances such as washing machines and what not, but it’s started to get into autonomous vehicle and similar tech. The company said the AI visor could help prevent hundreds of accidents.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Toyota announces futuristic city plans, autonomous vehicles only allowed

I think I’d better brush up on my Japanese, or save up more money to go out to Japan, because based on the images of this prototype ‘city of the future’ unveiled by Toyota at CES 2020 this week, I would like to move there if it becomes a real place.

Toyota, which is better known for its cars, is expanding its horizons. Having already explored the world of robotics, now it's moving towards the smart city concept. Indeed, the firm plans to build its ‘Woven City’ on a 175-acre site at the base of Mount Fuji and take on the literal meaning of a ‘city of the future’, deploying automation, robotics, personal mobility, smart homes and AI in real-world environments.

As part of the ambitious project, Toyota also aims to make the city a fully autonomous, zero-emission-vehicles-only zone. Furthermore, residential buildings will be equipped with the latest human support technologies, such as in-home robotics to assist with daily living. They will also be equipped with sensor-based AI to check the occupants’ health and take care of basic needs.

Although a concept that will likely take a while to get off the ground, the pictures look very enticing. Also, the location makes it even more alluring. But of course, it is still a concept, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether this project comes to life in the future.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Brothers jailed for e-waste recycling fraud

This canny e-waste scam was deployed by two brothers to cash in on a compliance scheme. Two things: a) I’m not surprised and b) it’s amazing that a con like this, from eight years ago, makes it into the news now. It’s 2020!

In fact, the Environment Agency had reasons to be suspicious for years. In 2018, the UK body launched an independent review into the serious and organised crime in the waste sector. Its chair concluded that industrial-scale organised waste crime has emerged as an increasing problem in recent years.

If it is true that business owners are regularly losing contracts because criminal operators undercut them on price, as the review claims, then it is high time to install a policy to vet contracts and improve oversight – by, for instance, giving business owners a way to tip off the agency. The thousands of organised crime groups that are operating across the UK should not be allowed to get any ideas.

Last year we started to review crime in recycling, a topic that has always fascinated me. E&T was tipped off by a source that a large-scale scam in a specific recycling area is ongoing. Further digging failed to validate the claims, at least not based on official data. This suggests to me that if schemes affect the market, they remain undetected in official figures but surely must show up in economic numbers somewhere.

There is also a technological component to the debate. It would be advisable to follow the review’s recommendation and deploy mandatory electronic tracking of waste and a national database of registered brokers. But that requires politicians becoming active. The authority Defra seems adamant. Last May, it issued a ‘smart waste tracking challenge’ but came back with unsatisfying findings. It found that “obtaining sufficient real data to test proof of concepts was challenging and time consuming” (no way!) and “waste tracking is a huge challenge” (really?). It concluded that the issue is “one that needs government policy changes and new legislation, not just digital solutions”. If a public body like Defra can't do it, who can?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Ford buys bipedal bots to experiment with autonomous delivery

If you reckon the idea of humanoid robots sitting in the back of autonomous vehicles, ready to leap out and handle what’s known in the delivery industry as the ‘last 50 feet’ of a parcel’s journey to its recipient, is far fetched and unnecessary, you probably didn’t do much online shopping over Christmas.

I won’t name the usual suspects here, but mention a problem with a package being left on display outside a front door for safe keeping, or just delivered to completely the wrong address, and you’re likely to get sympathy and a lot of similar tales of woe from others who have experienced the same thing.

One occasion recently when I wasn’t quite let down was when the usual series of messages about something I was waiting at home to take delivery of being on its way, getting ever closer, culminated in a final text confirming that, despite no knock at the door, it had been delivered and signed for. First thought was that the package, which wasn’t something trivial, had gone to entirely the wrong place and that I’d have to spend ages negotiating a complaints procedure and probably getting stuck in a legal quagmire between the retailer I’d ordered from and the delivery firm.

Luckily though, it turned out that the box was just small enough to fit through my letterbox with a little persuasion and the courier had ‘helpfully’ posted it and moved on without disturbing me. Not so reassuring was the fact that I was able to download a copy of the signature that proved receipt and it clearly wasn’t mine. Someone else, assuming they had the right house, had made the delivery and scribbled it out on my behalf.

Robots like the ones that Ford is hoping to employ to do the bit of delivery that humans take care of now won’t be perfect, but maybe they’ll be less prone to this kind of flexibility when it comes to making sure that the mail gets through. And maybe not under the same kind of time pressure to complete their rounds.

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