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Cut-price guitars, green ships, sandwich robots and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Obi Onyeador | Unsplash

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

Guitar company fined £4.5m for anti-competitive behaviour

While I have sympathy with the principles of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in protecting consumers against price-fixing, I can also see this particular case from Fender's side and can imagine how aggrieved it might feel about having to stump up £4.5m to pay the fine. The CMA investigation determined that from 2013 to 2018, Fender required its guitars to be sold at or above a minimum price. This practice, known as resale price maintenance (RPM), is illegal. The CMA imperiously declares that this can lead to customers missing out on good deals, because even if they shop around, they find that all retailers are selling the item in question at a very similar price. This does sound familiar and is a reasonable position to maintain, at least in a legal sense.

However, it's hard enough for any major company to make a profit – or even a living – these days. Cheap Chinese knock-offs are constantly gnawing at your bottom line, corrupting and diluting the brand you may have spent decades building up, as they gleefully appropriate your original designs and intellectual property. If all your money was being spent on copyright theft lawsuits, might you not also think about protecting the retail price of your goods?

Meanwhile, cash-strapped consumers, with one eye on said cheap Chinese knock-offs, are demanding a price drive down to the darkest depths of the bottom line, naively believing that quality materials and craftsmanship no longer cost actual money, so why can't every electric guitar be £300? This writer is someone who owns an American-made Fender guitar, which cost considerably more than £300. It is a fantastic instrument and will almost certainly outlast me, providing I don't smash it up in a rage, 'London Calling' style. I've also tried playing many Chinese-made guitars, visually styled in the same form as my California-born model, and I can assure you that the difference has always been like night and day. The two instruments might look the same, but, dear Lord, they do not feel the same, play the same, or sound the same. You really do get what you pay for.

Another aspect of this story that wasn't mentioned in the CMA report is: what about the traditional, established guitar shops? It's fine for the CMA to claim that consumers deserve the right to be able to find the absolute cheapest price for a guitar they can, but what does that mean in real terms for retailers? Brick-and-mortar shops are already feeling the high-street strain, as well as pressure from one-man back-bedroom operations selling exclusively online, but those real shops are still the only places where a guitarist can actually plug in and play a prospective purchase. If every retailer is forced to compete on price alone, well, the race to the bottom never ends well for anybody. Continually cutting prices means inevitably cutting back on other tangibles, such as customer service, staff wages, staff numbers etc.

Before you know it, consumers are bemoaning the closure of all those high-street guitar shops that they used to frequent, in order to try out prospective instrument purchases, before either running home to buy online at a lower price or looking up a rival outlet's online price on their smartphone, then belligerently brandishing it at the salesperson and demanding that the shop price-match, yelling about "consumer rights" and "price fixing" if the shop (quite reasonably) refuses.

Maybe Fender's "resale price maintenance" actually serves a double purpose of protecting its own brand, whilst also protecting the business of all those real-world guitar shops that helped Fender become the music legend that it is. Not everything has to be about money.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Decarbonising global shipping could cost over $1tr

For some misplaced reason I envisioned freight by sea as a relatively benign way of moving stuff around. Slow, obviously, but fairly low impact from an environmental point of view. Perhaps it’s the stately progress of ships carrying such a vast quantity of containers (I believe the record is just over 21,000) which doesn’t have the same image of the exhaust fumes emitted in the road and air equivalents.

However, according to this report shipping accounts for 2.2 per cent of total emissions, so taking the Global Carbon Project figure for 2019 of a total carbon output of 43.1 billion tonnes (a 0.6 per cent rise from 2018), boats are shipping about 950 million tonnes of carbon. Which is obviously a lot.

Coincidentally, I’m also looking into the subject of electric and hybrid vehicles at the moment. Equally the automotive industry, both nationally and internationally, has the same zero-carbon targets for 2050 but there’s a big difference. Although hybrid and electric cars are coming into the marketplace, the steps are incremental. They can afford to be. An electric car might have a range of 200 miles, for example, but that can be enough to fit into the user’s lifestyle while the technology is improved so that the range hits 250 miles, then 300 and hopefully more in the future.

The average lifespan of a car is only eight years, I read, although well-built and maintained cars obviously will last longer. That’s a short enough length of time that both users and the industry can experiment and develop. By 2050 it’s reasonable to assume that new cars will be green and may well have been for a number of years. Maybe even the classic car enthusiasts will be discouraged as the petrol stations close down.

Ships are different. They cost a bit more than your average hatchback – bigger container ships come in at around £100m. Moreover, they tend to remain in service for two, three or four times as long. In other words, if we are to have an electric fleet sailing into 2050 then we need to be introducing ships now with that technology. Not in 10, 20 or 30 years – now. Despite one example in Norway, which can carry a mere 120 containers, we’re nowhere near doing this at scale. The battery technology just isn’t there yet – they would weigh as much as the cargo.

When climate change protesters complain that all we do is make unrealistic targets for the future and think that is job done, without actually making any changes to current behaviour, this is the sort of thing they’re on about.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Robots could harness AI to master sandwich making

Cool, cool, cool... why? Eliminate sandwich-maker jobs?

Computer scientists at Loughborough University are working with a food production company to give robots skills they need to differentiate between ingredients and build sandwiches. Labour shortages in food manufacturing, in large part due to a dearth of workers willing to take repetitive low-skilled roles, could be solved by automated, repetitive, tightly constrained jobs, but machines remain limited in their abilities.

So if bots can tell the difference in tomatoes and bacon, we could be on to a winner, I suppose?

Millitec Food Systems, the company Loughborough are teaming up with, supplies robots for assembling and packing sandwiches, but the machines are unable to automate tasks that require machines to differentiate between items, like selecting salad to complete a sandwich. Less salad? I don’t think people would complain too much.

Researchers are developing machine vision and embedded AI technology for the company’s ‘Delta’ robots, so they can recognise a range of ingredients. This could allow them to carry out advanced tasks, like picking up the right ingredients in correct quantities and in the right order.

They will use deep learning to develop algorithms to discriminate between ingredients and what not. How advanced, for such a simple task. Such is life.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Cutting-edge tech reveals China’s false claims over Xinjiang’s re-education camps

Our latest E&T investigation reveals that many of Xinjiang’s re-education and vocational training camps appear to remain active and in operation.

When I researched the story one thing became painstakingly clear: there is much information on the web on the topic, yet it was often difficult to trust sources and news reports and to verify claims. E&T trusts the wire services but there were numerous online publications that spoke sometimes of a much more extreme situation, for instance that many people who left camps became really ill or died shortly after their release. It was impossible to verify those reports for an investigative journalist thousands of miles away. Perhaps more astonishingly, other news sources outright denied the detainment situation in camps and some even denigrated sources that I spoke to.

A new book by Samuel Woolley, ‘The Reality Game’ (Octopus, £16.99 ISBN 9781913068127), explains how the next wave of technology could break the truth. Throughout it, Woolley provides examples of how modern technologies can give bad actors the tools they need to spread propaganda and make people believe what they want them to believe or see using doctored videos or VR, for example. Woolley makes the issue of online propaganda his central theme. China isn’t the centre of attention, but after reading this book it made me more vigilant to look out for signs of disinformation.

When I reported on Xinjiang, I came across China’s response to the China Cables, a collection of government documents from 2017 that was leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The media covered the content in late November last year. It included a telegram describing an operations manual for running the Xinjiang re-education camps. China's ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, was asked about the camps, but urged the world not to listen to this “fake news”. Woolley's book inspired the question 'why did China not become more aggressive in using online propaganda campaigns on these camps?'. Woolley's book does not answer that. Instead, it explains to what level technology can bring bad actors if they really wished to influence a debate and public knowledge.

After being the research director of the Computational Propaganda Project at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, Woolley's inclination to talk about fake news and propaganda comes as no surprise. 

Battling fake news with AI online remains a tall order, even for big tech giants like Facebook. Woolley explains this by using the example of Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance in front of lawmakers in Washington DC, where he expressed his conviction that AI can combat the sheer volume of computational propaganda. Woolley is not sold; at least not at present.

Despite pointing out the many perils the world faces with online propaganda, Woolley is upbeat about the future. He says that he has come to believe that social media tools and other new technologies can still be tremendously useful in advancing the best parts of humanity. Despite setbacks, we could still find the right direction again. One sign of this is that social media companies are starting to take responsibility for remedying issues created by the tools and devices they themselves constructed. Also, policy makers around the world are passing laws to curb manipulation, targeted harassment and other problems on and via the media.

For me, Woolley’s book is an eye opener. Work to battle online propaganda is just starting. Where this leaves China and how it deals with Xinjiang remains a tricky question. As Woolley points out: “Together we can demand that our technology be designed with human rights in mind."

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Google CEO calls for global AI regulation

Google CEO backs GDPR, says privacy should not be a ‘luxury’

Google’s Sundar Pichai, AKA the least villainous looking tech giant boss, has spent this week close to bursting with ebullience about the prospect of regulation forcing tech giants to respect user privacy. Which is a surprising turn, really, given the record-breaking amount of money Google spent on lobbying last year against laws like California’s Consumer Privacy Act. If it wasn’t clear before, “Privacy is at the heart of our business” is the new “I am in no way racist”; if you have to insist upon it every time you appear in public, you probably mean the opposite.

Huawei woos app developers with cash and smart ads

TomTom to provide Google Maps rival for Huawei devices

Huawei is hoping to build a serious competitor to the iOS and Android mobile ecosystems, starting with its own set of apps (Huawei App Gallery). It’s going to be an uphill fight for Huawei given the inappropriately powerful duopoly held by Apple and Google in western markets, but Huawei does have a lot of money and influence. It’s planning to throw money (and offer a very aggressive ‘acquisition’ strategy) at app developers willing to build for the App Gallery, and has a partnership lined up with TomTom to build a rival to Google Maps: perhaps the most useful Android app the company has lost access to.

While Huawei is in a better position than most to build a competitor mobile ecosystem, it’s not just a matter of attracting developers. People tend to remain loyal to what they have always used when their contacts, photos, and the rest of their digital life is bound to one ecosystem. Microsoft failed, and I suspect that Huawei will too.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Robots could harness AI to master sandwich making

This story struck me as lagging behind time somewhat. Why? Simply because I’ve already eaten a robot-made sandwich on the way to work this morning. At least (acquired at a railway station kiosk and devoured as I ran along the platform to catch my train), it tasted like it was. Call me a retrograde, but I’d very much prefer a sandwich made by an expert chef’s hands (in rubber gloves, no doubt), like they do (or at least claim to do) at Pret a Manger outlets, and this is what makes the latter so popular.

A couple of months ago, while waiting for a delayed flight to Edinburgh at Luton airport, and with nothing better to do, I watched other passengers stock up for their flights. Mostly with sandwiches, it has to be said. I’ve noticed that the weighty WHSmith concoctions (which often do taste quite robotic) were less in demand than their counterparts from Boots (particularly the £1 ones which can be safely listed among Britain’s least-known little wonders) and much less popular than the (allegedly) hand-made creations at Pret a Manger, where there was always a queue.

I can bet that John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, who went down in history not as a stateman but as the inventor of the eponymous snack, would have been very much against having his invention hijacked by robots, and I would not blame him for that.

Again, you can call me an enemy of progress, but I do believe very strongly that certain ‘intimate’ areas of our lives – like cooking, love- and sandwich-making, or tying up shoe-laces, say – should be kept away from robots, or, in modern-speak, stay robot-free. After all, the only ‘technology’ needed to make a good sandwich are thin rubber gloves covering a pair of caring and knowledgeable human hands.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

When prosthetics meet aesthetics

Connected health and personalised medicine were to be seen all over the consumer show CES 2020 this year. In fact, digital health as a category was up 25 per cent. The exhibits ranged from fitness trackers enhanced with 'Internet of Me' sensors or reporting back to the medic, to dental care gadgets applying artificial intelligence to cleaning your teeth. If it's good for you, someone is digitising it.

Consumer choice in the sector is growing. Even formerly totally functional items like hospital beds or wheelchairs are being redesigned in bold new ways to be more appealing. Patients and people want more choice. Why should a prosthetic, for example, look anything like a real limb if the wearer wants something else? As we discover in this month's E&T cover story, the only limitation is imagination.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Job aspirations remain unchanged in face of tech advances

Facebook to hire 1,000 new UK employees in boost to its engineering division

For me, the biggest surprise in the OECD report on young people’s career aspirations at the age of 15 wasn’t that things haven’t changed much in the past 20 years but that the engineering has moved up the popularity stakes in that time. That’s as far as boys are concerned, anyway. Most aspire to be doctors, sports stars, lawyers or architects, much as they probably have done for at least 50 years if not longer.

What’s dispiriting though, is that while the equivalent study of teenage girls includes several of the same professions, there’s still no place for engineering. While the number of young women aspiring to be writers, secretaries or hairdressers has fallen, those spots have been taken by designer and architect.

It would be interesting to see to what extent the research depended on assuming those questioned have an accurate knowledge of what ‘engineering’ involves. In light of Facebook’s announcement that it’s taking on a thousand new employees for its engineering division, I’d like to see what the disparity is in responses to “Would you like a job as an engineer?” and “Would you like to work for Facebook?”. I reckon that answers would reveal a yawning gap in awareness of the link between the two and an untapped enthusiasm for technical careers in teenage girls.

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