Wiki-bots, air emissions, flip phones and more: best of the week’s news
Image credit: 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.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Call me overcautious, but I am somewhat wary of the prospect of Wikipedia articles getting automatic rewrites, even if they’re backed up by some amazing MIT algorithms. Let me explain.
My personal Wikipedia page appeared early in the online encyclopaedia’s existence, yet I had nothing to do with it. As I found out later, the page was started by Andrew Ball, a young British professor of astronomy, and his colleagues. I didn’t know him then.
I discovered the page accidentally while browsing the internet inside the UN headquarters in New York, where I was researching a newspaper column and simultaneously visiting my old university mate Slava, who worked at the UN as an interpreter. There were several PCs for public use in the corridors of the UN skyscraper facing the East River – a novelty and a welcome perk in those days.
The article was succinct and simply recounted my bio and career, with only a couple of small inaccuracies. I remember Slava being very impressed by it all and so was I, but as a writer and editor myself, I could not rest until the boo boos were corrected.
It took me several months to track Andrew Ball down. We met for a coffee in Greenwich and he promised to amend the mistakes and expand the article, which he did. Since then, a large number of other people have helped maintain its accuracy, adding a new award or a new book every now and then, and trying to make sure that every new entry is properly referenced.
Wikipedia is a great institution, one of best offshoots of the Internet, I believe. Having spent half of my life in the USSR where dictionaries and other reference books were among the hardest to find (in true Orwellian fashion, the Soviet authorities had a firm monopoly on information), having access to that spectacular treasure trove of facts at a click of a keyboard key is still nothing short of a miracle. I rejoice every time I have to consult Wikipedia and have been trying to support it with small donations. After each, I normally receive a very warm thank you – not a computer-generated reply, but a nice and considerate email, written (and signed) by a Wikipedia staffer. This is precisely what worries me about the possibility of automated rewrites: the loss of human touch.
With its immeasurable database and technological prowess, one thing that attracts me about Wikipedia is that is has always been put together, maintained and proof-read by ordinary humans: scientists, writers, engineers, computer programmers. Indeed, I often say to my wife and children, “If in doubt, go and ask Wikipedia", as if indeed talking of a flesh-and-blood family member, like some polymath of an auntie or uncle.
Ben Heubl, associate editor
Research suggesting that flying at lower altitudes could help reduce the impact of carbon emissions is timely. National leaders are still struggling to agree on a unified effort to qualify carbon-reduction objectives. This year’s COP26 meeting, to be held in Glasgow, will be critical to achieving progress.
What our coverage on the study fails to mention is a caveat. While it is true that by flying at lower altitudes the effects described are to be expected, the researchers also found that flying during the summer months reduces the contrail energy forcing (EF) more efficiently. Importantly, the algorithm advises flying at higher altitudes during the winter months.
The reason, the authors infer, is “seasonal variation of the tropopause height”, which tends to be higher during the summer months. They suspect that aircraft might not be able to reach the lower and drier stratosphere even when cruising altitude is increased. In winter, a "lower tropopause height implies that an increase in cruising altitude by 2,000 feet could be sufficient for the aircraft to reach the stratosphere”.
Peer-reviewed studies usually come with caveats. I’d welcome it if more journalists were more persistent in pointing out any shortcomings, even if they are complicated (it’s also healthy to try reading the whole study). Many don’t, but hey, I get it. Who can blame them? They’re usually on a tight deadline.
I came across a blogpost recently that intrigued me, about how to read scientific papers ‘quickly and effectively’. I promptly (and shamefully) skim-read the post.
In short, it suggests you skim the abstract first. Then read the conclusion. After that, read the results. Then check the methods section. If there are caveats or limitations by now, you should have stumbled across them. If not, try a cmd+F (word search) on the document and search for limitations. Some of it might also be mentioned in the ‘discussion’ section, as was the case for this study.
Machine learning (ML) in publishing is becoming ever more popular, though not without backlash from within and outside the sector. Criticism of automation is not confined to publishing, of course.
Examples of how ML adds something include AP's attempts to use ML and natural language models to write news. ML working alongside humans to help with fact-checking and editing stories is one possibility. For me, as an investigative journalist, ML has played a slightly different but no less important role over the past years: to create journalistic stories with ML models and data.
Yesterday, I was cheerfully surprised that some of my experiences and insights in the area could fill a whole room of ambitious journalists - some from major newspapers including the Financial Times, the Times and the Economist. I produced a programming tutorial on how to use ML in investigative journalism.
Despite being great fun, the feedback I received told me that many journalists were surprised by its practical usefulness to pitch stories and investigate bias. Scaring people off to learn about the practicalities of ML is one of the shortcomings. Especially within the engineering sector, I encourage people to give ML a shot. If you want to access the tutorial, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Cute! The Starlight Children’s Foundation, a national charity that aims to help preserve young patients' childhoods throughout serious illness, is using robots to help kids keep in touch with their friends, even if they’re treated in isolation. The 30cm-tall AV1 robot units allow children to communicate remotely with their family, friends and school, or other people in their wards.
Communication with loved ones can also improve on the young patients’ mental health and tackle the loneliness which children are likely to experience in isolation.
The tech works by putting a portable robot where the child would usually be. The child can then control the robot via a tablet to interact with the surrounding environment by listening, talking and moving it up and down. The robot’s camera is also controlled by the child and the user can control the unit’s four programmed facial expressions – happy, sad, confused or neutral.
Unlike conventional, two-way communication apps, the AV1 does not have a screen showing the child, avoiding the risk of the patient feeling self-conscious about their treatment. This is lovely.
Starlight is now piloting the robots at St Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle, the Royal Surrey Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Lewisham, London.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
This story reminded me of distant schooldays, when a broken leg meant an individual effectively vanished from school life for weeks or even months on end. Children being very much the 'live in the moment' types, said individual could find themselves largely forgotten, not through any cruel intentions, just a case of how things are. The idea of a cute robot that can physically sit in for the poorly child amongst its friends - helping them remain involved and engaged with their social life in their temporary absence - is a very sweet and supportive idea. Trials have gone well so far, so here's hoping these friendly robots will be standing in for many more absent young friends in the future.
What is it with tech companies and their obsession with flip phones? This Samsung story came out in the same week that Motorola was obliged to rigorously defend the longevity of its resurrected Razr phone, after a certain gadget test site estimated that it might not even survive a single year of real-world use. We thoroughly modern humans check our phones a lot - way more than when flip phones were first a thing, back in the late 90s/early 00s - so that hinge design is getting a lot more action than ever it did before. You don't have to be an engineering genius to see that it's a fairly obvious critical point of failure. Folding phones look cool, but by the sound of it you may need a good deal of the folding stuff just to keep up with the repair bills.
It's a big deal cancelling a trade show the size of MWC, but then the coronavirus is a very big threat. Wise decision.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Was there a chink of light in the news this week among all the environmental doom and gloom? It turns out world energy emissions were unexpectedly level last year, raising hopes that we've reached peak carbon levels. Let's hope so. We’ve seen easing before, but due more to economics than engineering or politics. We might even expect to see an environmental silver lining to the cloud of coronavirus. Travel restrictions; extended holidays; suspended manufacturing; closed retailers, and cancelled international events such as MWC are regrettable, but better for the environment, albeit temporarily. Let’s not forget that climate-related phenomena like Australia’s bush fires will probably more than compensate.
The Extinction Rebellion camp have a mantra that the world has done nothing about global warming - especially the generation that most of our readers belong to. It may be true that it hasn’t done enough, or too little too late, but it's simply not true it has done nothing. As our readers will testify, industry has for decades been developing and investing in renewables in the energy sector, for example, and the latest figures would indicate this long-term effort is now making a real difference. There's a long, long way to go, but there are now signs that other sectors of industry are starting to take the problem seriously, too, and applying engineering in new and imaginative ways and with greater vigour.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
A lot of sensible ideas here about how to address the disproportionately small number of women working in engineering; sensible not least because they’re largely based on personal experience. Dr Rachael Ambury, a senior scientist with synthetic diamond manufacturer Element Six, contributed her thoughts to mark Tuesday’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Not only has she navigated her way through the profession, she’s also experienced the challenges of getting young women interested in it through outreach work in secondary schools that last year won her an award from the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining.
It comes as no surprise that she’s convinced one of the biggest obstacles in this area is the need to dispel myths and stereotypes that encourage girls to make choices at school which gradually close off routes to a career in STEM.
Publishing her considered take on what the priorities should be to speed up the glacially slow pace at which change is occurring proved to be an education in itself. Click on any of the links in this selection of news stories published on the E&T website in the past week and you’ll see that each one is led by a relevant and hopefully eye-catching image. Where the subject isn’t a specific engineering project or person, that means we often rely on libraries of royalty-free photography – the professional equivalent of the clip art supplied with a package like Microsoft Office.
The knack is knowing what search terms will find the sort of picture that works with your story. Sometimes a good choice will turn up the perfect image immediately; with this story it was more a case of either trawling through hundreds or working through a gradual process of elimination.
Start with ‘woman engineer’ and you’ll first need to wade through several pages full of photos of women in hard hats. Then there’s the ‘sexy’ engineers (yes, sadly, ‘sexy engineer’ is a valid search term for some photo libraries and will return a host of pictures) or ‘geeky’ engineers with cartoonishly big glasses.
Eventually, with no little patience, a persistent user can find a picture that comes close to resembling a real-life woman doing real engineering, which we hope is what we’ve achieved. No wonder, though, that myths about hard hats are proving so hard to shake off. A picture really does achieve as much as a thousand words in some contexts and not everyone’s going to be as conscientious as E&T about finding an appropriate one.
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