EU rules for AI, de-ageing movie tech, death of cash and more: best of the week’s news

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

EU proposes strict AI regulation akin to laws governing cars and toys

I’m not so sure that actually regulating artificial intelligence makes any sense. I don’t mean that regulating how AI is used doesn’t have its merits, but regulating AI as a thing in its own right sounds to me as if someone has been watching too many sci-fi films and not bothering to read what actual AI is (in worthy publications like E&T of course).

Most AI is in fact machine learning. Clever algorithms take past data to come to new decisions. In the best cases the decisions get better as time goes on, although in the worst cases the biases of the past can be amplified. Alison Ebbage wrote a good article on this in our latest issue. Machine learning isn’t true intelligence though, it’s just a good way of making your data work efficiently. It can be as basic as an active spreadsheet. There are so many shades of grey between machine learning and aspirational level AI – where the computer is actually making informed, useful and original decisions – that the idea of regulation is unworkable. And it is pointless.

What is important is regulating the application. Facial recognition is the most obviously topical example here. Recent studies showed AI-based facial-recognition systems were accurate only seven per cent of the time, which is obviously useless. It was even more useless when your skin colour or gender wandered away from the mainstream white male. Undoubtedly this would improve, but it will need some proper regulations in place before facial recognition information can be taken as having real value.

Other use cases such as in healthcare, finance and autonomous vehicles will all need tight regulation, but again it has to be the application rather than the AI itself, which is only a building block in the system.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Rolling back the years: is de-ageing the future of film-making?

You do have to wonder where this road might lead. Are we just going to see an endless parade of remakes, flashbacks and prequels, using the same popular actors who made the original films great? That would be the big Hollywood studios easy option (and there's nothing the big Hollywood studios love more than an easy option), but is it going to move the film industry forward? Its already become increasingly self-referential, the snake eating its tail, in a cycle of ever-diminishing returns.

While theres nothing wrong with de-ageing technology per se, its use as a creative tool is dubious. It seems more likely it will become an extension of reboot culture: “Hey, we're really sorry, but we've run out of new ideas, so here's something you liked ten years ago, again!”. As with any technology, used sparingly and with good taste, there’s a place for de-ageing in the film industry, although as you may already be aware, Hollywood and good taste don't always go hand in hand.

Met Office gets £1.2bn climate-forecasting supercomputer

You dont need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but apparently the weatherman needs a billion-pound supercomputer to determine specific details about our climate. Im not really sure what good it will do, as no matter how much ‘intelligence’ we think weve gathered about the weather, it still routinely catches us unawares - a perpetual fact of life that submerged residents in parts of Wales and Western England will be all too aware.

Apple shares slide as coronavirus nobbles iPhone production

Its not just Apples stock levels affected by the epidemic, as the vast majority of the worlds favourite gadgets are made in China with one single company, Foxconn, responsible for manufacturing an estimated 40 per cent of all consumer electronics sold worldwide, including Amazons Kindle; Nintendos 3DS, Wii U and Switch; Nokia hardware; Xiaomi hardware; Sonys PlayStation 3 and 4, and Microsoft's Xbox range the ramifications of a slump in Chinese output will be felt globally by many companies. Foxconn already has factories in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Turkey and is nearing completion of a monster facility on US soil, in Wisconsin, so it may make sense to spread production more evenly across all territories to balance the load and minimise the impact of any similar crisis.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Chancellor told to protect cash as declining use threatens its future

With the world swiftly moving away from physical money it seems like an odd decision to put in extra measures to keep this increasingly outdated payment system in place. There are problems with this – not least that some two million people don’t even have bank accounts and eight million still heavily rely on cash. But the focus should be on helping these people be brought into the electronic money system, not on ensuring the continuation of a cash system that makes no sense.

First, the extra admin involved in counting and sorting cash is significant; many shop workers spend the last half hour of their day ‘cashing out’, comparing receipts to what they physically have in their tills. This is effectively an avoidable massive waste of time in 2020 for millions of people across the country.

More importantly, the environmental cost of maintaining the cash system is huge. The amount of carbon generated through the creation of coins and notes and the subsequent need to transport them around the country is considerable. With climate change ramping up we don’t have time to wait for people who are clinging onto old systems because they can’t be bothered to get a bank account. The cash phase-out should begin in earnest right now.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

After All: The eerie quietness of Berlin’s deserted and dimly lit ghost stations

After my latest column was published, I was half-expecting a number of readers’ emails about London’s disused underground stations, of which there are dozens: there’s even a book by Ben Pedroche with the self-explanatory title ‘Do Not Alight Here: Walking London's Lost Underground and Railway Stations’ which lists most of them. What I did not expect, however, was a message from an Australian reader, who didn’t want his name revealed but is both a train buff and a Europhile, telling me about the multiple ghost stations of the Paris Metro, of which I had never heard before!

According to him, most of those stations were closed in September 1939 when France and Paris were first invaded and then occupied by Nazi Germany. At that point, all but 85 stations of the Paris Metro were closed down due to reduced services. Most of them were later re-opened, but a handful remain closed (read ‘ghostly’) until now. Among them are Champ de Mars (line 8), Croix-Rouge (line 10) and Arsenal (line 5 – not to be confused with its London namesake). Just like in Berlin, some Paris Metro stations remain partially ‘ghostly’, incorporating a disused platform not accessible to the public. Interestingly and unlike in Berlin, where the ghost stations remain largely abandoned, several of their Parisian counterparts are – rather ingeniously – being used for training drivers, conductors and other Metro staff, whereas some others function as service depots for the nearby fully functioning stations.

Paris is of course the City of Light, where few visitors are ever tempted to venture underground unless of course they need to use the Metro. I’m not sure about you, but during my next sojourn in the French capital I’ll be tempted to locate some of the city’s ghost stations, and perhaps, if I’m in luck, even visit them.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Met Office gets £1.2bn climate-forecasting supercomputer

Good news for the Met Office this week, which has been given the go-ahead for a billion-pound supercomputer for complex weather and climate forecasting. This will allow it to issue advice to help communities and public services cope with increasingly frequent extreme weather, such as advising when and where to deploy mobile flood defences. According to the Government, it will be the most powerful machine of its kind dedicated to this subject.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Net zero carbon goal enshrined in regions representing nearly half of global GDP

Data analysis which suggests almost half of global economic value creation was generated by nations with a net zero target might sound great, but includes only five nations that have enshrined the zero-carbon 2050 target in law. And it doesnt include the most populated nations, like India and China.

China is a particular noteworthy case. It recently lifted a two-year ban on new coal-fired power plant construction, something we have written about and condemned in the past. China also abruptly suspended approvals for subsidies on solar projects in 2018 and issued new policies to reduce solar and wind subsidies in 2019, according to ClimateActionTracker. To what extent renewable energy capacity growth slowed is visible in preliminary 2019 figures compared to 2018.

Last July, it emerged that renewables investment had shrunk to a six-year low. With the solar spending spree slowing, challenging economic growth obstacles to overcome as well as battling a national health crisis, it is tougher than ever to convince the Chinese leadership to concentrate on cutting emissions. 

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Technology’s Sonic boom

Sonic bounds onto the big screen this month after 30 years battling Robotnik on the small and, indeed, very small screen. While it may be outside his comfort zone, it’s not really a bigger pond for the little blue hedgehog. Hes come a long way since then. The games industry was the new kid on the block when he first appeared, but today it’s bigger than the movie and music industries combined. Yes, whod have thought? Our latest issue, now available to read online, is a gaming special that looks at how it has influenced everything from IT to defence electronics. Read my introduction or go straight to the story of Sonic by Chris Edwards.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Fossil fuel industry breaks wind more than expected

The headline makes me chuckle quite a bit. Farting. Heh.

Anyway, the methane in the atmosphere produced from manmade activity could be up to 40 per cent higher than previously thought, scientists have said, contributing a lot to climate change.

Following good old carbon dioxide, methane is the gas most strongly associated with climate change. Its emissions have increased by approximately 150 per cent over the past three centuries. Fabulous work, humans.

Compared to other heat-trapping gases, methane has quite a short shelf-life. It lasts about nine years in the atmosphere, while carbon dioxide can stick around for 100 years. this means methane is a decent target for curbing emission levels in a short time frame. However, it is difficult for researchers to determine where these emissions originate from (cow butts?).

University of Rochester researchers have been drilling and collecting ice cores from Greenland to see how much methane human activity contributes to the atmosphere above that which is released from natural sources.

The ice core samples act like time capsules, containing air bubbles with small quantities of ancient air trapped inside which can be analysed. By using a melting chamber to extract the ancient air from the bubbles, the Rochester team can study its chemical composition. They focused on measuring the composition of air from the early 18th century to the present day. Cool right?

Given the total fossil emissions measured in the atmosphere today, the researchers speculate that manmade gas release is around 25 to 40 per cent higher than expected.


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