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Coronavirus impact, Budget promise for R&D and more: best of the week's news

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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.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Governments consult with big tech over coronavirus pandemic

This week saw the announcement by US president Donald Trump of a travel ban for EU Schengen border-free nations. Great (not!)! It is possible it will disrupt my personal plans to visit in-laws in the US in April. If you have booked flights through an agency the fine print determines whether or not you may get some money back. It’s a gamble. Travel companies should be more sympathetic to the idea of reimbursement. They may put off people who will never book with them again.

Meanwhile more old colleagues report to me they are following advice to self-quarantine. As working from home will become ever more common it raises questions regarding how much we actually know about what it does to our morale, mental health etc. There’s a pile of research on productivity. But like everything, there are gaps for areas that concern not business but the wellbeing of workers.

A meta-analysis on telework from 2012, for example, suggests there is a small but a positive relationship between telework and organisational outcomes. Telework can increase productivity, secure retention, strengthen organisational commitment and improve performance within the organisation.

But let’s be honest. Enthusiasm for working from home among many organisations was slow to grow. Australian companies that offer flexible work arrangements don’t guarantee the right of staff to work from home, for example.

With Covid-19 things might get a major push. With organisations like Nasa testing their work-from-home capabilities, now many people who never tried it before will indulge in the practice. Libby Sander, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond Business School, thinks this could spark a revolution. It sounds logical to me. At the IET, today I still work at the office.

How coronavirus is wreaking havoc in the global tech sector

I reported this week on some of the aspects of how Covid-19 has affected the global tech industry, individual western companies and international value chains. Researchers are working intensely on solutions. Nowhere is the pressure for more medical and behavioural researcher output more apparent than on SSRN, a platform that allows researchers to submit non-peer-reviewed research papers.

Peer-reviewed research can take a long time to get published, time we might not have. So it is welcome that SSRN, a repository and international journal devoted to the rapid dissemination of scholarly research in the social sciences and humanities and more, already features hundreds of scientific research papers on Covid-19.

But the cascade of non-peer-reviewed research papers has another side to it. If they contain flaws or misleading statements the research could at the least be unhelpful and at worst dangerous.

On SSRN, I found 137 pre-peer-reviewed scientific papers on coronavirus all posted since the first cases emerged. In a matter of a few weeks the international research community submitted a wealth of scientific research on the infectious disease. This is truly impressive.

What's also interesting is that some papers received overwhelming interest - measured in the number of downloads, while others were largely ignored. With only six papers published by the end of January, there were more than 16,000 downloads. This included papers with 10,000 downloads such as ‘Estimation of the Transmission Risk of 2019-nCov and Its Implication for Public Health Interventions’.

In February, the number of scientific papers increased to 79, with nearly 14,000 downloads. In March (as of 9 March) there are already 52 paper submissions - the majority from China. If the volume of submission for March remains stable compared to the first nine days, the number of papers could surge to above 170, which is more than double the volume seen in February.

Efstathios Giotis, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London told Reuters that due to the evolving nature of the outbreak, scientists are often under pressure to communicate their findings in real time. But I must stress that there need to be checks and balances in place to vet papers and prevent misinformation and errors.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Budget promises hike in R&D investment and support for green tech

In a budget which – when you look past Rishi Sunak’s panto-peppy delivery – actually addresses very little, one of the few noteworthy announcements was the promise of considerable research investment. The Government has pledged the largest and fastest increase in R&D spending in decades, with annual investment increasing to £22bn by 2025; this will make the UK’s R&D spending higher as a percentage of GDP than that in the US, China, Japan, and France.

Sunak also promised £800m to establish a moonshot funding agency modelled after ARPA (now Darpa) in the US. ARPA, which was established in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, became a source of patriotic pride for the US and arguably the world’s most successful research agency. Whether this British answer to ARPA (BARPA?) will be similarly successful cannot be taken for granted, and will require sustained funding, international talent, and expert leaders which the government must be willing to listen to.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

E3 widely believed to be cancelled due to coronavirus; organisers slow to confirm

I just picked on this story as it is the latest contribution to our coronavirus coverage. I think this is throwing up some game-changing issues. Back in 2001, we thought that 9/11 would fundamentally change air travel and again during the 2008 financial crisis it was suggested that the extensive and expensive face-to-face meeting culture was unnecessary. In both cases the status quo gradually returned and we got back in our cars and on our planes to travel the world.

This time, to a certain extent, it could be different. I’m a big fan of knowing the people you do business with and generally the better you know them, the better the working relationship. Direct contact should never be consigned to the past. However, there is no question that the digital world is far more capable than it was in 2008, and in a different league to what it was in 2001. We really can communicate efficiently and reliably now to the extent that personal meetings are no longer essential.

And on top of the current health crisis there is also the critical state of our environment. If there is an upside to coronavirus is that it is perhaps going to allow our planet to breathe freely for a couple of months – I believe Chinese cities have their best air quality for decades.

So maybe the combination of current health necessities coupled with environmental concerns could this time actually alter the way we work. But are we ready for it? Exhibitions (like the one in this news article) and events are being cancelled all over the place. Some are being replaced by virtual events, which could be representative of the way forward.

More fundamental is the shift from office working to home working. As someone who currently balances between the two, I have to be honest I am slightly split on this. It takes a while to get personal working practices in place to make sure that the home environment ultimately becomes a more productive and enjoyable one. And that the workload is being efficiently monitored and managed. And that the home environment fulfils the necessary IT infrastructure (not hard but still needs to be checked) and health and safety requirements (there may be a few claims for people with bad backs having not had proper desk and chair set-ups). To suggest that the UK (or global) workforce will be able to do this at the drop of a hat is wishful thinking.

It will be interesting to see what the long-term effects are.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Gaming’s influence on people in technology

Last week, while away on leave, I remembered this article by Chris Edwards. Why? Simply because, I spent several days and nights inside a large gaming establishment, read casino. Of course, Chris in his article in the February issue of E&T was focusing on online games and not on gambling, but games are games, and whether they involve  a (slim) possibility of making a quick buck, or simply challenge the players by evoking their competitive spirits, they can be highly entertaining and highly addictive too. For obvious reasons, we do not write a lot about gambling games in E&T, so today I decided to fill in that gap.

Let me reassure you straight away: I am not a gambler myself. Last week, while researching my next travel book, I was accommodated in a hotel on the border of Slovenia and Italy which was part of a huge casino (I didn’t ask to be put up there: it was entirely my hosts’ decision). The casino, discreetly built on the Slovenian side of the border, catered mostly for visiting Italians with a gambling streak. Due to the quickly growing coronavirus epidemic in Italy, the number of gamblers was not huge, and I had ample time to walk around the seemingly endless casino halls, with no windows, clocks or exit signs.

Here I must confess that, having visited a number of casinos, including the famous Casino de Paris in Monte Carlo and several ‘thematic’ gambling emporiums in Las Vegas, I have never gambled in any of them, being more interested in punters than in gambling machines. I was always fascinated by the universal seriousness of gamblers’ faces as they obsessively fed their tokens into the insatiable bellies of slot-machines, or stared unblinkingly at a dispassionately rotating roulette wheel, with “no memory and no conscience”, in the words of Dostoyevsky – himself an obsessive gambler. Having observed the happenings in gambling halls of various countries and continents, I came to a conclusion: seen one, seen them all.

This time, one of the Casino’s old-timers - a kindly middle-aged Italian man, with the velvety, constantly darting eyes of a petty crook and a womaniser, volunteered to show me around. Talking to him was hopeless, for he kept either totally ignoring my questions or saying something that had no relevance to them whatsoever. He was the sort of a person, who when asked what time it is answers: “Yes, it is rather warm today...”. He quickly walked me around the main gambling hall, with large opaque mirrors on its ceiling, reflecting a handful of ageing gamblers, who looked like human stalagmites, or bats with bald crowns, suspended from the ceiling. One thing that briefly grabbed my attention was an ‘electronic horse race’ – a gambling game in the shape of a functioning model of Royal Ascot racecourse. One could stake money on model horses, their model jockeys sitting astride them. Like the Casino itself, the model was unreal, yet fully operational.

After a while, my escort became clearly uneasy and kept turning his head right and left – like a troubled turkey. I could see he couldn’t wait to get rid of me and get back to the slot machines. With mutual relief, we parted at the Casino’s ornate doors (without shaking hands, of course) and I returned to my hotel, which was effectively but a drab and unremarkable residential appendix to the grand Casino and - in comparison to the latter - looked like an ailing, sallow and thoroughly unwanted child of a body builder.

Back in my room, I looked out of the window. The round, clean (as if freshly painted) and geometrically correct Slovenian moon lay like a winning chip on the black cloth of the Italian sky.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Firefox 74 introduces tighter security and stricter rules

Any web browser that genuinely takes privacy and security seriously is all right by me. With no real commercial agenda - unlike Microsoft's Edge, Google's Chrome or Apple's Safari - Mozilla is free and sufficiently independent to retain the singular purpose of building a robust product that suits the needs and defends the personal interests of real-world users in an online world increasingly dominated by surveillance capitalism on one side and cyber criminals on the other. It is reassuring to know that there are still people committed to keeping the original premise of a free, open and egalitarian World Wide Web alive and kicking.

Facebook launches tool to help users save their content and quit platform

As it happens, Firefox offers a neat little add-on in the web browser called Facebook Container which - if installed - pretty much prevents Facebook from tracking you across the web. Other browsers offer similar functionality, to a greater or lesser extent. In a nutshell, much of the world is fed up with Facebook and if they can't actually quit the platform entirely, perhaps they could at least pull back from it a little bit. To that end, Facebook is doing its best to appear magnanimous, now allowing users to directly transfer media saved in Facebook off the platform and into Google Photos. Although, to be honest, switching from Facebook to Google seems about as satisfying, to me at least, as switching from chlamydia to gonorrhea. 

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Biomass fuels made from grass could help mitigate global warming

So, are they going to just use more land to grow the grass and then use up space? Or are they going to just rip up all our existing grass? Then it’ll just be a beautiful muddy landscape and wildlife might suffer. But hey ho. It seems like the better of the two alternatives. You know. Death of the human race. Then again, animals are much better than humans. Weighing up the options here.

Anyway, biomass fuels derived from various grasses could significantly mitigate global warming by reducing carbon, a long-term field study has found. Conducted by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and Michigan State University in the USA, the study examined several different cellulosic biofuel crops to assess their potential as a petroleum alternative in ethanol fuel and electric light-duty vehicles, including passenger cars and small trucks.

The research evaluated bioenergy feedstocks grown side-by-side. The seven crops in the investigation included switchgrass, giant miscanthus, poplar trees, maize residuals and restored native prairie. So much grass.

It also featured a combination of grasses and vegetation that grows spontaneously following field abandonment. When compared with petroleum-only emissions, the researchers found that ethanol with bioenergy was 78-290 per cent better in reducing carbon emissions, whereas ethanol was 204-416 per cent improved, and biomass powered electric vehicles combined with CSS was 329-558 per cent “superior”, the team said. Sweet.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Governments consult with big tech over coronavirus pandemic

In midst of the coronavirus outbreak, which WHO has officially declared a pandemic, the White House hosted a meeting with representatives from the world’s largest tech companies to discuss ways to manage the health crisis.

The White House Office of Science and Technology meeting was led by Chief Technology Officer of the US Michael Kratsios and was largely conducted via conference call, with attendees including representatives from Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Cisco and Twitter.

Kratsios asked the companies to coordinate their efforts to remove disinformation and other harmful content related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since the outbreak began at the end of 2019, disinformation has grown around it, including dangerous ‘health advice’ and conspiracy theories with the potential to aggravate racism.

This is a good step in the right direction – but it has been long overdue, I feel. The spreading of disinformation regarding this virus seems to have caused nothing but mass hysteria. As you can tell from videos on social media, people seem to be fighting over toilet rolls for some strange reason – almost as if some people are stockpiling as if they’re preparing for the apocalypse or something.

Conspiracy theories about how the outbreak started have caused quite a stir online too. Some people in China are theorising that President Trump started it. The US is accusing Russia of spreading conspiracy theories about them starting it. It’s just one big mess. The world’s gone absolutely mad, and it’s only three months into the new decade.

The thing that seems to be worrying a lot of people about this virus, however, is the fact that there is a lot of dangerous health advice leaking all over the internet. Some people seem to be taking misleading or ineffective advice on how to take care of themselves from left, right and centre – what’s worse is that people that are not medical professionals think they have a say in what people should and shouldn’t do during this manic time. If anything, people should only be listening to the advice giving by WHO, the NHS, virologists, scientists and many other healthcare professionals as they are all trusted sources.

I do hope this pandemic eases, though. And I’m sure everyone else does too. But governments, tech companies and scientists/medical professionals need to come together to tackle this outbreak. The last thing you want is for fake news to cause an absolute frenzy and more people become at risk from contracting this virus. Hope everyone stays safe in this period, as it is slowly going to overwhelm a lot of people – from doctors and nurses to the vulnerable, elderly and those with chronic conditions, to supply chains and businesses. Indeed, it will put a lot of strain on a lot of people – but we can conquer it.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Budget promises hike in R&D investment and support for green tech

E3 widely believed to be cancelled due to coronavirus; organisers slow to confirm

How coronavirus is wreaking havoc in the global tech sector

For one day this week, the headlines were not about coronavirus but about a remarkable budget for which commentators ran out of superlatives but which is perhaps best summed up by 'unprecedented' and 'giveaway'. What will stand out for our readers though is not just the scale of it but its emphasis, heavily skewed towards infrastructure and development. There was a lot for science, engineering and technology in there, so if you haven't checked out the detail yet then catch up with our story posted on Wednesday. Next, the Government has to deliver on it and that's a whole new challenge. Many of the built-in assumptions have already been blown apart by coronavirus and what it is doing to the world economy in technology and engineering - a subject we also investigated this week. Between the good news of the budget and the bad news of the pandemic it's been some week for the industry. As organisers continue to cancel events (E3 and SXSW this week), companies cancel travel and prepare their staff to work from home, next week could be just as dramatic.

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