Man using virtual reality headset in factory

Tech tackles Covid-19, ventilator shortage, bombs: 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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Can you ‘lift and shift’ your business in response to challenges like Covid-19?

It’s difficult to pick out a story from the week when there is essentially only one story in town. In fact, I commend our news team for keeping our news feed so varied at the moment – it appears there are other things happening out there!

Much of the reporting in E&T is about how technology is affected by, or is part of the solution to, Covid-19. Such stories are sensible, interesting and balanced. Compare that to how the media and the politicians are delivering the message. ‘Lockdown’ is something that is imposed on us, when staying at home at the moment is something that should be to everyone’s advantage. Seeing the pictures of empty supermarket shelves and long queues only adds anxiety and momentum to the impulse to panic buy and stockpile.

The Daily Mail Online announced earlier this week that there was going to be a paracetamol shortage by the weekend. This was picked up by other media outlets and lo and behold we had a paracetamol shortage as shoppers panicked.

My only consolation is that in the UK we are not led by a President who believes that Covid-19 is an enemy that can be defeated by bullying it into submission with fighting talk. While this bizarrely seems to have worked in every other political situation in the US in recent years, it is only going to make things worse when dealing with this virus. As we all know, lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Meanwhile, business finds its way. The E&T team's rather inept phone meetings of last week have now morphed into rather more satisfactory and professional teleconferencing solutions this week. People seem to actually enjoy communicating more by phone or video link in a bid to retain an element of personal contact. Please don’t think I am diminishing the severity of the situation, but for those of us lucky enough to be able to continue in their vocation, it’s interesting to see how the work environment is evolving.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Unexploded bombs from Vietnam War targeted by AI system

It’s shocking that nearly 50 years after the Vietnam War ended, those Asian countries which the US tried to carpet-bomb back to the Stone Age - Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos - are still littered with unexploded ordnance. Over 350,000 tons of it, to be exact. Even worse, 40,000 Vietnamese citizens - mostly farm workers and children - have been killed since the war. Not during the war: since the war. In so-called peacetime. A further 67,000 have been maimed for life. All because of bombs dropped en masse by US planes, which apparently the richest country in the world hasn't done enough to help clean up over the last half century. This doesn't even touch on the grotesque human effects still being caused by the lingering traces of toxic defoliant herbicides, such as Agent Orange, which US planes sprayed over vast areas to clear forests, indiscriminately dousing both trees and humans.

How is any of this still happening? How can people still be dying because of the ongoing fallout from a war that ended 50 years ago? It's not even as if valuable lessons were learned. Since America was conclusively hounded out of Saigon in April 1975, US foreign policy and its accompanying military response to any perceived threat has continued to be to blunder into ill-advised conflict with a faraway nation, make a complete mess of matters locally on the ground, then exit hastily and clumsily when things go pear-shaped. The US Army will always be happy to save new recruits a place in what The Simpsons once so memorably encapsulated as "America's next unresolvable conflict!".

In fairness, there are committed US Senators and ex-US military personnel who continue to fight for the clean-up in Vietnam and neighbouring countries, both through political support at home and active work in the foreign fields. Their efforts deserve wider recognition, not only for the results they achieve but also for the honour and humility these individuals display in shouldering the burden of atonement for atrocities authorised and executed by a national government that has largely abdicated its responsibility. It should come as no surprise to learn that after US funding to the region to help the clean-up had actually been increased, that aid money has been slashed since the Trump Administration took over the White House.

Maybe AI technology will be able to step in and play a crucial part in expediting the search operation for unexploded bombs, in the absence of sufficient US government assistance. If the sitting President lacks a gracious and honest understanding of his nation's history - if he is, say, merely a lost simpleton guided by a badly broken moral compass, sustained solely and blindly by an impotent over-riding concern for the preservation of his own self-image - perhaps a machine can do something to compensate for his myriad human deficiencies and help those less self-absorbed than he to do the right thing by those nations which have been wronged.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Ankle exoskeleton could help people run with ease

Researchers at Stanford University in the US have found that a motorised device that attaches around a person’s ankle and foot can ‘drastically reduce’ the energy cost of running. Given the technical lockdown the UK is now enduring due to the coronavirus, tempered by the fact that the government permits us the opportunity to go out once a day for exercise, a lot of people will be running. I have been trying to build up my endurance running outside, even before we were all told to stay at home, so a piece of technology like this may prove beneficial to me.

In experiments with motor-powered systems that mimic such devices, called exoskeleton emulators, the team at Stanford investigated two different modes of running assistance: motor-powered and spring-based.

They found that the mere act of wearing an exoskeleton rig that was switched off increased the energy cost of running, making it 13 per cent harder than running without the exoskeleton. However, the experiments indicated that if appropriately powered by a motor, the exoskeleton reduced the energy cost of running. This made it 15 per cent easier than running without the exoskeleton and 25 per cent easier than running with the exoskeleton switched off.

The researchers added that if future designs could reduce the energy cost of wearing the exoskeleton, runners may get a small benefit from spring-like assistance at the ankle, which is expected to be cheaper than motor-powered alternatives.

To ensure the runner would conserve more energy whilst participating in the activity, the frame of the ankle exoskeleton emulator straps around the user’s shin. It attaches to the shoe with a rope looped under the heel and a carbon-fibre bar inserted into the sole, near the toe. Motors situated behind the treadmill (but not on the exoskeleton itself) produce the two modes of assistance – even though a spring-based exoskeleton would not actually use motors in the final product.

According to the researchers, the energy savings observed in their experiments indicated that a runner using the powered exoskeleton could boost their speed by as much as 10 per cent. That figure could be even higher if runners have additional time for training and optimisation. Given the considerable gains involved, the researchers believe it should be possible to turn the powered skeleton into an effective untethered device.

If this piece of technology eventually comes to the market, sign me up! I’ve always wanted to get better at long-distance running and eventually do a marathon or something along those lines. For now, I’ll take the time I have available – with our 'one outside exercise per day' rule – to build up my endurance without the support.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

View from Vitalia: Running out of thyme

In my latest ‘View from Vitalia’ blogpost, I mentioned the extraordinary prophecy by the American thriller writer Dean Koontz, who predicted the current pandemic with amazing precision* (correctly indicating its nature and medical characteristics, the year of its appearance and the Chinese city it came from) in one of his books, first published in 1981! Several days ago, I came across another clairvoyant prophecy – by the American (again, American!) ‘psychic’ Sylvia Browne. Below is a direct quote from her surprisingly well-written book (in co-operation with the writer Lindsay Harris) ‘End of Days’, published by Hachette Digital in 2010.

“In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

What can I say? I wish her predictions of what’s going to happen with the coronavirus pandemic were only 50 per cent correct: that it suddenly disappears without a trace and won’t come in 10 years. Perhaps a bit too much wishful thinking on my part. I wonder what scientists and futurologists have to say about all those prophecies?

In the meantime, a useful piece of advice for those who work from home (which means pretty much everyone) from the I newspaper: be creative with your home working space and use an ironing board instead of a desk! Not sure about the sheer convenience of a desk like that, but probably whatever you write on it will have a better chance of flowing smoothly.

I must try it one of these days.

*Editor's note: the claims about Koontz's novel have subsequently been proved to be wildly exaggerated and factually incorrect, if mildly entertaining

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

UK government orders 10,000 ventilators from Dyson

Wales greenlights emergency ventilation device

Ineos races to build new UK hand sanitiser plant in just 10 days

These stories are part of a much larger picture that shows product designers and manufacturers pulling together to tackle the unprecedented crisis brought about by Covid-19 and reflect well on our sector. What more can I say?

Video GP consultations a viable alternative during social distancing measures

Church of England attracts five million worshippers to first virtual service

Brits told ‘stay at home’ via SMS; some older people could be left isolated

These three stories show how technology can help us while we’re confined to our homes, but they also remind us of its limitations. Five million worshipers may be exceptional, but even in normal times one of the benefits of organised religion is that it creates communities. Now, with so many of us isolated to a greater or lesser degree, we need that more than ever. And when any physical visit to the doctor is starting to feel like a bad idea, the possibility of a video consultation may often be a good substitute, although I have to say that my only personal encounters with the health service over the last year have all required direct physical contact (once for a blood test, once diagnosing the cause of my painful, immobile neck and, most recently, for a consultant to look into the back of my eye and confirm that I don’t have glaucoma).

Finally, if you’re reading this, you must be at least reasonably au fait with accessing information online, but I’m trying to support my 95-year-old father who has never used a computer or a smartphone and has no internet connection, so his contacts with the outside world are through a landline telephone and a non-smart television set. He’s not alone in this. There is a much larger group of mostly older people who can do basic internet browsing and manage simple emails without attachments, but they struggle with much else. The rest of us mustn’t lose sight of that.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

AI identifies safe drugs that could immediately be used to treat Covid-19

This story about how an AI-driven drug discovery platform has identified existing drugs that could help to fight Covid-19 mentions US President Donald Trump, whose own suggestion that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine could be a “gamechanger” in fighting the spread of the coronavirus was quickly criticised by experts. Trump’s remarks on the effectiveness of a drug untested against the disease still led to it reportedly being hoarded and to at least one death in the US and a number of overdoses around the world.

Yesterday, news broke that the US now has more Covid-19 cases than China.

Much of the cascade of disinformation around the virus seen in recent weeks follows the standard Kremlin playbook. Efforts to fight it need to increase enormously. Not only must Big Tech step up, political leaders must be also held accountable if they repeat or reinforce phoney news stories. It is our responsibility as journalists and the public to check and re-check (and re-re-re-check) stories thrown at us in this difficult period. Also, as journalists, we have to be extremely cautious not to copy-paste from other news stories - or at least not do so without applying the highest level of scrutiny.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Video GP consultations a viable alternative during social distancing measures

People aren’t going to stop falling prey to all the usual medical ailments that afflict them during the current UK lockdown. While they’re even more likely to ignore the sort of minor niggles they’d put up with for a while before making an appointment with their GP, many will have more serious concerns that won’t wait until a crisis that doesn’t yet have a clear endpoint is over.

Like the less critical issue of experiencing the pros and cons of working from home, it looks like we’ll come out of this as a society that’s less sceptical of alternatives to the established ways of getting stuff done. Things like talking to a doctor.

It’ll be interesting to see how the results of future studies into public and professional acceptance of video consultations compare with this one, which was carried out before most people had heard of Covid-19, let alone the concept of a coronavirus.

It suggests feelings are mixed, which is understandable. Surely now that we’re discovering how much more efficiently meetings can get done using online teleconferencing platforms, we’re going to be more open to the idea of communicating with our doctor in the same way? Yes, some cases will still need a physical examination that can only be carried out in person, but as an initial way of filtering out the 'worried well' with judicious reassurance, or escalating cases that are obviously more serious to a suitable level, it ought to be a gamechanger if implemented on a large enough scale.

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