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Ventilator design, Netflix parties, Zoom glitches and more: best of the week's news

Image credit: James Tye / UCL

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

Reverse-engineered breathing aid gets swift regulatory nod

In the grand scheme of things, the team on E&T hasn’t got too much to complain about at the moment. Obviously we’re confined to home and have limited access to toilet roll and hand sanitiser, but we still have jobs and (so far) our health. There are literally millions in this country alone with far more to worry about.

But that doesn’t mean to say life as a technology journalist is straightforward. Many will have seen on the TV news that we’re short of ventilators. It has also been reported how industry is rallying to the cause and will triple or even quadruple the paltry reserve of 8000 ICU (intensive care unit) beds that we currently have. The frustration from my point of view has been lack of access to information about all of this.

That might not seem like a big deal, but I think it is. None of the companies involved have been allowed to talk about the projects by decree of Number 10. While I always want to bring our readers interesting and inspirational stories, of which this could obviously be one, I also think it could have served a more useful purpose. British industry is a huge resource with a diverse skillset. Explaining what some of the pioneering companies are doing could help build momentum and encourage other engineering companies to come up with solutions – even if that is just releasing capacity.

Despite the lockdown on information, our contributor Mike Farish has managed to piece together an interesting story on the ventilator projects, principally looking at how they fit into the overall Covid-19 picture. He includes some more practical and technical observations that have come from the people behind similar projects in America, who have been more open. Mike’s report will be online in the coming days.

However, beyond the silence is the feeling that the government has been dithering. It has been denied that we lost out by leaving it too late to sign up to an EU procurement plan for ventilators, but it smacks of a ‘no smoke without fire’ scenario to me, especially as the ramping up of virus testing is similarly starting to turn into a finger-pointing fiasco.

Testing is absolutely vital, even just from the perspective of optimising the NHS resource. Going forward it will help remobilise the country, but in the short term it is testing and the provision of PPE and ICU beds that will save lives. And I believe that if the government had been a bit more open then British industry could have helped achieve this goal.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Three attempts to make a Netflix Party work

This fascinating piece by E&T associate editor Ben Heubl, about his experience of new digital pastimes that have been prompted by the current pandemic, reflects my own new daily routine, the only difference being that I haven’t yet tried Netflix parties. My older-generation mentality, and my inhibited leisure-time imagination, have so far stretched no further than three attempts at virtual socialising.

A virtual drinks party on WhatsApp (I’ve only discovered Zoom very recently, sorry) with my son and his girlfriend was fun; we were even able to virtually clink our real wine glasses with real wine in them (trying hard not to crack the screen).

A virtual birthday party for a university friend who now lives in Florida went swimmingly, apart from the time difference making it a tad too early in the day for him to celebrate in proper Russian style – I’m sure you know what I mean. Even WhatsApp, with its amazing ability to nullify distances, is unable to eliminate time differences.

With the discovery of Zoom (which we now use to hold E&T editorial meetings), I was able to endure several sessions of virtual Buddhist meditation organised by the London Buddhist Society (of which I am a member) and by my local Triratna Buddhist Sangha (group). Whereas you may be inclined to think that mediation is a highly personal, even intimate, solitary occupation, let me assure you that it always works best in the company of others!

I am now tempted to try a Netflix party, as recommended by Ben. The main problem here is agreeing on which movie to watch. The larger the party, the harder it will be to agree. It’s difficult enough to reach common ground here even with my wife, who always insists on watching ‘The Voice’ on one of the terrestrial channels, when I can’t wait to enjoy the latest episode of ‘Better Call Saul’ on Netflix.

Those minor disagreements can be easily overcome. The main thing is that at times the latest digital technology makes our forced isolation and self-isolation not simply bearable, but - forgive me – at times, enjoyable too.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Braille displays could become more detailed and resilient with new material

It’s always encouraging to read about innovations that could make people’s lives better, and this Caltech research into electroactive polymers is a good example. Clearly there’s a long way to go between a lab demonstrator and a marketable product, but it’s a start.

Security snafus exhumed amid Zoom boom

I’m one of the many people who have used Zoom for the first time in recent weeks, so I’m concerned about possible security flaws - but also, I’m a journalist and I just think it’s a great headline.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Contact-tracing app could allow release from Covid-19 lockdown

The idea that the UK can rely on personal-tracking technology alone to tame the Covid-19 virus is an illusion, and it’s a misconception that it would let us all roam outside without restrictions. Privacy researchers around the world are already cautioning us about sharing personal data, even when it’s anonymised. I’m writing an analysis about this, so will refrain from giving away too much at this point, but stay tuned.

It’s important to mention that the research described in this story cautions that the app approach shouldn’t run without “many general preventative population measures such as physical distancing, enhanced hand and respiratory hygiene, and regular decontamination.” It’s therefore ill-conceived to believe any promise it could eliminate the need for some sort of lockdown.

I’m not alone in my belief that the UK’s low testing rate is absolutely unacceptable. Testing is a technical and logistical problem, but before talking about complicated tracking solutions it’s vital to boost testing rates - as well as accommodating for the worst-case scenario of a ventilator shortage.

I can see what these researchers are trying to do, and it could be very useful for the next epidemic. But we need to talk about to the price we would pay for these measures. It could damage trust if the government charges ahead and enforces draconian tracking measures without consulting properly with the public. Experts I spoke to over the course of last week say contact tracing could be done within the ethical scope of the present law.

I’m reminded of something one of my former editors used to say: “All the great things are simple”. I think it’s the beginning of a Winston Churchill quote. This means concentrating on lockdown measures and increasing vital testing first.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Security snafus exhumed amid Zoom boom

Breezy headline aside, the unprecedented explosive growth in Zoom's user base since lockdowns were put in place around the world is rapidly revealing worrying cracks in Zoom's highly polished public facade. What must have at first seemed like manna from heaven to the company's owners - Millions of new users! Our app recommended in virtually every 'Top 10 apps you need to work from home better' listicle online! Our stock price soaring! - is quickly turning into a blinding headache of company-wide bans and class action lawsuits.

If something seems to be too good to be true, it's usually because it is. So it is with Zoom, for all involved. Users' digital privacy and online security are being compromised in new and unusual ways. Zoom can't handle the volume of new business that has been thrust upon it and the whole thing seems to be unravelling fast. How can any of us communicate securely in a time of crisis, given the zeal with which cyber criminals and pranksters have seized the new opportunities presented to them by millions of WFH noobs working from potentially insecure locations? Diehard fans of the fax machine are doubtless thinking, "Who's laughing now?"

Ocean life could recover by 2050 with the right policies, study finds

According to a new study, depleted marine life across the world’s oceans could recover to healthy levels in just 30 years IF major threats such as climate change are dealt with. Big IF, that. Depleted marine life will also likely recover if the number of humans on the planet is drastically reduced. If, say, a global pandemic occurs with no immediate vaccine or end-of solution available. The hard truth that we all pussyfoot around is that there are simply too many people living on this planet and we're consuming more of its natural resources than it can effectively replenish. It's going to take a monumental human effort to turn this situation around. It can be done, but future life on Earth is going to have to be conducted in a very different fashion from past and present.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Security snafus exhumed amid Zoom boom

Speaker joins calls for ‘digital Parliament’

Three attempts to make a Netflix Party work

E&T has been following the effects of the world's lockdowns on the tech industry, as most people start to work from home and learn to communicate in new ways. An engineer MP has even called for Parliament to start meeting virtually, which would allow Jacob Rees-Mogg to lounge around on his sofa instead of the green benches.

Will this be the beginning of the future we were once promised of everyone working remotely, wherever they liked, and just convening with each other in cyberspace? I doubt it. As some are already discovering, it's nice to see other people for real from time to time. But it’s certainly having an effect on some businesses and may all be accelerating technological change as we have reported some predicting.

Zoom may well come out one as one of the winners, perhaps at the expense of other conferencing platforms that have not managed to keep up with demand. But as it became more popular it's also attracted more scrutiny this week. Partly due to Boris Johnson's use. Could another winner be the virtual party tech? Our associate editor Ben Heubl gave one platform a spin to see if it is indeed the future.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Reverse-engineered breathing aid gets swift regulatory nod

Hello there to all our lovely readers, from self-isolation. Hope everyone is keeping well and safe. I suppose I'd better get on with this commentary thingy despite losing the plot in the depths of my room.

In this week’s news, UCL and UCL Hospital scientists have been working with Mercedes Formula One (F1) to develop a new continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilator – a breathing aid that can be used outside intensive care units – and have quickly received regulatory approval for the device, to help hospital staff in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

A CPAP is a type of ventilator for people who are able to breathe on their own but need support keeping their airway unobstructed. It pushes oxygen and air into the mouth and nose at steady pressure, helping to increase the amount of oxygen entering the lungs. This type of device has been used extensively to treat Covid-19 patients in Italy and China. It allows patients with breathing difficulties to be treated outside intensive care units, bridging the gap between a basic oxygen mask and a full ventilator, which requires sedation, an invasive procedure and close supervision.

With so many people now working at home and events being cancelled, it’s only fitting that engineers use their expertise in this crisis to create innovative and effective ways to help deal with it. And who would’ve thought that it would be a motorsport team that would aid the race for more breathing aids (pun intended)?.

It’s lovely to see that in a time of crisis, everyone is coming together (2m apart at least) to support the NHS and all the hard work they are doing to save the lives of those affected by this virus. Indeed, engineering and technology are key in creating innovative and effective solutions to help tackle this virus and save lives. Here’s to hoping that it will help as many people as possible!

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Security snafus exhumed amid Zoom boom

Well, this is awkward.

Seeing as this is how we’re getting through our lack of face-to-face contact at work, snafus indeed. It’s been some getting used to, with meetings taking place over Zoom, speaking over each other, not being able to decipher what everyone is saying, and sometimes accidentally zoning out of the conversation because you’ve lost the thread anyway. Just like a normal meeting. Wahey!

I jest.

Yet this could be a bit of an oopsie on the video conferencing service’s part. Just recently, the app HouseParty has been plagued with accusations about hacking and what not. Fake news? Who knows? Just every hacker seems to be getting a clue and jumping on the cyber bandwagon to find their way into your juicy details.

Zoom is facing mounting scrutiny over its security practices as new vulnerabilities are unearthed almost daily. These include inadvertently leaking users’ personal information to other users and allowing hackers to steal users’ Windows login credentials. It’s currently the most popular app on the App Store and Play Store and the company’s share price has doubled since January. It needs to sort out its security practices so we can all get on with our pyjama work meetings in peace.

Vice’s Motherboard reported that Zoom has been accidentally leaking users’ email addresses and profile pictures to other users with the same email provider. Oopsie. Zoom treats all email addresses with ‘non-standard providers’ as single entities within a company directory, so people are automatically added to the contact list of others who use the same email domain.

This means users with these email addresses can see full names, profile pictures and statuses of other users with the same provider and start video chats with them. Creepy.

Then again, quirky way of blind dating?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Israeli scientists create fake beef scaffold

In my own almost exclusively vegan locked-down home, choice of evening meal is often a question of which ‘fake’ meat is going in the pot. Based on soya or other plant protein, there’s a decent selection of these substitutes for the real thing available in supermarkets to keep things mixed up. In fact, despite not being a committed vegetarian, let alone vegan, I’d go for soya mince in a pasta dish, or the Linda McCartney branded 'duck' in a pancake in preference to carnivorous alternatives.

Which brings us to the interesting semantic question of whether or not the results of this research at the Israel Institute of Technology are actually ‘fake beef’. After all, despite growing on a supporting structure derived from soy protein, the steaks are cultured from cells that definitely have their origins in a living animal.

Lots of work is going into this area of research, which could be a game-changer in environmental terms in a world where increasing prosperity is associated with growing demand for meat at scales that have an adverse effect on carbon emissions. I can’t help wondering though, whether it’s worth all the effort to grow the equivalent of half a dozen cows quickly in a factory rather than just persuading people that plant-based options can be just as tasty and more nutritious.

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