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Covid-19 disinfo, virtual panel shows, smart toilet and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: REUTERS/Russell Boyce

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

Covid-19 disinformation online confusing for many Brits, Ofcom finds

You’ll be able to read about our investigation into Russia’s disinformation campaign on Covid-19 in full soon, but for now it warrants adding a few points.

Covid-19 disinformation is broad and attacks democracies in various ways. Online disinformation is a systemic problem that existed long before the pandemic struck. But it’s true that coronavirus gave it the sort of boost into the spotlight we rarely experience (except perhaps for the past US election where bot-meddling was a thing, Brexit is another example).

Viewed in this light I welcome the renewed debate. The more people are aware of it, the better. It is also true that Covid-19 elevated the stakes. False public health advice directly affects our wellbeing. One area we did some additional digging was disinformation around 5G technology, which was evident long before coronavirus struck. The pandemic now lends itself particularly well for conspiracy theorists to disinform about 5G.

Social media companies such as YouTube pledged to act, and did by deleting one video featuring a popular conspiracy theorist. When I now search on YouTube for ‘5G causes coronavirus’ however, I still find among the first results videos with millions of views. After YouTube promised to delete fake/misleading content, I now largely find individual YouTubers trying to disprove it - not proving it. Ok that's better but still not good enough. Some still indulge in overly-long videos with deeply technical explanations backed by unverifiable, often wild claims as to why there is no link. My point is, even if YouTubers try to do good in discrediting the idea of a link between Covid-19 and 5G, they still shouldn't do it. They’re not experts and often get the basic facts wrong.

The difficulty of ‘cleaning’ a service like YouTube or any other larger video platform shows how carefully western tech companies need to approach disinformation cleansing. How do you computationally (or at scale by hand) separate the whacky conspiracy theorists and aggressively biased lobbyists from spreading their toxicity while respecting the freedom of speech of other commentators, all on the same topic? Finding the perfect balance can be excruciatingly difficult. And it’s rare for issues to be as black and white or right and wrong as they are for Covid-19 and 5G.

When it comes to disinformation of '5G technology causing cancer', I can recommend a New York Times report from last year explaining how a single flawed report spread like wildfire and how it was amplified by “alarmist websites, prompted articles linking cellphones to brain cancer and served as evidence in lawsuits urging the removal of wireless classroom technology”.

The best advice I received from talking to experts around the world on disinformation is to factcheck as much as you can (accessing source material and being critical), and read news (not mere the headlines) from credible newspapers that have a long history and are large enough budget to guarantee sufficient factchecking practices and unbiased editorial.

And remember, if you have information about wrongdoing and are able to blow the whistle, I am here for you. Email me at benheubl@theiet.org.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

BBC satirical TV show returns as ‘a more elaborate video conference’

I watched this last Friday, and I must say it was quite an awkward affair. In general I hold HIGNFY in high regard, Hislop and Merton are veterans at calling out politicians on their BS. But without a laughing audience, the silences between jokes were all too loudly felt, or covered with thin, forced laughter from the panel.

Inevitably you lose momentum and atmosphere when trying to put together a political panel show where the panellists are removed from each other and have no audience to play up to. Readers should get used to it however - coronavirus-appropriate reworkings of classic shows like this will only get more common as the lockdown drags into weeks and months.

Wales announces 2021 single-use plastics ban

Good policy from the Welsh Government that was bizarrely sneaked out in the middle of the week when the whole world was looking the other way. The move might not be earth shattering, but its’s definitely a step in the right direction. Perhaps they wanted to avoid too much public confrontation with dissenters in the plastics industry, but even they will have to admit, the days of commonly available single-use plastics need to come to an end and if people have to lose their jobs over it is so be it, the environment is too important.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

YouTube slaps partial ban on 5G conspiracy videos amid arson attacks

In the past couple of weeks, multiple mobile masts in the UK have been attacked (including in arson attacks) by conspiracy theorists convinced that 5G technology is responsible for aggravating the coronavirus pandemic, following in a tradition of fantasising a correlation between new wireless standards and disease outbreaks.

It’s times like these that I’m tempted to be sarcastic, to scathe, to mock John Cusack for becoming the latest celebrity to disappoint us by jumping on the 5G idiot train. But we know already that lecturing, mocking, and patronising is no way to fix this disinformation crisis. The mundane reality is that rebuilding trust in expertise will require a range of responses, including policy, public engagement, action from platforms, and strengthened institutions. It will also take kindness, trust, patience, and bridge-building between people with very different perspectives.

Sex, coups, and the liar’s dividend: what are deepfakes doing to us?

The same could be said for handling the fallout of issues caused by the arrival of deepfakes (media manipulated using neural networks). Despite the perception that deepfakes are all about artificial looking porn videos exploiting famous women, the reality is that synthetic media – particularly audio – is already incredibly difficult to discern from reality and will become even more so. A snippet of deepfake audio spread by thousands of people on WhatsApp could be almost impossible even for fact checkers to trace back to its source and classify as legitimate or otherwise.

This flings further fuel on the existing crisis of trust, permitting digital evidence to be dismissed as fake out of hand (the liar’s dividend) with potentially terrible impacts for social justice movements and human rights advocates. The solution? Er, there isn’t really one. It’s complicated.

Fast fashion has ‘detrimental’ environment cost, scientists warn

This is a bit of a generalisation, but fast fashion appears to be a blind spot for many young people who are otherwise admirably socially and environmentally conscious. If you think child labour, slavery, plastic pollution, climate change, and draining entire seas is inexcusable, don’t buy that £15 dress from H&M. You’ll be embarrassed to be seen in it within six months anyway.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Smart toilet’s ID tactics could leave users feeling exposed

While the availability and quality of testing for Covid-19 remains by far the most important issue in tackling the pandemic, an unexpected and unusual solution (or at least a direction towards it) to the problem may be hiding… inside the toilet!

Scientists at Stanford University have suggested an answer to facial-recognition technology – ‘faecal recognition’ (the pun is mine). A small lavatory they constructed is, allegedly, capable of analysing the daily deposits of each household member and monitoring the former (as well as the latter, no doubt) for possible warning signs of different diseases - from indigestion (shouldn't be that hard) to cancers (true, not coronavirus yet, but the persistent Stanford scientists keep working hard).

The smart loo is apparently already capable "of distinguishing one rear end from another" with the help of a "camera-enabled computer system". No need to tell you where such a camera is positioned.

So how does this new invention work? Urine and faces are captured on video by the above-mentioned camera and are then processed by algorithms capable of distinguishing healthy samples from abnormal ones using such parameters as flow, rate, stream time and total volume of... you know what.

It all sounds very impressive of course. My only concern here is the publication date. Is that mistake and the article's proper publication date should have been the first of the month? I’ll be expecting clarifications with impatience, but don’t think that the smart toilet itself will be of much help.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Social media should be held to account for spread of 5G coronavirus conspiracies

People can be so naïve. And downright gullible, if I’m honest. So the UK government has said that social media companies should be held to account for the spread of conspiracy theories stating that 5G phone masts are helping to transmit Covid-19. Also, blame the nitwits who started this whole conspiracy in the first place.

At least seven mobile masts have been targeted with arson attacks in the past week, including in Melling (Merseyside), Liverpool, Belfast and Birmingham (although the Birmingham-based mast didn’t actually have 5G capability).

Julian Knight, who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, has called for members of the public to send in examples of disinformation to help with its inquiry into disinformation on Covid-19. Disinformation? More like what the heck people? It’s just a coincidence. Right?

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Sex, coups, and the liar’s dividend: what are deepfakes doing to us?

Wales announces 2021 single-use plastics ban

Microrobots could personalise drug delivery to treat tumours

Smart toilet’s ID tactics could leave users feeling exposed

Fast fashion has ‘detrimental’ environment cost, scientists warn

Can AI techniques improve the lifespan and safety of batteries?

Oceans’ ‘biological pump’ harvesting twice as much carbon as previously thought

Look! Actual engineering and technology news that isn’t coronavirus related! Of course, the virus should dominate the world's headlines at the moment, thus sufficiently commanding all of our attention such that appropriate action is taken to limit and inhibit the pandemic. Sometimes, though, we all need a break, to read something else, to be reminded of a world before the health crisis and hopefully one to look forward to after it fades. We need hope and inspiration. Allow E&T to oblige, in our own small way.

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