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New E&T online, digital doctors, 5G fake news 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.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

The Big Health Issue: Covid-19 apps, tests, ventilators and vaccines

We're running out of cliches to describe the strange time in which we're all now living and working, but it is extraordinary. Lockdowns around the world are going to take their toll on the global economy, and the impact of Covid-19 on engineering and technology industries is something we’ll be analysing in next month’s E&T. Our latest issue, uploaded for everyone to read, is all about what difference science, engineering and technology can make in the current crisis and what you and your colleagues are doing to help. It’s all about the priority right now - saving lives. We find out how researchers model outbreaks like Covid-19 - and why they obtain different results. We see how manufacturers are trying to produce more ventilators. We ask how on earth the health service is going to get enough kits to hit its 100,000 target for daily tests by the end of the month. And we look at the longer-term solution of developing a vaccine. Read more in my introduction or go straight to the features.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Can digital doctors save the NHS?

In this article, Martin Courtney explores the role of AI in the healthcare sector and the idea that a virtual doctor might be in our midst but is still a long way off. With everything that’s going on right now, it does make you wonder about the ways in which technology could help tackle this crisis and then address everyday healthcare issues in the years to come. In this case we’re looking at artificial intelligence and the ways in which it has the potential to be at the forefront of the sector.

By no means does this imply that AI will take over from doctors and nurses – it’s more likely it will assist those in the field in order to increase productivity and perhaps even reliability when it comes to diagnosing certain illnesses.

According to Mark Davie, who is chief medical officer with IBM’s Watson Health Data and Analytics business in Europe, AI can empower patients to take a more active involvement in their care, using it to bring different data sources together to provide tools and apps that enable them to get a much more accurate, predictive picture of their lifestyle and condition.

Certainly with Covid-19, AI may be key – helping identify a successful vaccine, assisting doctors and nurses in caring for patients affected by the virus, and, as shown in many news stories you’ve probably seen, helping those in self-isolation keep in contact with their loved ones during this tough time.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Drone deliveries up to ten times less energy efficient than vans

This is one of those stories that you think was inspired by somebody with a vested interest. Someone with a large fleet of delivery vans for example. It appears not, however – it's bona fide university research.

It makes an interesting point and adds another dimension to the argument for and against delivery drones. Another aspect to this debate is relevant to our current circumstances and is one which we may look further into at E&T in the near future. It is the issue of the irritating whine drones make.

In many ways you could argue that our isolated lives were playing into the hands of the drone-delivery industry. Booming online shopping, non-contact – it’s perfect. And I am all for advances in technology.

However, I sat in my garden yesterday evening. In normal times, this activity (or inactivity) would have the background noise of around 800 planes, distributed over the course of a day, that fly over us on their way to Gatwick – 30 miles distant, so they aren’t exactly brushing the rooftops, but close enough to be heard.

Today, I noticed there are only three flights (going to those international hot spots of Dublin, Budapest and Minsk), so the world is a quieter place. The hum from the distant road made up of only a few key workers and the aforementioned burgeoning fleet of delivery drivers. Admittedly, lawnmowers are being put to greater use than normal.

The bottom line is, it’s quiet. The sounds of nature are winning through. It’s a lovely thing. The thought of an incessant whine of a drone for every pair of shoes bought on a whim, is not appealing. It could turn into the new background noise and that’s a noise I could do without.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

5G coronavirus conspiracy theories rife in UK

At moments of global natural disaster, confusion and indecision reign supreme. It’s understandable, however, that in the midst of a raging pandemic, people are hoping for a magic cure – a hope, mercilessly exploited by crooks, charlatans and ignoramuses of all sorts.

I’m still reeling from hearing President Trump musing aloud at yesterday’s White House press conference about the possible healing effects of injecting coronavirus sufferers with disinfectant. Browsing the Internet this morning, I came across several other unsubstantiated miracle cure claims, from wrapping infected patients in warm wet blankets to making them smoke cigarettes or wear nicotine patches, for nicotine, allegedly, has a capacity to destroy the evasive virus.

Then there are conspiracy theories, the most persistent of which (as well as the most ridiculous) is this 5G one. By now, we’ve all heard the bizarre allegations to the effect that the current pandemic was deliberately started by 1. Russians. 2. Arabs, 3. Jews. 4. Chinese 5. North Koreans. 6. the CIA. And so on… This phenomenon, it has to be said, is far from new. In the brilliant book ‘Pandemic 2018’, which I’m currently reading, Catharine Arnold lists some of the widespread early 20th century pseudo-scientific theories about the true origins of Spanish flu (which had nothing to do with Spain, but was so named after the popular cartoon symbol of the pandemic depicting the disease as a grim-reaper-like ‘Spanish Lady’): “While some still argue that Spanish flu originated in the battlefields of France as a mutation from animal flu, others claimed that Spanish flu was not influenza at all but a strain of bubonic plague from China which travelled to the United States and Europe with the Chinese labourers supporting the Allied armies.”

She also points out the highly incredible, yet much-debated, claims that Spanish flu was man-made and distributed by German U-boats along America’s Eastern seaboard, or even circulated in Bayer aspirin packets. And of course numerous religious communities saw it as some kind of divine punishment for humanity’s sinful nature (I’ve heard lots of similar nonsense about Covid-19 recently).

All of this demonstrates very clearly that despite the huge technological progress humankind has made during almost 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically it hasn’t matured at all (and has probably even regressed a little) – a very sad conclusion that doesn’t bode well for the future.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

‘There’s a whole world of ignorance out there’: Sir Tim Smit, CEO, Eden Project

At a time of rampant misinformation, especially about the coronavirus, the statement in this headline has never seemed more relevant. As it turns out, Sir Tim Smit isn’t explicitly talking about the pandemic, but about the wider trend for people to hold rigid beliefs about a topic they haven't properly thought through in any meaningful depth. This is definitely a disturbing reality in 2020, when divisive soundbite politics and the shallow pool of social media discussion turn everything into a black and white argument. Grey areas are too confusing and require a degree of nuanced appreciation of all facets of a situation that too many people just don't have the time, inclination or mental capacity to consider. God forbid someone might actually change your mind.

There's a lot more in this interview with the CEO of the Eden Project, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, and the man at the heart of it wears his on his sleeve throughout as he recounts the technological achievement of simulating rainforest and Mediterranean climates in a clay pit in rural Cornwall and about where he - and the rest of the planet - go from here.

How to live when nobody dies

Hopefully, I'm going to live to be at least 100 years old. And, equally hopefully, I'll still be in an acceptable state of mental and physical health at that time. I'm sure some bits of me will be operating at 50 per cent of their original capacity and performance by then, or will have stopped working entirely and been replaced, like swapping out the cam belt in a car after 70,000 miles, but I hope to still be roadworthy (to keep the automotive metaphor humming along). One careful owner from new and all that. A vintage classic.

A big part of achieving that ton-up goal is down to me, as it should be, and how closely and successfully I can adhere to the principles of clean living (success rate thus far: fair to middling). There is also an expectation of greater longevity for each successive generation, as this enjoyable article lays out. Today, the average baby born in the UK will live long enough to see the beginning of the 22nd century (a paltry 80 years from now). While fine and dandy for each life-loving individual, this extended lifespan is going cause serious issues in society for a world already overcrowded and under-resourced. It's a conundrum with no easy answer: how could you possibly tell an octogenarian that their time on this planet is up, they've had a good run and now it's time to move on? Soylent Green, anyone? How will we all learn to live when nobody dies? We're going to find out in the coming decades.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Wind turbine noise shown to affect people’s sleep

Like my colleague Tim Fryer, who writes further up this page, I live on a fairly busy flight path – in my case, the one over the northern edge of the Hertfordshire countryside used by aircraft coming and going from ‘London’ Luton Airport in neighbouring Bedfordshire. Just as Tim has, I’ve been enjoying the absence of all the noise that I've simply grown used to over the years. Being locked down in a cul de sac that’s almost surrounded by farmland, the only significant sounds at the moment are from the occasional delivery driver arriving and knocking before reversing hastily back to the main road; families walking past on their daily constitutional, and the weekly applause for carers on a Thursday evening.

It might be just as much to do with lifestyle, with a stricter daily routine and more regular exercise, but I feel like my sleep patterns are benefitting as well. It’s not like aircraft were making the windows rattle like they did when I lived directly under the point where Concorde flights reached their point of maximum acceleration in the 1980s, just that I suspect I’m not getting the usual periodic subliminal burst of sound piercing my slumber during the night without actually waking me up.

I’d imagine someone’s already done research about sensitivity to flight noise that’s similar to this fascinating work in Sweden. Airport expansion and construction of wind turbines are two situations where opponents will typically draw on any scientific date they can to add to support their argument. Unsurprisingly, it found that exposing participants to simulated turbine noise during the night in a controlled environment had a detrimental impact on how well they felt they’d slept. Electrodes attached to their head and chest that recorded brain activity, eye movement, heart rate and other factors showed a small but statistically significant reduction in rapid eye movement or ‘dream’ phases of sleep.

Statistically significant it might have been, but the project falls into the ‘further research is necessary’ category. No doubt it’ll be produced by groups campaigning against expansion of renewables in their area anyway, and who can blame them? I’ve only ever been in the vicinity of a turbine while it was operating for a short period of time, but I wouldn’t want to be exposed to the sound on a permanent basis. Aircraft flying overhead at a reasonably high altitude I can get used to and tolerate – at least it’s never prompted me to think about moving house. Anything louder than that I’m not so sure, regardless of the benefits to the environment.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Reading all the news that came in this week felt overwhelming. To cope with it in a creative way, I created some Haiku poems from news pieces. A traditional Japanese form of poetry, a haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, Haiku emphasises simplicity, intensity and directness of expression. It can work for hard news, too. In an attempt to find out to what extent technology can help create poetry, I enlisted the support of several online Haiku online generators. Although frankly assembled by chance, some of the results are surprisingly close to the truth and reality. Enjoy!

Swiss refuse to back down on 5G radiation standards, hampering rollout

Radiation has,

How much while of it certain?

The bare radiation.

Contact tracing app to be accepted by public in ‘exceptional crisis’, says ministers

MPs UK,

How much and of it about?

The peak is that.

Dedicated eBay portal enables NHS to order crucial PPE items

The new

protective his commerce

NHS.

Zoom app update aims to counter criticism of its privacy practices

Don't video, of

made, in,

Must practices.

MPs trial e-voting as Parliament returns in ‘hybrid’ form

Don't be gathering,

place, towards,

Must do.

YouTube bans content that contradicts WHO’s Covid-19 advice

Don't coronavirus, contradicts

the, which,

Must run.

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