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Virtual museums, plummeting pollution, Jay-Z fakes and more: 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.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Falling air pollution due to lockdown effect saves 11,000 lives

To begin with, let me immodestly quote my latest ‘View from Vitalia’ blog post, which was published earlier this week: “As someone who belongs to the highest-risk category (male, over 65, with underlying heath conditions) I - probably more than most - desperately wish for some respite from the gloom. I badly want the news presenters to change the subject, even if occasionally, and tell me something hopeful and inspiring.”

Well, it looks like my desperate plea has finally been heard. What all the respected TV and radio presenters have so far failed to deliver was achieved by my colleague Jack Loughran in this news story.

At last – a piece of pandemic-generated good news! Not just good, but simply brilliant, for we are talking about 11,000 saved human lives, with all their beautiful ups and downs, disappointments and joys, victories and failures. At first glance, it may appear that it is not a huge difference whether the world’s total number of coronavirus fatalities is 228,000 (at time of writing) or 239,000 (as it would have been had those 11,000 people become victims, too). But think about it: some of those thousands of human souls might with time create masterpieces of craft, art and literature; design new cars or spacecraft, or – who knows? – even invent an effective anti-coronavirus vaccine and save many more thousands!

A bit of good news is what we all badly need at the moment. The fact that global pollution has gone down, making it easier to breathe, is another positive example. Nature is waking up after decades of polluted slumber; stretching and shaking off the dust accumulated during many years of merciless exploitation and abuse. The other day, while walking my dog in the countryside, I was able to spot a hare; a heron; a partridge; lots of pheasants foolhardy in their mating season’s self-admiration; woodpeckers, and a number of tireless nightingales, who this Spring sound louder and more confident than ever - isn’t that the whole pile of brilliant live news, charging us with hope that we’ll one day come out of this nightmare alive and relatively unscathed?

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

British Museum revamps online collection

Since the news is completely dominated by the coronavirus outbreak, it’ll be nice to escape from reality a little bit. Indeed, if you’re a fan of history and artefacts, this may be something of interest to you. The British Museum has brought forward the launch of an update to its online collection database, allowing us to explore its vast collections from the comfort of our own homes.

Virtual exhibitions and online collections/galleries aren’t a new concept - they’ve been around way before this pandemic started. During this time, though, when a lot of us are stuck indoors with nothing to do, a little history lesson won’t do us any harm.

The British Museum Collection Online now has nearly 4.5 million objects, including 1.9 million images. These include 73 Damian Hirst portraits; a previously lost watercolour painting by Rossetti, and a Bronze Age pendant. Famous artefacts in the collection include the Rosetta Stone; the Sutton Hoo treasures; the Elgin Marbles; the Benin Bronzes, and the Cyrus Cylinder.

They’ve also added the ability for viewers to zoom into objects to study them in finer detail. According to the museum, the online collection supports very fast and rich zoom and panning of images on a level of detail impossible to see with the naked eye.

This online collection may not be for everyone, but it would certainly be interesting for some. It may perhaps spark curiosity in those who aren’t necessarily fans of historical artefacts or paintings. It would also be a perfect opportunity to educate the children you are stuck at home with about certain objects within the collection that may be of interest to them.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Falling air pollution due to lockdown effect saves 11,000 lives

The coronavirus pandemic has had a number of unexpected side-effects on different facets of society and the environment and this story shows not all of them are negative. With carbon emissions also likely to fall by a record amount this year, it would be interesting to know the net death toll when all factors are taken into account: virus deaths versus lives saved due to environmental factors.

Now, I’m not trying to underplay the tragedy of the events surrounding us, but considering the cumulative impact of the virus in totality is a fascinating topic that will likely be considered by researchers for generations. The hope is that once we’ve emerged from this catastrophe, we may be able to look at things in a new light. Do we really need to be flying so much when video calls will do? Is the daily commute necessary if large parts of people’s jobs can be carried out at home?

These and many more questions will need to be considered deeply. We’re on the precipice of a humanitarian and environmental crisis that will many times eclipse the damage caused by coronavirus. There are lessons to be learnt, but I am equal measures sceptical and hopeful that some of them will be taken to heart once society gets back to normal.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Jay-Z slams AI impersonations on YouTube with copyright claims

Why would someone who’s made the sort of money Jay-Z has out of successful careers as both entertainer and businessman be worried about recordings popping up on the internet of him reading incongruous literature such as extracts from the Old Testament or speeches from Shakespeare?

I’d imagine it’s not these experiments in speech synthesis - clearly labelled as they are - that have prompted the billionaire performer to reach for his cheque book and lawyer’s contact details. More likely it’s his realisation that any innovation like this isn’t going to stop here and needs to be nipped in the bud before it has a real impact on his livelihood.

There can’t be many people who when they come across an unlikely looking video online don’t assume that it’s a manifestation of the deepfake phenomenon, which doesn’t require much skill to do - the equivalent of Photoshopping a new face onto some existing footage (usually in an unsavoury context). Yet just as our trust in what our eyes can see is being eroded, whether it’s a still or moving image, we’re probably less sceptical about what we hear. Use the same Google Tacotron software on display here to put the voice of Jay-Z or any other singer on a musical backing track and you’ve got something of tangible value – a rare, previously unheard recording which these days doesn’t have to sell physical copies to earn its keep, just stay online long enough to generate revenue from YouTube views.

Calling in the lawyers has been dismissed by many in this situation as an overreaction, typical of a wealthy entertainer wanting to clamp down on anyone else grabbing even the smallest slice of their wealth. Look at it from Jay-Z’s perspective, though, and you can understand why he’d want to prevent this sort of thing before it becomes another accepted aspect of internet culture.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Falling air pollution due to lockdown effect saves 11,000 lives

Everything was bound to get cleaner. The roads have been practically empty for the last month. Air pollution levels across Europe have dropped considerably since the lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus, resulting in 11,000 avoided deaths, according to the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

In its study, CREA found around a 40 per cent reduction in the average pollution level of nitrogen dioxide and 10 per cent less particulate matter pollution over the past 30 days. Power generation from coal has fallen by 37 per cent and oil consumption dropped by around a third. Coal and oil burning are the main sources of NO2 pollution and sources of particulate matter pollution across Europe.

A lead analyst at CREA compares this to everyone in Europe stopping smoking for a month and says the study highlights benefits for public health and quality of life that could be achieved by rapidly reducing fossil fuels in a sustained and sustainable way.

Other avoided health impacts include 1.3 million fewer days of work absence; 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children; 1,900 avoided emergency room visits due to asthma attacks, and 600 fewer pre-term births. See, there is an upside to all the rubbish. Always look on the bright side of life, as they say.

It’s said that most of these health impacts are linked to chronic air pollution exposure and will be realised over time.

Reduced activity resulting from the lockdown has also caused a two-fifths drop in emissions from the power sector across Europe, according to the climate think tank Ember. Electricity demand is down 14 per cent across the 27 EU member states and the UK over the past 30 days compared to the same period in 2019, figures show.

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