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Tracing app challenge, Innovation Awards and more: best of the week’s news

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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

Legal challenge launched against ‘test and trace’ over data privacy concerns

In the early days of the pandemic, South Korea had the worst outbreak outside China of Covid-19. The government seized data and immediately put together and implemented a test-and-trace system. This country of 51 million people has recorded 273 deaths to date, with only a couple in the last five days.

The UK has a population of nearly 67 million – 31 per cent more than South Korea – and has a recorded a death toll of 40,000 (although there are another 20,000 over the seasonal average that are unaccounted for) and this is around 14,600 per cent more than South Korea. These are big numbers and, as is often said, every single one is a tragedy in its own right. Which is why our government needs to stop blundering about and do something.

The Open Rights Group (ORG) does good things – we are a better country because of them. The pandemic has also revealed that there is a plethora of criminal opportunists who have no morals and regard Covid-19 as an opportunity to pray on a vulnerable society – and the country is a worse and more cautious place because of them.

However, this isn’t the time to be to-ing and fro-ing about how the data is obtained; we just need to have trust that the government will use it wisely and carefully – a leap of faith given this administration’s relationship with the truth.

There’s a choice here: we could dither, argue about data protection, continue with an inadequate testing regime and let more people die. Or we could do it properly, right now, and save lives.

As a footnote, a quick Google search didn’t reveal any major data breaches related to the South Korean held data, although I may be wrong about this. This could be a sign that its government was very diligent about its use or could be that the threats imagined by the ORG are not as great as it believes.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

E&T Innovation Awards reveal new categories relating to the fight against Covid-19

We've revealed the new categories in this year's Innovation Awards, relaunched under the E&T banner. The E&T Innovation Awards 2020 will be looking to reward a whole range of brilliant talent and ideas, but we hope to get exciting entries from people and projects working on the pandemic and its side-effects. Let's show engineers can play their part, whether it's for life and death in the 'Protecting Society and Saving Lives' category or making difficult times a little bit easier in the 'Tech for Good' category. We also have new categories to recognise everything from today's great leaders to tomorrow's tech giants. The awards are free to enter now, so check them out and plan your entries. I hope to see you at the Awards in November.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

View from Vitalia: Corona wines versus Coronavirus

Describing my first trip out, after months of strict self-isolation, to a neighbouring Hertfordshire town in my latest blog post, I forgot to mention that I was surprised to see a stall distributing free copies of the Bible in its High Street. It seemed like a nice and charitable gesture in these troublesome and uncertain times, when both best and worst sides of human nature inevitably come to the surface. It made me recall my last pre-lockdown trip to London, when I was genuinely shocked by the exorbitant prices some chemists and street-stall vendors charged for face masks and hand gels.

Throughout the lockdown, however, I kept observing a number of encouraging signs and one of them was the sheer amount of pandemic-related techno freebies, offered by different companies. The best example as far as I’m concerned is the Zoom video-conferencing platform. It’s hard to imagine how we would have coped with the worst of the lockdown without that and similar video-call services.

Contacts at Ordnance Survey (OS), whom I befriended while researching a feature on the 225th anniversary of that unique British company several years ago, have informed me of another charitable techno initiative of theirs. Its experts have formed an emergency response team to help the NHS, emergency services and local authorities deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, when it’s extremely important for the latter to be aware of the precise location of such key objects as supermarkets with large car parks; screening and testing locations; care homes, and ‘the next nearest’ pharmacists in an area.

OS has also set up a special Covid-19 phone hotline for emergency planners and its dedicated Mapping for Emergencies team (last used during the 2019 floods) has been supporting the local authorities’ response to the pandemic.

On top of that, OS was (and still is, despite the fact that some schools have now reopened) helping children who had to study at home during the lockdown by offering its famous Digimaps for free until the end of July. It means that teachers, parents and students can freely access the online geospatial mapping service as well as the usual teaching resources, linked to the national curriculums of England, Scotland and Wales.

Well done, Ordnance Survey!

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Snap slap for Trump chat

First it was Twitter. Now Snap has turned on US President Donald Trump. His inflammatory hate speech is finally being called out for the appalling, aggressive, divisive crap that it is. Why on earth Trump thinks it's reasonable or acceptable - let alone mature and responsible - to behave the way he does online is beyond me and with US cities burning for days on end now apparently vast swathes of the US population feel the same.

With two major social platforms standing up to Trump, that leaves one significant player very conspicuously taking a much more hands-off approach to dialling down his crazy. Facebook - and more specifically its CEO Mark Zuckerberg - is trying to play the 'free speech' card, arguing that Trump should be allowed to say and write whatever he wants and Facebook will leave it entirely alone, as it's in the public interest for people to read his poisonous nonsense complete and unabridged.

What this amounts to, as far as Facebook is concerned, is doing absolutely nothing - a lily-livered, cowardly position that has found few supporters inside Facebook. Perhaps there was more to those cosy White House dinners between Trump and Zuckerberg than it seemed.

View from India: Biodiversity, as seen from an Indian perspective

Every country has a responsibility to protect its native fauna and flora from harm and extinction, especially when some of the native examples are as globally iconic as, say, the tiger. During these months of lockdown, a lot of people have remarked on the enduring and healing powers of the natural world around us. It's not only our moral duty but also in our own best interests to preserve Earth's biodiversity, even if it does take a global pandemic for many of us to realise this. It's interesting to read what another country is up to in achieving the goal of protecting its natural world, as described in this latest View From India instalment.

Is it time to make touchscreens contactless?

The coronavirus pandemic has called a lot of familiar, accepted behaviours into question. The idea of stroking the same piece of glass that thousands of strangers before you have already stroked with their greasy fingers in, say, a fast-food restaurant to place an order does now seem unusually cavalier, vis-a-vis the spreading of germs. Voice-control assistants are already in our smartphones, so it seems like an obvious step now to move to incorporate this technology more widely into the controls for kiosks, vending machines and the like.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

South Korea seeks arrest of Samsung’s de facto boss

This is a wild drama involving a President being ousted and landed in jail, a cult leader’s daughter who wielded Rasputin-like influence over her, and scheming at Samsung to secure the succession of Lee Jae-yong (grandson of Samsung’s founder and son of its current chairman, who is incapacitated). The fallout is continuing four years later, with South Korean prosecutors seeking a fresh arrest warrant for Lee. Lee is now facing the real possibility of a full jail sentence. I’m manifesting a lavish miniseries directed by Bong Joon-ho.

Facebook employees protest company inaction against Trump’s comments

Good for you, Facebook employees.

Social media platforms fail to act on Covid misinformation

This is damning. This small study found that more than 90 per cent of coronavirus misinformation – including dangerous conspiracy theories – were not acted on in any way by Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, even after being flagged as misinformation.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Social media platforms fail to act on Covid misinformation

Authors of a report published this week which found few pieces of misinformation on Covid-19 are being removed from social media were discouraged by the fragmented action being taken by online platforms. What they found particularly irksome is that "there often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to which pieces are removed.”

The debate is an old one. To my mind there are two possible futures. One is that global governments decide to create an organisation, an ombudsman with power, that holds social media companies globally (or a least in a union of countries) accountable for the stuff they make people read. That could be in the form of a ruling system where keeping misinformation on major social media platforms longer than a few days would lead to hefty fines. Or, much more likely I think, there is a future in which social media companies dispose all and every responsibility to their users, who then personally have to account for consequences if they contribute 'bad stuff’, whatever that is. Who defines the 'bad stuff' is another issue.

It’s clear that any attempt to 'clean up the internet' is futile, because anyone can say anything and the volume of data is spiralling. What used to be possible anonymously may soon only be possible if you attach your real vetted identity to your social media account. It’s possible that more social media companies will demand accountability from their users. When I first joined Facebook, my account did not carry my real name or real information. "Why should I?", I thought. These platforms increasingly want you to be you, not an acronym or an avatar you can hide behind in case you write something that is inflammatory. Now, Facebook and Twitter want your real phone number, your name and remind you when entering your details that they must be correct.

I think we will increasingly see social media companies making their users responsible for the things they say if they fail to remove misinformation and receive all the blame for it. It would be the most sensible thing for them to do. It’s not so great for a free and anonymous internet. Whether that’s good or bad, you have to decide for yourself.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Scientists engineer human cells with squid-like transparency

Does this mean we’ll be able to camouflage ourselves? That would be fun. In appropriate, legal circumstances of course.

Researchers in the US have engineered human cells to have similar transparent abilities to those found in deep-sea creatures, such as squids and octopuses, which can switch on a ‘camouflage mode’ to hide from predatory fish. Both animals are covered in sacs of a red pigment, called chromatophores, which they can expand or contract at will. Under normal ambient light, the sacs are shrivelled and the animals are largely transparent.

Squid and octopuses do this by using specialised tissues in their bodies to manipulate the transmission and reflection of light. Drawing inspiration from this ability, scientists at the University of California, Irvine have endowed mammalian cells with tunable transparency and light-scattering characteristics.

“For millennia, people have been fascinated by transparency and invisibility, which have inspired philosophical speculation, works of science fiction, and much academic research,” said Atrouli Chatterjee, a UCI doctoral student in chemical & biomolecular engineering. “Our project – which is decidedly in the realm of science – centres on designing and engineering cellular systems and tissues with controllable properties for transmitting, reflecting and absorbing light.”

For the study, the researchers drew inspiration from the way female Doryteuthis opalescens squid can evade predators by dynamically switching a stripe on their mantle from nearly transparent to opaque white. They then borrowed some of the intercellular protein-based particles involved in this biological cloaking technique and found a way to introduce them into human cells to test whether the light-scattering powers are transferable to other animals.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Weight sensors to keep trains at ‘safe’ capacity

This new normal is going to take a bit of getting used to and sometimes the technology expected to help us come to terms with it is going to be a double-edged sword.

Look back at chat on social media over the past couple of years for commuter-belt towns around London and you’ll find a significant amount devoted to real-time complaints about rail services being packed to overflowing. The good news is that this probably won’t happen in a post-Covid-19 world, because clever systems like this combination of sensors and comms networks being installed on Thameslink trains will help operators track the flow of passengers on and off trains, monitoring when numbers make social distancing impossible.

It’s Big Data in action, but how’s it going to help keep the population healthy, never mind encourage more of us to use public transport? There’s no suggestion that trains simply won’t stop to pick up if they’re approaching capacity; it’s purely a way – we’re promised – of planning future timetables more effectively.

Well, there’s been plenty of evidence accumulated in recent years of which services get overcrowded and when, without the benefit of fancy sensors and modelling software, but that hasn’t led to more or longer trains being laid on at peak times. Are we supposed to believe that twice as many trains will run in the rush hour, carrying half as many socially distanced passengers as usual? They would at least all have somewhere to sit.

This is going to operate on one of my local routes and after months of hardly using a car, I’m seriously thinking about how I could carry on when I need to commute to an office again, possibly by using public transport. My fear - and the main reason I would wait and see before taking the plunge - is a suspicion that a ‘computer says no’ element will enter the equation as trains zoom past packed platforms without stopping because an algorithm has warned they’re close to a risky level of occupancy.

Do I take the chance of waiting - and waiting - in the hope that a train that’s empty enough will eventually come along? Or do I just get in the car alone for a predictable, reliable drive? I think you know the answer to that.

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