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A worker at the Lithuanian mint holds a silver coin, produced to be exchanged for sets of digital currency released by Lithuanian central bank in Vilnius, Lithuania June 1, 2020. Lithuania is about to issue the first central bank-produced digital coin in the euro zone, part of a project to trial state-backed digital currencies and blockchain technology in everyday use.
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Digital currency, Amazon strike, E&T Awards and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Andrius Sytas | Reuters

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.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Lithuanian central bank to issue digital coins

In a sort-of trial for state-backed digital currencies, the Lithuanian central bank will next week issue 24,000 digital ‘LBCOINs’. Each will come with a portrait of one the 20 men who signed the country’s declaration of independence. The bank is discouraging their use for purchases and instead intends that they are used for trading; users who manage to collect a certain set of coins will be able to trade them in for a commemorative real-world coin. Essentially, these are expensive digital Pokémon cards. And speaking of Pokémon…

Pokémon Go creator and theatre company partner on mixed-reality projects

Details on these projects are sparse, but there is real reason to be excited. Punchdrunk is a British theatre company renowned for pioneering intense, immersive productions in which audience members roam throughout a performance space, leading each to have a unique experience. Productions such as Sleep No More are incomparable, but the closest analogy would be falling into a video game. How appropriate then, that Punchdrunk will be working with Pokémon Go developer Niantic on mixed-reality projects.

While I’d die happy having experienced a Pokémon-themed immersive theatre production from Punchdrunk – complete with elaborate Pokémon puppets and luscious, nostalgic settings – I’ll need to wait for its collaboration with Nintendo for that. Instead, we may expect Punchdrunk-infused AR games, theatrical productions with AR elements and events with physical and digital characters in real-world spaces.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Amazon workers strike in Germany over Covid-19 handling concerns

To be honest, I was hoping there would be an Amazon-related story in our online news this week and there it was! The reason for that hope was an extraordinary – and also Amazon-related – incident that happened to me last weekend and which I was desperate to share with E&T readers.

To give you some background info, as a devoted bibliophile I’ve been ordering books from Amazon for over 15 years and have to admit that they’ve never let me down. They always deliver on time, make returns easy and hassle-free and are always there to help if there’s a problem. While agreeing that they should treat their warehouse staff better, I have lots of praise and admiration for Jeff Bezos’s retail giant. Or rather I had, until last Saturday.

To cut a long story short, some time ago I ordered from Amazon a book called ‘Emptiness: A Practical Guide for Meditators’ by Guy Armstrong. As someone who has been taking a keen interest in Buddhism for a number of years, I was looking forward to learning more about one of the cornerstones of Buddhist philosophy which is ‘emptiness’ or sunyata in Sanskrit ( I won’t be drawn into explaining what exactly it signifies: that would take a 300-or-so-page-book, like the one I ordered).

The parcel was to be delivered last Saturday and it was. I mean the parcel. A sealed, yet entirely empty envelope. The book (or anything else) wasn’t there!

With the pandemic still raging, Amazon (and other) couriers normally drop your order at the door and, having pressed the buzzer, run back to their vans to avoid contact. The courier who delivered ‘Emptiness’ did the same. Yet I managed to catch up with him in the street as he was about to drive away. “Hmm, that’s strange,” he mumbled when I showed him the empty envelope, “but there’s nothing I can do. I already marked it as ‘product delivered’.” He then advised me to contact Amazon customer service and sped off.

I followed his advice and another parcel – this time with the book in it – was duly delivered the following day, no questions asked.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking that receiving an empty envelope after ordering a book on ‘emptiness’ had a deeper meaning than just a simple boo-boo of an overexploited warehouse worker (as I said, it had never happened before). Was that rather that same worker’s joke - and a successful one, I have to say? Or, as a friend to whom I told this story commented, somebody’s strong karma was at fault?

I’ll probably never know the answer.

The story doesn’t end there. My next Amazon order – ‘An Essay on the Not-Self, Nothingness and Being of Consciousness: A Primer on Existential Buddhism’ by Dr Armando S Garcia - was delivered to me twice, on consecutive days, last week!

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Awards that don’t lose their shine

I’m picking up on this story not because I’m sufficiently narcissistic to have to push my own articles (not that I’m above that!), but just to highlight the opportunity. The bottom line is I am huge fan of these awards and with the backing of the IET and excellent judging panels, being shortlisted or chosen as one of the winners is a huge honour. With a dual role of external promotion and internal appreciation, previous winners have got a lot of mileage from these awards.

The deadline was to be today, but these are strange times, sometimes slowing down internal communication and co-ordination, and if you’ve missed this deadline there may still be an opportunity if you get your entry started (but not necessarily completed) immediately. Keep an eye on the E&T website for details.

Environmental campaigners urge Johnson to go further with ‘green’ recovery plan

The trouble with Boris Johnson is that you want to believe him. When he announces green recoveries and the like you think, yes, I’ll buy into that. And while I completely get why environmental groups would jump all over this for not being green enough, I don’t think they need to concern themselves too greatly, if any such plan is just more Johnson bluster. He doesn’t really ‘get things done’ – the prime example, as we will see in six months’ time, is that Brexit is far from done. I think the public are coming around to the reality that charisma alone doesn’t get things done.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

UK government accelerates e-scooter trials

The UK is behind the curve in e-scooter rentals compared to other countries such as the US, where many cities have found their streets littered with user-abused e-scooters for easy hire, often picked up by people both inexperienced and inebriated, leading to inevitable hospitalisation and/or arrest. A waste of both medical and police time. The problems have become so severe - A&E admissions routinely spiking on Friday and Saturday nights because of drunken e-scooter-related injuries, for example - that many US cities which initially led the wave to introduce e-scooters to their streets are now rolling back the free-wheeling legislation that unleashed this fresh urban hell.

Despite this wealth of battered and bruised empirical evidence, the UK is now poised to introduce e-scooter trials to its own streets - although, much to the chagrin of every adult that foolishly purchased an e-scooter despite the much-publicised ban on their use on public roads, the use of personal e-scooters will remain illegal. The Government's line here is that it wants to regulate e-scooter quality and monitor e-scooters' potential green credentials in helping to reduce emissions and improving air pollution, as well as any positive effects they may have on easing traffic congestion. The fact that the Government can also trouser a tidy sum for itself by taxing the e-scooter rental firms, whereas it can't make money quite so easily directly from personal e-scooter owners, was, I'm sure, immaterial in guiding its decision.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Rapid innovation in clean energy technology needed to meet 2050 carbon goals

The US gambles with high stakes if it decides to elect Donald Trump for another four years in office. Nowhere is this clearer than with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050.

Under Trump, the US is set to leave the Paris accord this year. His administration has ended many existing environmental protections. Keeping Trump in the White House could jeopardise the last opportunity to steer away from unmanageable global disaster. US carbon dioxide emissions rose steeply again in 2018. Its global cumulative share among 234 nations - 10.8 per cent in 2008 - remained almost unchanged at 10 per cent in 2017.

If Joe Biden makes it into the White House, there’s a good chance he might turn things around. He has already expressed a solid commitment to pass legislation to bind America to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

There’s also the element of carbon-heavy industries and a lack of innovation. The IEA this month stated that cutting carbon emissions requires "the use of other technologies". 

A large proportion of emissions originate from sectors where those options are limited. These include the shipping, trucks and aviation sector as well as heavy industries like steel (which accounts for a quarter of emissions from global industry), cement (largely emitted in China) and chemicals (in the US mostly from petrochemicals and hydrogen production). The US undoubtedly has a significant responsibility. 

Decarbonising these sectors will demand the development of new technologies not yet in use. Will Biden be the right guy to help this cause? Under Barack Obama, the US was committed to cutting US emissions to at least 26 per cent of 2005 levels by 2025. Biden, who was vice-president under Obama, might reinstate the goal - but he has to hurry.

There’s a good chance that Biden would make more funds available for developing these new technologies - more than Trump has, that is. It’s not a high bar. 2019 saw an increase in public spending on energy R&D of 7 per cent in the US, three percentage points behind China. Biden can even make a point on the positive returns for taxpayers’ funds as clean energy innovation generates good value for money.

The IEA reviewed six US public clean energy R&D programmes and found a return on investment of 27 per cent since 1975, a benefit-to-cost ratio of 33:1. Many of the clean energy technologies available today need more work to bring down costs and accelerate deployment. Despite reaching his 80th birthday within the next legislative presidential period, that’s where Biden might be able to hit a note among young concerned US voters who worry about their country's contribution to global warming. 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Cellular data could be used to implement localised Covid-19 lockdowns

As of this sunny Friday afternoon, it looks like the concept of ‘Super Saturday’ - when England’s pubs and restaurants will start to tentatively emerge from lockdown - is polarising the public. For every person who tells me they’re looking forward to getting out and giving their local a much-needed boost by enjoying a socially distanced pint or two, there’s another person warning of carnage on the streets of our towns who’s planning to stay indoors until the excitement blows over.

It’s tempting to suspect that whether you see reports of chaos on the streets or sensible, good-natured socialising depends very much on the political persuasion of your chosen newspaper. In reality, I believe that the restrictions on drinking combined with today’s prices will be enough to dampen down most of the excitement. It’s not as if large groups of young people haven’t been gathering to socialise and enjoy food and drink for the past couple of months, anyway.

We do need to keep our fingers crossed that relaxing the guidelines we’ve lived under recently doesn’t lead to a second wave of Covid-19, as it has in other countries. Key to that will be effective tracking techniques like the one proposed by researchers at Colorado State University, which isn’t as sophisticated as some of those that have been proposed but works on the simple principle that areas of high mobile phone traffic will be the same ones where transmission of the virus is most likely.

Simply identifying places where population density is high and people are moving around a lot, they say, provides an initial warning of places that are at risk of localised outbreaks before they happen.

The description of mobiles as being like ‘always-on human trackers’ will evoke the same fears about privacy that tailor-made virus-tracking apps have. Nevertheless, this approach may prove just as effective in the long-term by helping local authorities respond quickly and decisively where risk increases unexpectedly.

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