Female students working on engineering project

Covid gender gap, AI crime fears, Virgin jet 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

Coronavirus pandemic widens gender gap in engineering career choices

Someone once described the Second World War as having losers (the Axis powers), winners (the Americans) and heroes (the British). The pandemic will be the same. Covid-19 will eventually be defeated and the heroes in this tragic saga will be our healthcare workers. When we look back, the winners - the ones who ultimately won the war - will be the engineers, scientists and technologists. The cure, the vaccines, the medical equipment, the drug manufacturing – it all comes from this broad band of talent.

Is this not a good time, then, to extol our own virtues when it comes to inspiring kids, particularly - as this report concludes - girls and “certain ethnic minorities”?

First, we can’t begrudge the healthcare sector for capturing the imagination of the young: they have been inspiring and increasingly it is those values of purpose and integrity that seem to be what motivates children these days. That doesn’t mean that the positive contribution of the STEM sector has gone under their radar. If 44 per cent of boys and 24 per cent of girls still fancy a life in engineering and 65 per cent of boys and 37 per cent of girls a life in technology, that surely is good!

Rather than looking at the gap between the genders of these children, which incidentally is nowhere near as large as the gender gap in industry, should we not be building on the fact that so many young people are interested in joining our sector? If a quarter of all girls did go into engineering and a third into technology, along with half of our boys, then our skills crisis would soon go away.

It seems that what could be a positive message in this report is needlessly being turned into a negative one. Sure, there are real issues that have to be resolved around female opportunities and pay equality, but let’s take this opportunity to encourage girls, boys and everyone from every ethnic background to join the engineering and technology sector and not let that message become diluted by political correctness.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Deepfake deception ranked as most concerning AI crime

This story sent me down a bit of an internet rabbit hole by getting me wondering what sort of technology-assisted crime the general public are most worried about, given the thing topping the list of AI experts’ concerns is the threat of deepfakes. Their reasoning is that the rapid viral spread of a convincing video that appears to show a celebrity or politician saying or doing something, but which is in fact a clever simulacrum, can have massive repercussions.

That’s not likely to be something worrying most members of the general public right now, although anyone who ends up the victim of a much more sophisticated version of having their features Photoshopped onto an inappropriate image will probably change their mind pretty quickly. What’s interesting is the extent to which we’re apparently more fearful of abstract crime than of experiencing actual physical harm.

OK, I didn’t check how scientific the first studies that a quick Google search turns up are and most of them are based on research carried out in the US. They are at least consistent, though, and like this one from statistica.com tend to show the list of ‘crimes Americans worry about most’ topped overwhelmingly by having personal or financial information stolen by computer hackers or being the victim of identity theft. Experiencing a burglary, mugging or your child being harmed are way behind.

Of course, it’s well established that we disproportionately fear the things over which we have least control. Being a victim of terrorism is in the top ten worries for Americans despite this being a remote possibility based on statistics. Yet for cyber crime, the sense of vulnerability is much more a perception than a reality. Nearly three-quarters of those polled by Statistica were worried about being hacked – making it the most common fear – yet how many of them take the measures that are continually drummed into them about keeping information secure, regularly changing passwords etc?

Probably best not to draw an already neurotic public’s attention to the litany of emerging concerns that emerged from the two-day summit reported in this story. Never mind deepfakes or rogue military robots, the prospect of autonomous robots slipping into your home in the middle of the night and creeping around is enough to give anyone nightmares.

Then again, how many of us are going to read about that and go straight to the back door to nail up the cat flap?

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Virgin Galactic unveils supersonic jet for commercial flights

This story set me thinking. I live in the UK and have family in Australia, so the prospect of faster flight looks very attractive, but we all know that anything which encourages more people to make more journeys (beyond the limits of walking or cycling) is likely to be bad for the environment. It’s already well known that the distance people will travel to work is determined more by journey time than actual miles, so road and rail improvements tend to widen the commuter belt. Getting back to aviation, though, I realised as I read further into this story that if this aircraft is ever built - and it’s still at a very early stage of design - it will carry so few passengers that the cost will be a sufficient disincentive for most of us.

AI bias towards ‘whiteness’ risks racial inequality, study finds

The trouble with biases is that we all have them and we don’t usually recognise them until they’re pointed out or until we look back over time. That means it’s not really surprising that people design all sorts of systems without realising their limitations until reports like this come along - which shows why such reports are valuable. A few months ago I picked up a copy of the history book my school used when I sat my 'O-levels' in the 1970s - and I was truly horrified by its assumptions of British superiority, which we didn’t even notice at the time. It makes me wonder what ideas are generally accepted today that will seem outrageous in decades to come.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Coronavirus pandemic widens gender gap in engineering career choices

A new research paper found people in lockdown work longer days and participate in more meetings. Workers say they spend nearly an hour longer on email than they did before the crisis. I can attest to those findings. I write more emails because I talk to fewer people. Whether adding more time to the days makes me more productive remains unclear. It’s something the researchers couldn’t answer, either.

For my own work, productivity generally fluctuates. Mornings are fairly focused and well structured. Late afternoons are, too. Early afternoons, after lunch, less so. The flexibility of lockdown makes it possible to remodel your day in a way that works best for you. That should be the lesson to walk away with. I’m not sure we’re making enough use of this new liberty.

Despite covering thousands of companies and analysing anonymised emails of three million people spread across 16 cities (in the US, Middle East and Europe) that were locked down, the research also received some criticism. Critics say it remains merely a snapshot. Also, in regards to finding that the time of meetings shortened, it remains unclear how long meetings actually lasted. Researchers only counted how long meetings were planned for.

Some say working from home in lockdown also takes a heavy toll on women’s careers. I agree. The pandemic may help to further expose the unequal gender roles that our male-dominated society dictates.

Women affected by lockdown who work full-time or part-time have even more on their hands. With schools closed, women spend more time on child education and during lockdown took on a larger share. There are more dishes to clean and more cooking, with everyone now at home. Women, where the male partner is unwilling, unable or not used to doing their fair share of housework, bear the brunt. It's not new, but the pandemic is highlighting this again.

It leaves these women exposed to the pressure of several jobs. It is known that men generally perform less housework than women. One might ask why they should start now, when they have to work an hour longer anyway?

It's these longstanding and harmful gender roles that are helping to lay bare problems that women have suffered for centuries. Male partners, who before the lockdown disappeared to their cushy offices, seeing little of the housework, can’t hide any more. Lunch at home may remind them that someone has to do the job. If this strikes our older readers as irksome, so be it. Dismantling these ancient structures is long overdue.

There’s a progressive side to the argument, of course. Men who see their female partners having to do more, mainly unpaid work might now be compelled to take action and do their fair share. It could be a moment of revelation. Those open-minded men among you, who see their female partners struggle with more care and housework - perhaps holding down a separate lockdown job on the side, educating kids and/or care for an elderly relative - may finally see how unfair homework is.

Those men might see – at first-hand, for the first time - that a woman’s world is tough, often and I dare say ‘usually' tougher than that for men.

This magazine is mainly read by men. So, I do appreciate the point hitting the right audience. I hope the pandemic moves more housework and child and elderly care to the men’s world. My advice to men with a female partner burdened by oppressive gender roles: instead of working an hour longer in lockdown, force yourself to spend that extra hour doing all the work women already do. It’s not about 'helping' in the house. It’s about doing your fair share of work. It’s long overdue.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Government spent £252m on 50 million face masks ‘not fit for purpose’

As if wasting a gargantuan amount of public money in the kind of impulse panic buying more akin to frenzied bargain-hunting shoppers on the first day of a Primark sale isn't bad enough, the worm in this particular rotten apple is that the businessman, Andrew Mills, who persuaded the UK Government to involve Ayanda Capital in his deal with a Chinese supplier for 50 million masks is not only a government adviser to the UK Board of Trade but is also, wait for it, a senior board adviser at Ayanda. The principle of Occam's Razor would suggest that something fishy is going on here, although nothing has been proved.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

US researchers use Apple devices for study on mental health

Our mental health is so important. While social media and consumer technology could perhaps be a ‘trigger’ in people having mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, this story shows how such gadgets could potentially help them.

Indeed, researchers at UCLA have launched a three-year study, in collaboration with Apple, to investigate how gadgets can help detect and treat depression and anxiety. For the study, the collaborative team aims to measure sleep, physical activity, heart rate and daily routines to see if there is a correlation between these metrics and symptoms associated with such disorders.

Studies such as these will certainly help a lot of people if proven to be a success. The researchers believe that making the connection between quantifiable data and symptoms of anxiety and depression could enable healthcare providers to note warning signs and prevent the onset of depressive episodes, track the effectiveness of treatment and identify causes of depression. 

Mental health issues are seen all across the UK. According to mental health charity Mind, one in six people reports experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week in England alone. Furthermore, data published by the Office for National Statistics shows that 1,413 self-inflicted deaths were recorded in the last three months of 2019 – a worrying statistic. If this study can help identify symptoms early and prevent episodes of depression and anxiety before they have even started, this could save so many lives.

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