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Killer robots, Facebook collapse, gaming literacy and more: best of the week's news

Image credit: Pixabay

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.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Treaty banning killer robots ‘deserves urgent multilateral action’

Ah, the futility of war. A depressingly defining trait of humankind, long supported, bolstered and protected over the centuries by a highly lucrative defence industry populated by those among us with fewer scruples and morals than the average person. Of course, the prospect of wave after wave of unstoppable, remorseless killer robots gone rogue, rampaging across the continents, is an unpalatable prospect, but it could be argued that we already have, and deploy, killer robots on a routine basis. Drone strikes are barely one step removed from playing a video game, with a solider stationed in Arkansas carrying out remote killing on targets in Afghanistan thousands of miles away. There is some human involvement there, but barely so.

The idea of autonomous killer robots is the only logical endpoint to this particular technology trajectory, and it's easy to see why two of the biggest countries, and oldest foes, the US and Russia, are not engaging with the calls for an outright global ban. It's the tit-for-tat quest for the ultimate fighting machine - and if our enemy has one, by golly we're going to have one, too. In a sense, though, if we take the human solider out of the military equation entirely, what are we even left with? Rock 'em sock 'em robots, duking it out for political entertainment purposes? Maybe in the distant future there really will be no more war, merely an annual giant killer robot smackdown, like 'Gladiators' or 'Robot Wars', watched by a worldwide audience of billions, with national-debt sized bets placed on the winner and a prize of… a year of global supremacy for the winning country? Let's commence preparations for rumbling!

Tim Fryer, technology editor

‘Catastrophic’ consequences if Facebook collapses

I’m not sure what I find more staggering – that someone should want to research the hypothetical collapse of Facebook, or that the ensuing study would find such a collapse would have “catastrophic social and economic consequences”. I’ve clearly missed something along the way. As social media has grown around me, and I have treated it mostly like an irritating and occasionally entertaining distraction, it appears that the world is now dependent on it.

Facebook is a ‘critical economic engine’, which surprises me because my children scoff at this platform and deride it as no more than a safe haven for Baby Boomers. However, I clearly need to sharpen my instincts. If Facebook really is a critical piece of national infrastructure, as this report suggests, then maybe I should appreciate it a bit more, start clapping every Thursday night for the keyworkers of Facebook who selfless have worked through the pandemic, and use it for more than a few inconsequential groups chats about the neighbourhood and the football team I follow.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Gaming shown to improve literacy in adolescents

Anyone over a certain age for whom the concept of ‘video games’ conjures up memories of Space Invaders or PacMan in a seaside arcade or – if they were lucky – at home on a primitive console, the argument that it’s a gateway to literacy for young people is going to be hard to accept.

Younger people who are parents rather than grandparents and have probably grown up with a more sophisticated idea of gaming might be more inclined to buy into it. Particularly if their children are the sort who will seize on any evidence of its beneficial effects on developing personal and teamworking skills to justify a couple more hours on the PlayStation.

If you’re not convinced, maybe pause at one of the parts of the magazine or book sections of any major retailer that you might usually pass by. The shelves and shelves of titles devoted to different games platforms or even specific titles. Magazines have been a mainstay of gaming communities for decades, but recent years have seen the emergence of growing numbers of hefty books ranging from practical guides to works of fiction spun off from the increasingly sophisticated worlds that provide the backdrop to the latest games.

If these books and magazines get young people into reading and writing in the same way a football-obsessed boy or girl might pore over match reports and put together their own articles about their favourite team, so much the better. As one participant in this study put it: “Books help grow your imagination and so do games.”

Roll on the day when a Booker Prize winner recalls how their first efforts at fiction were set in the world of Fortnite or Minecraft.

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