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St Pancras UV robots, Tesco petrol ban call and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: 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.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Covid-19-killing robots begin patrolling at St Pancras International

Great headline, interesting story. The robot in question isn't quite as cool as you might think or hope - if you're anything like me, you had the Terminator in mind, an angry automaton with a snarl on its metallic lips, stalking the concourse with virus murder in mind - but the more demure white bot now wheeling around St Pancras is hopefully performing a sterling public service, beaming ultraviolet light to kill the airborne virus and minimise the risk to travellers.

There's a good photo in the middle of the story, showing the healthbot going about its business amongst commuters, some of whom appear curious, while others seem wholly indifferent. Is this a glimpse of our robot future world, where daily interactions with specialised robots wheeling about amongst us become so commonplace that we barely give them a second glance? No good or bad thing either way; merely an illustration of how quickly humans adapt to technological change.

The reality of robots working with us, interacting and commingling, seems to barely raise an eyebrow when it actually happens, whereas even the thought of such a world before might have caused some people to be seized with grave fear and apprehension. As it turns out, robots can do a good job for us - one that we humans couldn't, or wouldn't, perform as easily and efficiently or with such deferential compliance. To paraphrase The Who, the 'bots are all right.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Tesco joins calls to bring forward diesel and petrol ban to 2030

The trouble with the 2035 deadline the UK Government has set for a ban on new petrol and diesel cars is that it still doesn’t affect anybody buying a car now. It’s in the future – something to think about, but out of touch. Bringing this forward to 2030 - as suggested in this article and supported by Tesco - changes that. The value of a car in 2035 isn’t relevant to the buyer now, but if that date becomes 2030 then it starts to have an impact, as it falls within the predicted lifetime of a new car (which I’m astonished to find is only 8–10 years).

If the new cut-off date becomes 2030, it starts to have an influence on buying decisions. It really will become a signal that change is upon us. In this article, Mike Hawes of the SMMT warns of the disruption this could cause the motor industry and I don’t dismiss this as a real concern, particularly at the moment. However, all car manufacturers are making the transition to EVs. It’s clearly a move that is inevitable, so where's the advantage in maintaining the status quo? Instead, why not embrace this change, develop the leading technology that will underpin market success and longevity and play a part in the recovery being not just a green one, but a speedy one as well.

Economically, we’re in dire straits. The extent of that will only become clear when we stop worrying about Covid-19 and start worrying about how we’re going to pay for it. Every problematic situation offers opportunities and I feel this is one that many motor manufacturers are ready to take: Government support on the infrastructure side would help a lot. If we try to protect what we already have, based on fossil fuel technology, for as long as possible, then I can only see it ending badly.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Playing video games as a child can improve working memory years later

An interesting story has cropped up on the relationship between video games and brain stimulation. Researchers in Spain have demonstrated how cognitive changes in the brain can take place even years after people stop playing them.

There have been many studies in the past that have looked into how video games can lead to structural changes in the brain, but this particular study by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona has taken it a step further by testing it. For the study, they asked participants to play Nintendo’s ‘Super Mario 64’ and found that people who were avid gamers when they were children, despite no longer playing, performed better with the work memory tasks they had set for them.

Many, including myself, are under the impression that video games cause more harm than good to our mental stimulation, but this study has certainly made me look at video games in a different light. If it’s true that playing them as a child improves your working memory when you become an adult, I think I should’ve spent more time on them when I was a youngster – I have the memory of a goldfish!

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Don’t rely on planting trees to be carbon-neutral, scientists warn

More companies are planting trees and initiatives such as Brewdog's Carbon Negative campaign must surely be a good thing. Yet it’s more complex than just a PR image of a CEO standing in a field, shovel in hand. The market for outsourcing tree planting is flooded with firms that will do it for you. Companies literally just need to expense them for the service. Spending a bit on trees and carbon capture automatically elevates businesses into a league of do-gooders and climate-change warriors. In reality, the world needs a lot more.

A quick word on biodiversity. We need it. I don’t think people realise how fatal a lack of it is (and will be) if we don’t preserve it and progress instead with ‘business as usual’. We hardly make realistic progress. The UN's Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report lists 20 global biodiversity targets that were set out in 2010. Only six were 'partially’ achieved - not even fully. This is not what I would call ‘moving in the right direction’. 

We need to stringently follow the eight transitions proposed in the report. We need to move more than a third of land and sea to be dedicated to nature’s recovery. Institutions like the Wildlife Trusts demand at least 30 per cent of such territory to be protected by 2030. It’s harder to enforce such borders than writing it into policy. The way illegal deforestation continues in the Amazon is one example. The way we wreck our climate; exhaust our freshwater resources; empty our oceans; cause extreme weather conditions and longer, more devastating wildfires, and how we bin one-third of our food resources all have direct implications for our future.

If you’re wondering why we should care for a few animals on the brink of extinction, you misunderstand the impact of biodiversity on humans. The world's population is growing quickly. Food supply is at stake. Our health is at stake. The OECD estimates the world's population will grow to 8.55 billion by 2030, up from 7.8 billion in 2020.

The report stresses that the global community must seize the opportunity to build back better from the Covid-19 pandemic in order to reduce the risk of future pandemics. I don’t see any other option than policymakers to finally take the chance to reconsider their role in this. Businesses won’t change on their own. Business as usual won’t suffice.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Covid-19-killing robots begin patrolling at St Pancras International

Our latest story about the use of UV technology to kill the Covid-19 virus reports its deployment in a robot at St Pancras International station in London. It's a welcome development. My inbox has had a steady stream of press releases from UV equipment suppliers extolling the technique’s virtues, but it's not something we've heard very much about more widely, except for - and perhaps partly because of - President Trump's awkward promotion of it in the press conference in which he talked about the possibility of disinfecting people's insides.

It's a real thing, though, as our stream of stories testifies. When I interviewed TV producer and reporter Dr Shini Somara about her role in the E&T Innovation Awards and asked her about standout innovations she'd come across recently, she too picked out the UVC technology.

Rebecca Northfield, commissioning editor

Playing video games as a child can improve working memory years later

The idea that cognitive changes in the brain can take place even years after people stop playing video games makes sense. I never played video games as a kid and my memory is terrible now. Thanks, parents. You should have forcefully taken my books away, stuck me in front of the TV and turned on the Sega Megadrive *shakes fist angrily*. My brother, on the other hand, played all the video games growing up and has a ridiculously accurate memory. Movie quotes, song lyrics (and useful stuff, too) - you name it, he knows it. It pains me that his recall is that good. At least I can spell.

Studies have shown how playing video games can lead to structural changes in the brain, including increasing the size of some regions, or to functional changes, such as activating the areas responsible for attention or visual-spatial skills. This new research from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona, has gone further, suggesting that cognitive changes can be found even years after people stop playing.

The guy who conducted the study said people who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result.

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