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Robot mental health, UK wind, hydropower boom and more: best of the week's news

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

Humans favour robots for mental health support at work

Ahead of World Mental Health Day tomorrow (Saturday) 10 October, it seems appropriate to reference this story from earlier in the week. According to a comprehensive survey of working people (more than 12,000 from 11 globally diverse countries) polled by cloud-computing giant Oracle and HR research firm Workplace Intelligence, 82 per cent believe robots can support their mental health better than humans. This intriguing finding goes in tandem with 70 per cent of respondents saying they were more stressed and anxious than ever before at work, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic negatively affecting their mental health.

There are plenty more revealing statistics in the article, none of which are particularly encouraging in terms of a global snapshot of humankind's prevailing state of mind. At least we're now in a place where conversations about mental health are more openly voiced and shared instead of being suppressed or swept under the carpet. Open and honest communication to improve our mental health makes sense for every part of our lives, including in the business world. If we're not in a good place, mentally, how can we possibly do our best work?

According to the survey respondents, the role technology can play in facilitating productive, beneficial mental health conversations sees AI and robots more trusted and welcomed by humans than you might have previously thought. Only 18 per cent of people said they would prefer humans over robots, as the latter were perceived to better provide an unbiased and judgement-free zone, as well as giving quick answers to health-related questions. Providing there is no inherent bias in the AI or robot (a big, but separate, issue), it's easy to see the appeal. Robots are considered to make good listeners, according to the study, with 68 per cent of people preferring to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work, while 80 per cent of people were open to having a robot as a therapist or counsellor.

This may say as much about the worker/manager relationship as it does about technology, but it's interesting that so many people around the world now consider talking to a robot about their problems an appealing prospect.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Boris Johnson’s offshore wind plan to power economic recovery

There’s no doubt that putting green engineering projects at the top of the agenda is music to the ears of our sector. It doesn’t matter if Johnson doesn’t mean a word of it, even talking along such lines has got to be good for the profile of the renewables industry, engineering in general and of course the vast majority of us who accept that climate change is not a good thing.

In terms of the specifics, he pledged £160m to kickstart the journey to offshore wind. This was put in perspective by former Siemens UK boss Jurgen Maier, who observed that to get up to the 40GW capacity needed to power our homes by 2030 would take about 3000 new wind turbines, and £160m would fund just ten.

Government money wouldn’t directly go towards making turbines of course, it would be for providing R&D, training and maybe (who knows) even direct funding for turbine manufacturers once our departure from the EU removes the need for fair-funding niceties. It’s still a drop in the ocean however. The actual making of the turbines and integration into the electricity supply is all in the private sector, so the fine rhetoric is little more than an optimistic look at the future, with other people responsible for actually making it happen.

Unless of course the Government puts in place a real programme to tackle manufacturing, skills and supply chain issues.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Hydropower most widely used renewable energy source worldwide, survey shows

Yes to more renewables sources. But every alternative to fossil fuels has its own challenges that could lead to unexpected problems. In hydropower for example, there are issues regarding its overuse that must urgently be reviewed.

I’m not here to argue against renewable power sources or hydropower in general - we need those sources - but we must reconsider whether we use them prudently (anyone who knows my investigations also knows that I am fervently in favour of ditching fossil-fuel sources as soon as possible). 

Hydroelectric power generation has exploded in recent years and by 2018 it accounted for around 70 per cent of the world's renewable electricity. Reports on how China doubled down on hydro is a stark reminder how this can look at scale.

Some of the larger projects risk plunging neighbouring nations into war and conflict. China’s newly planned hydro dams may have a severe effect on downstream counties. We’ve also written about the Grand Ethiopean Renaissance Dam and how it sparked early signs of potential conflict. There is also mounting disinformation between the country that constructs GERD and other downstream nations that rely on water from the river.

High reservoir water levels of mega dams like this one bear risks in various forms. They increase the strain on the architecture of the dam. The consequences of a breakage are unimaginable. Despite all guarantees given by engineers the option of a burst must always be on our minds, no matter how low the odds. Dangerously high water levels add to these odds, so the debate has merit. Then there is the impact on the local biodiversity. There is also increased risk of landslides that some academic reports mentioned. Around the world, hydro-dam projects forced millions to abandon their homes. With the risk of severe droughts increasing, we must revisit how hydro dams are being planned. One country, region or local authority cannot just decide if people around them disagree. All parties that live off the rivers or water bodies in question must to be involved. 

Within Europe, hydro-projects are increasingly becoming a nuisance and affecting the local environment. This is especially true in some of the Balkan nations where hydro-plants are popping up like coffee shops in London’s Shoreditch. 

Planned hydropower plants in Balkans

Image credit: Ben Heubl/E&T

Calls for curbing the spread of hydro projects have grown louder in the past three years and advocates stress that hydropower may be cheaper than solar but does not account for environmental costs it causes.

Is the potential of hydro-electricity overhyped? No! It’s a green energy source that has merit. Should we follow mindlessly the motto 'build-build-build' without considering the negative consequences? No, we must re-evaluate and find a balance or should consider regulations to force authorities to carry the costs of the toll these projects create for the environment. 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Food firms urge UK to adopt tougher rules to protect tropical forests

It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder how much of an impact Covid-19 has had on the way the public take ethical factors into account when doing their grocery shopping. There’s a hard core of ethical consumers who will know what to look for if they do venture into one of the UK’s big supermarkets, but what about the vast majority who might want to make a difference but need a little nudging?

Pushing a trolley round, even if you’re in a hurry, you can look for cues on packaging – or the lack of them. If ingredients come from sustainable sources, you can be pretty sure these days that the manufacturer will declare the fact prominently. When you’re selecting from a range of different brands online though, it takes a few more clicks and a bit of scanning of small print to check each one’s credentials. Does that mean more of us are just sticking with the products we’re familiar with, or the ones on offer that week?

In the spirit of ‘taking back control’, some of the UK’s biggest food businesses – manufacturers and retailers alike – are making an uncharacteristic call on the government to exercise its right to replace voluntary schemes with legal obligations when it comes to identifying the source of what the country’s putting on its collective plate. That would mean that whatever their size they’d be responsible for tracking raw materials through the supply chain, right back to the countries thousands of miles away where their production could be responsible for problems like deforestation.

Sounds good, but what administration is going to weigh in with legislation that looks like it would inevitably lead to higher prices? To get the ball rolling I’d like to see retailers like Tesco, Morrison’s and Sainsbury, who are all backing the call, put their money where their mouth is by making information about sustainability more prominent in their online ordering platforms. Yes, it’s an approach that’s proved to be a minefield when they’ve tried to apply it to nutritional value; but how hard would it be to give the busy online shopper some easily spotted pointers about which products are objectively more ethically sourced? And even if it’s a bit nanny state, like having an annoying but well meaning friend looking over your shoulder, why not at least offer alternatives? “The product you’ve chosen contains palm oil from non-sustainable sources; have you considered this one?”

It would of course end up as more money for lawyers when the same manufacturers demanding firmer legislation decide they’re not so keen on customers making their own minds up. For now though, let’s take heart from the fact that a few influential businesses are at least thinking about the matter.

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