Nuclear power station in the Swiss countryside near Bern

New nuclear, 3D-printed tongue, robot training and more: best of the week's news

Image credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

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

Brussels won’t block new nuclear plants, says EU climate chief

Nuclear energy is always a tricky one for environmentalists. Decades of antipathy won’t disappear just because it’s low-carbon. I don’t think you can view it as zero-carbon, as the power stations are such colossal building projects, and uranium mining and processing all contributes negatively to carbon budgets, but it’s obviously orders of magnitude better than energy from fossil fuels. Renewables, possibly coupled with hydrogen technologies, have to be seen as a long-term solution for mankind, but we are certainly a long way from that being the complete solution. Perhaps in the UK we have the natural resources to make this a possibility, but other countries may not be so blessed with our ample supply of wind, waves and tides – although many will benefit from more sunshine.

We possibly do need that 20-40 year stop-gap to provide base loads, and that could be why nuclear will be essential. We have enough experience from around the world to ensure safety (almost) and the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons has becomes less of a worry. It remains eye-wateringly expensive and the projects take a huge amount of time – Hinkley C was announced in 2010, construction didn’t begin until 2018 and generation won’t start until 2025 at the earliest. So if it’s going to be the medium-term replacement for fossil-based generation then decisions need to be made pretty quickly. At least it sounds like the EU won’t stand in the way of such investments.

I’m not sure about the line in this story about Japan reopening nuclear power stations in the wake of it announcing a ‘net-zero’ date of 2050. I suspect that nuclear power stations are like old coal mines – once shut down then much of that mine and associated workings are lost forever; it’s just not safe to reopen.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

3D-printed human tongue developed for food tests and dry mouth cures

Your tongue is important; not just the organ that serves so many functions but also the one you speak and the accent you have. Last week, I received a press release with the headline ‘Yorkshire is the MOST trustworthy accent in the UK: study reveals’. The ‘study’, commissioned by online marketplace company Onbuy, asked 2,221 people who they trust the most and – critically - the least. I have a ginormous moral problem with polls like this, and the way the results are presented, and do judge news organisations that take the ‘finding’ at face value. Any use of them without explaining the problems and wider context is attention-grabbing clickbait, and no more.

If you have to think twice about what the problem is you clearly haven't experienced accent-based discrimination. I don’t think the way this press release is publicised is healthy. Accent, like other demographics, is something we are virtually born with. Discrimination based on accent (or any way we speak, really) is hurting people every day. All this press release does is to reinforce a negative stereotype. Take this for instance. The OnBuy comms people write that “Birmingham (Brummie) is voted the least trustworthy accent in the UK with only 4 per cent of the votes”. See what I did there? By stating a statistic I bestow it with more credibility than it deserves. I immediately encouraged you to attach a label. It’s like asking Brits whether Germans are efficient. Some would agree, despite there being no evidence whatsoever that helps judging an individual.

Let’s be crystal clear here. The way we speak has absolutely nothing to do with how smart we are. Even a broken foreign accent may serve no use as a proxy to judge literacy or English vocabulary. As a foreigner I have some experience with that.

The press release also states that, for the Yorkshire accent "participants often described the accent as ‘intelligent’ and ‘calming’”. Without any context, this is a disservice to the important academic work scientists do about language and discrimination. Speech expert Professor Sophie Scott at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience has discredited such polls by pointing out that when our judgements about people's attractiveness, intelligence or capability are based on their accent, then this cultural baggage we all have has the potential to become discriminatory. "The words people are using are a far better test of ability or competence than the way they are saying them,” Professor Scott says.

For good reason in my view, Scott attacked these polls and the fact that they lack scientific evidence. 

We have to counteract these click-baity, non-academic surveys by either ignoring them, or attacking them headfirst with ample criticism. To publicise this kind of finding as OnBuy did is appalling. The way it describes the Birmingham accent - as “even the Peaky Blinders association couldn’t bump them up. Brummies come in last place” - is disgraceful. The press release does not discuss discrimination or misconception. Therefore, instead of judging accents, like OnBuy says, I advise judging the language in such press releases. 

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Machine learning accelerated with dog training technique

Dogs can learn things really quickly when properly trained, which includes being rewarded with treats and praise when they do things correctly. This interaction between an owner and their furry companion, known as positive reinforcement, has become the starting point for a new machine-learning technique created by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US. They used the same technique to teach a robot called Spot new skills, including stacking blocks. In this study, the robot was able to ‘learn’ in just days what would take a month using conventional approaches, suggesting that positive reinforcement could be a feasible approach for training robots for real-world tasks. This goes to show that nature is truly one of our biggest inspirations when it comes to developing more efficient and advanced technologies.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Crowdsourced data from motorists could help expedite road repairs

The ‘citizen science’ concept of using spare capacity on home computers to crunch numbers of data-hungry tasks like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been around for a while. There have been a few initiatives that have extended the idea to the smartphones in our pockets, which have as much processing power as a domestic PC would have had not so long ago. Now, researchers at the University of Birmingham are looking at harnessing data from the accelerometers and GPS tracking functions built into any self-respecting new phone for the practical task of spotting stretches of road that are in need of repair.

It's a great idea, particularly when the cost of assessing road quality against the benchmark of the International Roughness Index can be significant. How much better would it be if the millions spent on checking for bumps and potholes could go towards actually fixing them, if the public could be persuaded to install a simple app on the phone that all sensible drivers will have stowed in a place that’s safe but out of reach?

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