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Green revolution plan, Brazil deforestation, AI movie rating: 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

Government unveils 10-point plan for ‘green industrial revolution’

This story provoked a divided response from me. First, the positive. While none of the ten aspects mentioned in the government’s announcement are new to the wider world, chucking them all together does suggest that there is some joined-up thinking going on. Together they make quite a compelling argument for a future built on green technology. Companies and engineers currently working with, or developing, technologies applicable to a ‘Net-Zero’ future could be both reassured and inspired. Whether the money and the jobs materialise remains to be seen, but you would hope this bolsters a sector that is already on the up.

As in all good engineering situations, there is an equal and opposite force acting against this positivity. Although 2030 feels almost within touching distance it is still far enough away to do absolutely nothing right now – unless there is a business and technology roadmap to take us there, which there isn’t. If there was, then interim targets would exist, proper planning could take place and the government would be accountable for meeting these targets. As it is there is not just a danger but a likelihood that the government has used ‘good news deflection’ tactics to distract the public from its shambolic handling of the pandemic, and once more Mr Johnson will have promised much and delivered little. The one factor that may well come to his rescue in the hugely improbable event that he is still Prime Minister in 2030 is that the engineering and technology sectors, working under their own steam, will continue to innovate and invent at sufficient rate to meet the pledges set out.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Vast majority of countries tighten climate plans ahead of 2021 deadline

It’s no surprise that Brazil is among the countries whose efforts to tackle climate change are weakest. Areas of forest that could store carbon are shrinking and just last week it was reported that the rate of deforestation has increased again after a four-month lull. Predictions from 2019 forecasting that 2020 would turn out to be a nightmare year, have largely been fulfilled.

This summer, not one but two studies showed evidence of complicity on the part of the right-wing government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In several statements, Bolsonaro has made clear that he can’t stand environmental groups and indigenous peoples. More of his efforts have been spent on trying to strip sensitive areas of their protected status and allowing agribusiness and mining operations to expand widely in the Amazon region.

This should be of grave concern. Other nations must stand strong and oppose behaviour that affects us all. This can be done, for example, by threatening sanctions against Brazil, targeting products that are derived directly from Amazon deforestation, including iron, soybeans, ore, coffee, sugar and corn.

As I’ve argued before, we need more eyes and ears on the case, including journalists reporting what’s happening on the ground. Satellite images and updated data showing where loggers are burning or cutting down forest areas need to be made more widely available. One source of data is DETER – Detecção de Desmatamento em Tempo Real – a real-time deforestation-detection service run by the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais of the Brazilian Ministry for Science and Technology. Reporting on Brazilian deforestation is a valuable job for the rest of the world; but it’s coming under increasing pressure from the country’s own government.

In June, the administration dismissed one official at the national space agency whose department takes care of satellite monitoring of the Amazon rainforest. Only a couple of days earlier, the agency had released the latest deforestation data. 

Deforestation rates for the Amazon forest in Brazil

Image credit: E&T/Ben Heubl

The impunity that Covid-19 bestowed on the country's loggers also plays a role in helping to increase illegal destruction in protected areas. As shown above, the rainforest has lost more area this year than in 2019. The risk grew as illegal miners advanced into areas of isolated indigenous communities. Data for January to April 2020 deforestation rates suggests that deforestation surged by more than half compared with a year ago to 1,202 square km. In areas occupied by indigenous groups, it grew by 59 per cent.

No question. It’s time to act.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Apple lowers App Store fee for small developers but monopoly criticisms remain 

Not a great week for Apple: it’s had to pay $113m to 33 US states for slowing down ageing iPhones, and its attempt to appease small developers on its App Store has not garnered goodwill in the way it may have been expecting.  

Both stories are an example of the dangers presented by the monopolistic practices of a small handful of massive tech firms. Whether it’s through anti-trust rulings from the EU, or more ambitious attempts from the incoming Biden administration to break up big tech, something needs to be done about Apple’s 'walled garden'.

The firm’s lame attempt to throw its smallest developers a bone, in the form of a cut to the fees it takes from App Store downloads, shows how unwilling it is to make any concessions beyond token gestures designed to generate positive PR. One estimate found that Apple was sacrificing less than 1 per cent of its App Store revenues for the move, while it happily hoovers up cash from the millions of other innovative developers that have no choice but to use its platforms.  

Epic’s attempts to manhandle Apple into submission by adding additional payment facilities to 'Fortnite' may have been entirely due to self-interest, but its argument was strongly made. Consumers should be allowed to use their (incredibly expensive) devices as they wish, the walls of the garden need to come down. 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

AI tool could predict future ratings of films

The film industry’s in a precarious enough situation at the moment, at least in terms of making money from audiences who want to see movies on a big screen, that a tool which looks like it would increase the number of dull, formulaic stories making it into production should be a terrible idea.

It's well known, of course, that studios have a tradition of making last-minute edits to get a rating that’ll ensure as many people as possible are able to get in to see a film. There are plenty of online rabbit holes you can disappear down to discover where a few seconds or minutes of legendary blockbusters were sacrificed late in the day so that under 12s could be in the audience.

Now academics at a Los Angeles college have come up with a helpful system that uses artificial intelligence to scan a script before a film gets close to production to assess what certificate it’s likely to be awarded. And presumably red-flag sections that the writer put in there with good reason but are a commercial no no.

Apart from being surprised that highly paid film industry professionals can’t do this themselves, I’m wary that it’s the latest step on the road to machines taking over the job of writing stories from humans. A lot of mass-market TV and film already gives the impression that it’s been constructed by an algorithm that’s looked at what’s already successful and duplicated it with minimal human input. Throw in the stifling influence of this kind of virtual censor and we’re well on the way to a commercially driven industry choosing to do away with the risk of imagination in favour of robotic creativity.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Existing UV tech could reduce indoor Covid-19 transmission

This Queen Mary University of London study looked at historical published data examining the effect of UV irradiation on coronaviruses, finding that airborne SARS-CoV-2 particles are likely to be susceptible to UV-C radiation. This suggests that we may be able to use upper-room UV germicidal irradiation – a standard disinfection method which uses overhead UV lighting units to irradiate and inactivate airborne microorganisms – to tackle the virus.

Although this research is still at an early stage, it hints at the exciting possibility of reducing airborne coronavirus transmission in poorly ventilated spaces crammed with people, such as the tube and classrooms. 

Next, the researchers will explore how this disinfection method could be applied to the coronavirus pandemic, such as by taking air out of a room using a cheap air-purifier for disinfection with UV-C light before the 'clean' air is put back into the room. 

Shoppers risk fires buying electronics from third-party sellers online, charity warns

The first rule of shopping on dodgy sites full of bootleg products is to avoid anything which you plan to stick into the mains power or into your body.

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