Mini nuclear, R&D in lockdown, monster wolf robots and more: best of the week’s news
Image credit: Kyodo/via 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.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Are small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) the next big thing? The concept has been promoted for several years now and it certainly sounds interesting - all the more so as projects to replace the UK’s existing nuclear plants run into difficulties. Building a series of new reactors from standard factory-made components that can be readily transported and assembled on-site sounds like a much better idea, while smaller plants with simpler designs ought to make safety management easier. Earlier this week, and before Rolls-Royce put out its statement, I caught up with another item on my ‘to do’ list and took a brief look at the Royal Society’s policy briefing, 'Nuclear Cogeneration: civil nuclear in a low-carbon future’, which was issued on 7 October.
The authors suggest that the heat produced by nuclear power stations could be used not only to generate electricity but also for other purposes such as hydrogen production and domestic heating, while future generations could even produce the high-temperature heat required by some industrial processes that makes decarbonising them a challenge.
And yet… there are still many challenges, not least around safety and security, waste and economics. The technology has advanced, but I haven’t found any report of any SMR actually being built anywhere in the world - and surely the developers would need to produce at least one as a demonstrator before any customer would commit to wider-scale rollout.
The first sentence of the Rolls-Royce press release reads: “The UK SMR consortium, led by Rolls-Royce, has announced it expects to create 6,000 regional UK jobs within the next five years, if the UK Government makes a clear commitment that enables a fleet of 16 small modular reactor (SMR) power stations to be built over the next 20 years.” Note that “if” and don’t hold your breath.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
It’s an interesting point, this. The effects of the pandemic will probably not become clear for many years. While it will be easy to assess factory output and consumer demand, the effects on research may be more difficult to assess. To what extent do the people doing the research need to be there and what elements can be automated? The questions in manufacturing may lead to an acceleration in the use of robotics and automation, but in the lab the interaction between the researchers and their equipment is critical. The project outlined in this article seems a pretty good attempt to take R&D automation as far as it can currently go, but I can’t help feeling this is a journey that can only go so far. The creative element of much R&D is triggered by both collaboration and getting hands-on with a problem: being there simply triggers the mental process in a way that staring at a laptop screen doesn’t.
Ben Heubl, associate editor
The US election took a large toll on many of us journalists (and Americans, and anyone who is married to one). Depression and mental fatigue can be one result. The UK Office for National Statistics estimates that the Covid-19 pandemic has seen depression levels double, with now just under one in five people experiencing some form of depression, indicated by moderate to severe depressive symptoms. Few benefited from lockdown, although around 3.5 per cent of adults polled reported an improvement over this period.
Mental health problems are something we have to talk about more. Take the depression and confidence levels among sufferers from conditions such as Tourette's syndrome (TS), which is particularly hard on the mental health of otherwise smart and capable individuals, many of whom could work in jobs that industry finds it hard to fill, engineering positions included. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around one in every 162 children suffers from TS - that’s a lot.
Especially in the workplace, the stigma of TS is making it tough for individuals. TS is a condition that forces sufferers into making involuntary sounds and movements called tics. Society often finds it hard to deal with these otherwise healthy and smart individuals. Tics can make some people ‘uncomfortable’. If that bars TS sufferers from the workplace and the ability to pursue a normal life - one person with TS I spoke to told me his doctor encouraged him to “just obtain benefits” - it’s utterly unacceptable and the fault lies with those feeling uncomfortable.
I interviewed Luke, a smart young tech who raised the problem on social media platform LinkedIn. The first step of getting into a company is tough, he said. As for how people with TS get hired, he said: "I have yet to meet someone with TS at my level, who has a job any more than a base or entry-level job. With the greatest of respect, they are in low-ranking and low-paid jobs, if at all. I was told by a neurologist that I can claim benefits, so I should claim benefits. I think many people with TS hear this from someone in that position, trust what is being said and give up looking. I have found that so many companies will preach equality and diversity, but only if it fits into their ideals. I was told multiple times I’d be a great employee, until the realisation hits that I could swear at their clients."
What makes getting started in the workplace so difficult is that TS is the first thing a potential employer will notice: "It’s a hard condition to keep under wraps. Getting an employer to listen as oppose to instantly judge is difficult," Luke added.
I asked him whether technology used during lockdown helped or made working more difficult for people with TS. He said that not being able to see people face to face allowed him to be his 'fake normal version’: "Zoom forces people to see the real me. It’s actually been an unexpected confidence builder, because without it I wouldn’t have virtually met a lot of my connections and accepted the way I am and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
LinkedIn helped him: “It has been a huge help for me in building confidence and spreading awareness. I’ll continue to post videos to show more about the condition and hopefully make a few more employers sympathetic towards it."
What needs to change in his view is awareness and acceptance. TS is a lot more common than people think but apart from the odd Channel 4 or Channel 5 TV documentary, people don’t know anything about it. "You see it in the movies as the jokey character who always says inappropriate things and TS is their whole personality, but I for one am more than my TS. I am going to continue to educate employers on the condition and if even one employer sees my video and takes a chance on someone with TS, I’ve done what I needed to do. I’ll use all social media and do what I can, so hopefully things will start to change”. Technology is allowing me to work fully remotely which suits me better, I can't annoy anyone, I can't be judged, I can stay in my own little bubble!”
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
There's not a lot of good news arising from the global coronavirus pandemic, no matter what contrary upbeat spin some writers try to put on it, e.g. "It's a great time for video apps!" or "WFH can boost team morale!" blah blah blah. Here's a reality that is a lot less sunny and optimistic: lockdown has seen cases of "sexual communication with a child" soar. Bored perverts at home, with nothing better to do or to occupy their time and warped minds than target and exploit vulnerable children. Any recorded statistics are almost certainly the tip of a deeply disturbing and unsettling iceberg. Cyber-crimes such as phishing and financial fraud have also increased exponentially since lockdowns first began, so if you persist in looking for the upside of the pandemic, consider the company you're keeping.
Only in Japan, eh? If I were a Japanese farmer returning home late at night, never mind being a bear wandering in from the woods, the sight of one of these monster robot wolves would probably scare the living daylights out of me. What big eyes you have! What big teeth you have!
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Governments and law enforcement agencies continue to attack messaging services with end-to-end encryption (E2EE), supposedly over concerns that it could allow criminals to escape justice.
While this new draft resolution from the EU does not amount to an out-and-out ban, it certainly shows lawmakers are trying to chip away at the wide availability of the technology. But the problem is, E2EE tech is already out there, you can ban as many apps and services as you want, but there will always remain some way to send encrypted traffic across the web through either a mainstream service or something less well known.
An attack on the tech also denies 99.9 per cent of people from having a truly secure messaging system in favour of prioritising the tiny proportion of people who may use it to commit nefarious deeds undetected. What is clear is that there is still a long, uncertain road ahead for E2EE, but until governments accept that the genie is already out of the bottle, fruitless attacks on its implementation will continue.
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