10 remarkable science and technology stories you may have missed

5 Jan 2016

Don’t miss these 10 stories from the holiday period now you have a second chance. Image via Shutterstock

Still playing catch-up on what you missed over the Christmas break? Here’s a quick look at what happened while you were away from your desk.

1. China adopted a new anti-terrorism law

China adopted its first counter-terrorism law before the close of 2015, the country’s state-owned news agency Xinhua reported on 27 December.

The new law, which comes into force this month, requires that telecom operators and internet service providers (ISPs) provide technical support and assistance – including decryption – to police and national security authorities for the prevention and investigation of terrorist activities.

ISPs and telecommunications networks must also prevent the dissemination of information on terrorism and extremism.

There are also rules for the media, in that the reporting of terrorist attacks and the authorities’ response activities will be limited to those media outlets with approval from counter-terrorism bodies. According to Xinhua, this law was revised specifically to target the spread of terrorism-related information on social media.

Seemingly anticipating the criticism that followed for the bill’s strict controls and broad definition of terrorism, Li Shouwei from the parliament’s legislative affairs commission said that the new legislation “will not affect companies’ normal business nor install backdoors to infringe intellectual property rights, or … citizens’ freedom of speech on the internet and their religious freedom”.

2. Engineers took us one step closer to light-based computing

As we begin to reach the limits of the power of electronic computing, engineers have advanced the development of a new form that combines electricity with light, called optoelectronic computing.

The team comprises researchers from MIT, UC Berkeley and the University of Colorado, who have found a “zero-change” approach to the integration of photonics, which means that high-performance transistors using light can be made using existing designs, ensuring their compatibility with current technology and manufacturing techniques.

The engineers’ paper has been published in Nature, and is wonderfully explained in more straightforward terms by Motherboard.

3. A new model for Google Glass appeared online

Submitted to the US Federal Communications Commission website and spotted by 9to5Google, the latest model of Google Glass has been surreptitiously unveiled.

The new model is presumed to be the Enterprise edition of Google’s wearable tech, expected to be rolled out to the company’s selected Glass for Work partners.

The next-generation Google Glass is said to have improved internal hardware, better connectivity, increased battery life, an Intel Atom processor, a larger prism, robust hardware and – most importantly – a new structure that can fold in on itself.

Google Glass photo filed with FCC

Is this Google Glass Enterprise Edition? Image via FCC

4. DARPA’s robot mule was put out to pasture

DARPA’s LS3 robot (AKA BigDog) has been discharged from the US military for being a loudmouth.

Equal parts technologically advanced, strangely unsettling and awkwardly adorable, the LS3 was designed as a robotic pack mule for the US Marine Corps. Built to carry about 180kg of equipment, the LS3 can also climb hills and navigate rough terrain. It’s also terribly noisy.

Though the four-legged robot cost $32m and two-and-a-half years of development with Boston Dynamics (which is owned by Google X, Alphabet’s R&D facility), it’s just not stealthy enough for the marines.

“As marines were using it, there was the challenge of seeing the potential possibility because of the limitations of the robot itself,” Marine Corps Warfighting Lab spokesperson Kyle Olson told Military.com.

“They took it as it was: a loud robot that’s going to give away their position.”

5. Spotify was sued by a musician for $150m

David Lowery is known to some as the frontman of alt-rock bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, but he may well become known to many as the man who sued Spotify for alleged copyright infringement.

Lowery’s complaint against the company is filed with California District Court and accuses Spotify of failing to license his music for streaming.

In a statement to Ars Technica, Spotify’s global head of communications and public policy, Jonathan Prince, confirmed that the company has a policy of setting aside royalties until rightsholders’ identities can be confirmed. “We are working closely with the National Music Publishers Association to find the best way to correctly pay the royalties we have set aside and we are investing in the resources and technical expertise to build a comprehensive publishing administration system to solve this problem for good,” he said.

‘We are working closely with the National Music Publishers Association to find the best way to correctly pay the royalties we have set aside’

Lowery is reportedly seeking a class action lawsuit against the music-streaming service, which would exceed $150m in damages. Lowery has also requested injunctions against Spotify to prevent the company from playing any more music for which it has not yet secured a license.

6. NTU scientists unveiled a humanoid robot with personality

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore has a new receptionist, Nadine, who smiles when she greets you, makes eye contact when you chat, shakes hands, remembers your name and previous conversations, and can be happy or sad depending on the conversation. All of which is remarkable considering Nadine is a humanoid robot.

Nadine has been modelled on her creator, Prof Nadia Thalmann, mimicking her appearance, with soft skin and long brown hair. She is powered by intelligent software similar to what you would find behind Siri or Cortana.

Nadine humanoid robot - NTU Singapore

NTU Singapore’s Prof Nadia Thalmann shaking hands with Nadine. Photo via NTU Singapore

A social robot, Nadine makes a suitable receptionist or personal assistant in the home or office, and she can also serve as a companion.

“As countries worldwide face challenges of an ageing population, social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce, become personal companions for children and the elderly at home, and even serve as a platform for healthcare services in future,” said Prof Thalmann in a release from the university.

Of course, building a humanoid like Nadine is expensive, but the technology behind her social skills can be adapted as a visual interface, providing a low-cost virtual alternative.

7. A Japanese diver got up close with a live giant squid

On Christmas Eve, visitors to Toyama Bay, Japan were gifted with a glimpse of a real-life sea monster.

Visitors to the pier spotted a giant squid in the water and, according to CNN, diver Akinobu Kimura couldn’t resist jumping in and getting a closer look, taking an underwater camera with him so we could all share in this unbelievable encounter.

The massive red-and-white creature was estimated to be more than 3.5m long and was likely a young giant squid, as dead specimens discovered washed ashore or tangled in fishing nets have measured up to 13m.

Sightings and footage of live giant squid are incredibly rare as they spend their lifetime in the depths of the ocean. This has given the giant squid near-mythical status, with many believing it to be the inspiration behind the legend of the Kraken.

After his brief swim with the legendary cephalopod, Akinobu said: “This squid was not damaged and looked lively, spurting ink and trying to entangle his tentacles around me. I guided the squid toward the ocean, several hundred metres from the area it was found in, and it disappeared into the deep sea.”

8. A UK sperm bank’s screening practices sparked a debate on eugenics

The London Sperm Bank, reportedly the largest sperm bank in the UK, hit the headlines before the close of 2015 when it was revealed that donors with certain conditions were being turned away.

The Guardian discovered a leaflet from the sperm bank – since withdrawn – which outlined a ban on donations from men with dyslexia. This information was then forwarded to the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which launched an investigation into the London Sperm Bank’s practices.

The story has also prompted much debate on the policies and practices of fertility clinics and the practice of eugenics.

9. A kid-friendly search engine went online

Start-up The Bear James Company launched Thinga, a search engine for kids, just before the year was out.

According to TechCrunch, Bear James CEO BJ Heinley – who previously worked on Yahoo Kids – has been building the kid-friendly search platform for the past year, and Thinga’s key selling point is compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the US.

Thinga returns image-led grid-style results only from Thinga’s content library, which has been curated by the Thinga team and collated from whitelisted, kid-friendly sites. Beneath these results are more links from privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo, while the whole experience can be controlled with parental settings.

Even if kids have nothing to look up, Thinga offers a safe internet launchpad with the homepage, allowing them to dive into appropriate video content and more.

Thinga is not the first of its kind and is by no means a perfect solution, but it is a further step towards kid-friendly internet services.

10. A magnificent photo of New Year’s revelry went viral

In case you missed this beauty of a photo that went viral on the first day of the New Year, here’s the tweet that set the trend in motion.

The image, captured in all its glorious composition by Joel Goodman, originally appeared deep in a photo gallery from the Manchester Evening News. The scene depicts a moment of debauched revelry from New Year’s Eve in Manchester city centre in a form that serendipitously emulates historical works of art.

Rather pleasingly, BBC’s Roland Hughes has provided his own dissection of the experience of going viral (particularly, in his case, on the back of someone else’s original content), musing: “It certainly raises issues about how much duty of care you have in posting something – whether it goes viral or not. It’s not a question I’m capable of answering here, but it has made me rethink the nature of what is put out there.”

Main dartboard image via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic