Monthly tech roundup - December

At Web Engineer, we're always learning, keeping an ear out for new developments on the web and tech gadgets. As we believe in an ethical approach to technology, the things we spot will have to be more than just cool, they will need to interest us and enrich the lives of their users and even better, make a difference in a small way to society*.

So here's our roundup of the freshest tech we spotted this month.

Prototype plane that has no moving parts

“This sounds like the impossible but those lovable geniuses at MIT have done something amazing again (and I wouldn’t bet against them for producing awesome inventions). This tested concept could one-day revolutionise air travel into completely silent planes that emit to zero emissions through ionized air. Its early days yet and could be decades until people would be able to actually set foot on ion electrode powered planes. The creators actually see more potential in improving drones and other lightweight vehicles, which could improve the air quality and noise of our cities.

 

New Mac Mini

MacMini

Its great to see one of our favourite designs from Apple return. The Mac Mini epitomises one of Apple’s core directives of miniaturising the home computer. It was so simple to plug in and get creating, and thankfully with the latest version it continues the intentions of the original; the Mini isn’t a fashion statement it packs quite a punch. It can be specced quite highly with a 6 core processor and 64gb of ram, making it a capable tool for 3D artists, photo and sound editors to run a variety of graphically intensive creative software.

Have fun speccing your dream machine here

Audi E-Tron GT

Audi_E-Tron

We do admit at Web Engineer, along with our computers we do like things with wheels, be it two-wheeled or four-wheeled! One of the most exciting developments in the automotive world we’ve been looking at is the progression of electric cars. Only a few years ago electric cars or EVs were regarded as quirky alternative cars that required you to firstly not mind being a little different but also make changes to the way you used your car. Thanks to the American brand Tesla headed up by the James Bond villain-like Elon Musk, the major European manufacturers have woken up to their growing consumer popularity and started to produce new and quite desirable EVs we will soon be driving.

Aside from its looks and the performance numbers, the E-tron should be celebrated for what the engineers at Audi have achieved; turning the not so long ago EV concept into a high-performance car that can outperform its fuel burning cousins in most everyday situations.

The downside is the price, £100,000. Therefore the Audi will never be a mass market vehicle. However, these high performance, high tech and high price vehicles allow manufacturers to showcase their technology, gain interest from consumers and pave the way for the even harder technological challenge of making an uncompromised and low cost, mass-market EV.

For more pretty car pictures and stats visit the Audi site 

Bloodhound SSC project secures funding

Bloodhound

In slightly less eco-friendly vehicle news, it’s great to hear that the Bristol-based land speed record-breaking vehicle project is back on track. After being put into administration earlier this year the Bloodhound project has secured funding from a very generous individual who must really want to see a car go 1,000 mph. Costing a reported £25 million to save from being liquidated we could ask why should such a costly endeavour be saved at all? Our answer to this is partly just like the NASA missions to the moon to show to ourselves that we can. Also, and more importantly the reason why is to demonstrate the engineering talent we have today and our ability in overcoming and achieving what was once impossible.

Here is an update on the project, fingers crossed the target record will be achieved.

NSynth Super Audio Synthesis

NSynth

This curious touchscreen object is actually an open source experimental instrument. The NSynth is the results of a project conducted by various machine learning and creative teams at Google who are researching ways that machine learning can enhance creativity for artists.

Rather than a conventional synthesizer which takes a sample sound for the musician to modify through a set of variables. Instead, the NSynth takes 4 different source sounds and generates an infinite library of completely new sounds by processing the source sounds through a defined algorithm.

We’re admittedly sceptical over much of the news on AI at the moment, much of it promoting innovations that offer little evolution beyond what computers are already able to do. To define what AI truly is the NSynth film shares a quote by computer scientist Arthur Samuel (from 1959!).

“The field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.”

We wholeheartedly agree with the quote and see that the sound results the NSynth comes up with are of its own design. Whether they sound nice straight away

This project for us gives a demonstration of what machine learning looks like and importantly creating an actual benefit for people, by developing entirely new sounds the NSynth has the potential to help artists explore avenues of sound that weren’t possible before.

For a little more detail on how the NSynth works here’s the project write up by the Magenta team:

And the not so great use of technology…

NewYorkCity_Map

The sharing of mobile app users personal data has been exposed recently in this NY Times article. Essentially the location data collected by apps on your smartphone is being sold to advertisers and even hedge funds for consumer research. Personal location data is big business with location-targeted advertising estimated at $21 billion this year.

The principles of location data are similar to that of a website cookie, in that every time you interact with an app or have it open on your phone, the phone is sending information back to the host. The big difference between location and cookie data is the ‘location’ part. Although data is anonymised the accuracy of your location shared is infinitely more personal, with location updates sometimes being shared up to 14,000 times a day. As a result, an individual’s daily movements can very quickly be identified, revealing personal habits, interests and interactions with businesses and other individuals.

The article rightfully points out that behind the business reasoning of data collection for consumer patterns and trends; anonymised location data can quickly be joined up to someone’s name and ID with a small amount of dot-joining. While we’re all used to using location sharing apps on our phones when was the last time we stopped to try and decipher the vague privacy policy before consenting to share information?

Let’s not forget the benefits of location data tracking; avoiding traffic jams and delays while travelling has been revolutionised through location tracking, creating an almost live feed to incidents with the apps suggesting alternative routes on the go.

Unfortunately, the revenue stream for so many of our favourite apps is hidden to the consumer, while it may be naive of us to not consider how apps pay for themselves. The fact your data is sold to other businesses is made ambiguous, with its end use even more abstracted.

As a positive side, we discovered the fitness tracking app Strava, one of our favourite apps in the office does something good with your location data. While it does sell your data on to third parties, it does so through its Strava Metro service which offers city and town planners aggregate data to improve transport networks in cities based on the main apps user’s cycling and running routes.

Thanks for reading, you’ve been watched 👀

*Funny cat videos are allowed.

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