The UK’s coronavirus contact-tracing app has been kicked into the long grass, with the government now saying it isn’t a priority and may not be ready until winter. The app – which has so far cost nearly £12 million – was supposed to be a key part of plans to identify and isolate anyone who had come into contact with someone reporting COVID-19 symptoms.
If the app does finally appear, it will now be based on a Google and Apple system, which means it won’t store information in a central database. This had been the plan for the original government-developed system that had worried privacy researchers, including myself. But even if the app never gets off the ground, that shouldn’t distract us from seeking more insight into what the government and a few companies with strong political connections are still doing with our health data.
I was one of nearly 200 UK information security and privacy academics who published a joint letter in April asking the government’s digital health agency, NHSX, key questions about its plans for the app. At the time there was no data protection impact assessment (DPIA) – even the data privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) hadn’t seen one.
There was no publicly available information on how the app would work or keep the data secure, and it was not clear that it would work at all. There was also no justification for the choice of a centralised data matching model that was intrinsically riskier to privacy.
One of the purposes for the app was centralised planning for the COVID-19 response. In parallel, NHSX has been developing a “data dashboard” to manage all the data it is collecting for this purpose. The NHS website lists 59 sources of such data, several of which include records about individual patients, such as the Emergency Care Data Set.
More worrying was the choice of partners by NHSX for this project. The data was to be stored on a platform developed by US company Palantir, which was originally funded by the CIA and counts numerous US government agencies as its customers. These include the FBI and the National Security Agency responsible for the secret government internet surveillance programme revealed by Edward Snowden.
The other contracted company, Faculty, has even stronger links to the government via Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who gave it a key role in the Vote Leave campaign (under the firm’s old name of AIS). The firm’s director Marc Warner has also attended the government science advisory committee SAGE.
The inhabitants of the internet cobbled all this together into a nice conspiracy theory, which might be summarised as “the app is giving all our data to Dom’s mates”. This can be seen all over social media, for example in the responses to a popular tweet about our letter.
But while it appears the app is off the table – or at least that England and Wales will get a more privacy respectful one run by internet giants – there’s still reason to be concerned about NHSX’s use of patient data and how it’s being shared with private firms. Palantir’s original contract was published under legal pressure but its renewed contract has not. In particular, we do not know whether NHSX is paying Palantir properly this time.
We also know more clearly that there’s a lot that we’re not being told, as the government has only published a DPIA for data being combined and stored but not for how it is then being used for planning, including possibly through AI. The DPIA only assesses Palantir’s role for data storage, and yet the firm’s original contract also mentions “data analytics”, “support tracking, surveillance, and reporting”, and none of that is covered in the document. It also doesn’t mention Faculty, which says it is working on data dashboards and modelling as part of its contract with NHSX.
Consultation with stakeholders and external experts is recommended for DPIAs, but none was done here. Even branches of the NHS in charge of health data handling, such as NHS Digital, do not appear to have been consulted.
A DPIA should examine how the rights and freedoms of the people whose data is collected might be affected and ask: “What could possibly go wrong?” When you construct a large database including individual medical data, there are many possibilities for it to be used beyond its original function and for abuse, bias and unexpected harmful side-effects. Unfortunately, this DPIA only recognises low-level risks with their technical and organisational mitigations.
Overall, that leaves us in a position where we do not know what Palantir, Faculty and others are doing with NHS medical data. We do not know whether the risks of abuse of the data have been properly recognised and mitigated. But we do know that this kind of database is not protected against access by intelligence services.
A full DPIA for the NHSX’s COVID-19 data operation might help. A more comprehensive solution would include a law to protect the pandemic-specific data programmes. But the proposal by the Joint Human Rights Committee has been rejected by the government. So for now, there’s plenty still to worry about.
The Conversation has approached NHSX, Palantir and Faculty for comment.
For thousands of Syrian refugees who have suffered horrific blast injuries after being hit by barrel bombs and other devices of death in their war-torn homeland, the only option is amputation. When you see the damage a blast injury can do it’s a shock to the system and is so very sad and upsetting.
Barrel bombs have been dropped throughout the long conflict that has torn Syria apart and caused untold misery and pain to so many innocent civilians. At the start of 2018, Amnesty International reported that barrel bombs had killed more than 11,000 civilians in Syria since 2012, injuring many more.
The barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device which – according to the UN – is used extensively by the Syrian Air Force. They are made from large oil barrels and are typically filled with TNT, oil and even chunks of steel. Due to the large amount of explosives that can be packed into a barrel, the resulting explosion can be devastating.
Even if a person survives such a blast, their limbs are at risk of suffering a large, often jagged break which, even in the best conditions, would be a major challenge to repair. In a fully equipped, state-of-the-art hospital such patients would be able to access expert orthopaedic surgery and a lot of expensive aftercare.
But in a refugee camp, far away from any sophisticated surgical intervention, these types of complex procedures with timely recovery and care implications are just not possible. So at the moment, amputation is unfortunately the most likely outcome in many of these cases.
This article is part of Conversation Insights The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
Many of these bone shattering injuries are untreatable because of the constant risk of infection from procedures carried out in the field and the collapse of the healthcare system. A simpler and cheaper way to help these people needed to be invented and my colleagues and I believe we have done just that.
Our treatment uses a temporary, 3D printed “bone brick” to fill the gap. They are made up of polymer and ceramic materials and can be clicked together just like a Lego brick to fit perfectly into whatever gap has been created by the blast injury. The bricks are degradable and allow new tissue to grow around them. This structure will support the load like a normal bone, induce the formation of new bone and, during this process, the bricks will dissolve. The idea is that the surgeon can open a bag of bricks and piece them together to fit that particular defect and promote the bone growth.
The solution has been a long time coming and it was very much the plight of Syrian refugees that inspired it. It struck a very personal chord. I recognise that misery and pain and see my younger self on the faces of the children. I was born and grew up in Mozambique in South-East Africa in 1968. It was the middle of the war of independence and the country was in turmoil.
My family inevitably became caught up in the decade-long conflict that involved the Portuguese community that was living and working in Mozambique and the Frelimo (The Mozambique Liberation Front) resistance movement that were seeking independence and self-rule.
It was 1973 and these were dangerous times. I was about five years old and it was a very frightening and disruptive period of my life. We moved up and down the country as my father’s job in civil administration changed and required us to move to the Niassa government base in Vila Cabral (now Lichinga).
One episode sticks out vividly. My one-year-old brother, Jose Manuel, and I were taken from our home in Maragra and moved to a refugee camp in an area of South Africa called Nelspruit, as we tried to escape the escalating violence. We were safe but I was always anxious and scared about the security of our family.
Although we were only in the camp for around a month before we were transferred to start a new life in Portugal when I was six, that experience stayed with me for life. It gave me a strong sense of empathy for others who are being displaced by war. And it would eventually strengthen my commitment to use my bio-medical expertise to try and do something to help other refugees.
Blast injuries and amputations
The first time I was made fully aware of the impact of blast injuries in the Syrian conflict was when Amer Shoaib – a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Manchester Royal infirmary – came to my university to discuss his experience and the problems he faced in treating these injuries in Syrian refugees.
Shoaib is a limb-injury expert with experience of working on the frontline of various conflicts and crisis zones as a humanitarian worker. He told us that in Syria the after effects of blast injuries were sometimes untreatable because of the constant risk of infection. The collapse of the healthcare system has also led to many treatments being done by people who are not, in fact, trained medics.
Shoaib was working in refugee camps in Turkey and I, along with my Manchester research colleagues Andy Weightman and Glenn Cooper, decided we needed to help and apply our expertise. We all wanted to make a difference and we continued our discussion late into the evening. This conversation developed into the idea of the “bone bricks”.
My own academic interests include biofabrication for tissue engineering. This involves fabricating bone, nerve, cartilage and skin through the use of 3D printing. 3D printing technology can now reproduce biocompatible and biodegradable materials that can be used in the human body.
Current grafting techniques have several limitations, including the risk of infection and disease transmission. They are also quite costly and present a high risk of further injury and serious bleeding. This work is centred on creating orthopaedic devices – or scaffolds – that can enable the regeneration of bone tissues to repair fractures.
I had been busy responding to the calls from clinicians to make these tools more agile, smaller in scale and responsive to more personalised healthcare. But the challenge set by the Syrian situation was a game-changer: we had to consider other new factors, such as making the scaffolds even more cost-effective and useable in demanding environments where it is very difficult to manage infection.
Part of our solution to these challenges was to use relatively low-cost 3D printing technology to create bone bricks with a degradable porous structure into which a special infection-fighting paste can be injected. The bone brick prosthesis and paste will prevent infection, promote bone regeneration and create a mechanically stable bone union during the healing period.
The challenge of creating this pioneering prosthesis led us on a journey to Turkey in 2016 where we met with academics, surgeons and medical companies. We were convinced that our proposed new technique could dramatically improve the medical response to life-changing limb injuries in the challenging conditions of these camps. It was clear that our project should be focused on patients within the Syrian refugee community in Turkey where they have found a safe haven from the horrors of war.
Once we secured the backing of the Global Challenges Research Fund (a £1.5 billion pot provided by the UK government to support cutting edge research that specifically addresses the challenges faced by developing countries) we began to put our project into motion. As a first step Weightman, Cooper and I visited Sabanci University in Istanbul to meet with our lead collaborator there, Bahattin Koç, who introduced us to a group of clinicians who had been dealing with the refugees and their injuries firsthand and were able to share their knowledge. Their experiences gave us insight into the challenges of treating serious bone injuries in the field.
Our collaborators in Turkey helped to ensure we shaped the design and specifications of the bone bricks so they aligned as closely as possible to the needs of the frontline clinicians. During our stay in Istanbul we were constantly reminded of the human cost of the Syrian civil war. We would often witness groups of displaced families, including children, who had fled the conflict and were seeking refuge and the chance to rebuild their lives. What we had seen on TV about Syria, with helicopters dropping bombs, was brought home to us. Some of my colleagues have children the same age as those we want to help and it made us even more determined to do something.
War in Syria
The Syrian conflict has displaced around 3 million refugees into Turkey, accounting for around 4% of its population. Turkey provides free healthcare services to Syrians and, as such, the burden on the healthcare system is significant, with 940,000 patients treated, 780,000 operations and 20.2 million outpatient services taken up between 2011 and 2017 alone.
The Turkish government says it has spent more than US$37 billion hosting Syrian refugees. We hope that our bone bricks innovation can make a contribution to this crisis, helping to mitigate Turkey’s healthcare costs and also significantly improve the human cost of this crisis.
Our project is focused on bone injuries that are often caused by blast explosions, which are powerful enough to throw a person many yards and shatter bodies. Shoaib once said to us:
This is certainly true for the Syrian crisis where thousands of people are suffering terrible injuries. Given that almost 2 million people have been injured in the Syrian civil war, we estimate that 100,000 people have been affected by large bone loss and of those injured since 2013 there have been more than 30,000 amputations – equating to about 7,500 a year. Amputation has associated physical complications including heart attack, slow wound healing and the constant risk of infection.
Current bone repair techniques are complex. They include:
The leg or arm being harnessed in a metal fixing device or cage which allows slow-growing bone tissue to reconnect. But this process frequently creates complications caused by metal wires transfixing and cutting through soft tissues as the frame is extended to lengthen the bone. It is a lengthy and meticulous.
Placing a pin or plate implant to stabilise the bone gap and enable the tissue to reconnect. This procedure requires complex surgery in specialist centres of excellence and can only be considered in extreme and selected cases.
Bone shortening procedures, where healing is stimulated by removing damaged bone tissue. Or there are forms of bone grafting techniques which use transplanted bone to repair and rebuild damaged bones.
And it must be remembered, traumatic limb amputation is a catastrophic injury and an irreversible act that has a sudden and emotionally devastating impact on the patient. As a consequence, this not only impacts a person’s ability to earn a living but also brings very serious psychological issues for the patient because of the cultural stigma associated with limb loss.
External prosthetic limbs after amputation provide some with a solution but they are not suitable for all. Studies show that the long term healthcare costs of amputation are three times higher than those treated by limb salvage. Clearly, saving a limb offers a better quality of life and functional capacity than amputation and external prosthetics.
Just like Lego
With many blast injuries, the bone defects are totally impossible to heal. What we are doing is creating a temporary structure using bone bricks to fill the gap. Our treatment uses medical scaffolds, made up of polymer and ceramic materials, which can be clicked together like a Lego brick, creating a degradable structure which then allows new tissue to grow.
We are also developing software to allow the clinician, based on the information on the bone defect, to select the exact number of bone bricks with the specific shape and size and information on how to assemble – just like Lego instructions. The connection between the bone brick design and the 3D printing system is completed. We’re now in the process of integrating with the software that will link the scanning of information from the wound area with the identification of the correct type of bone bricks and assembly mechanism.
An antibiotic ceramic paste is stored in a hollow in the middle of the brick and is a highly practical way to combat infection while the limb repairs and hugely improves the chances of success.
The bone brick solution is much more cost effective than current methods of treatment. We expect our limb-saving solution will be less than £200 for a typical 100mm fracture injury. This is far cheaper than current solutions, which can cost between £270 and £1,000 for an artificial limb depending on the type needed.
When will they be used on humans?
My team and I are entering the final stages of a three-year project. Our team consists of academics and clinicians from Manchester and Turkey, as well as a pool of ten bone injury patients drawn from the UK, Turkey and Syria. We have already evaluated the modular bone bricks system in a computer simulation, created prototypes of the modular bone bricks using 3D printing technologies in the lab, and conducted in-vitro (laboratory) testing of mechanical and biological characterisation of the bricks. This will be followed by in-vivo (animal) testing to prepare the device for regulatory approval and a pathway to implementation by clinicians. Once all these stages are complete the project we will be ready to trial on human patients.
The final stage will then be to translate the research into building a useable, medical device. This will be undertaken by a follow-on clinical trial on about 20 patients with large bone loss, some of which we expect will be drawn from the Syrian refugee community. The project will be subject to strict ethical scrutiny and approval.
We hope this project will lead to further development of emergency healthcare in the developing world and could bring hope to a Syrian refugee community in dire need while their country rebuilds. Our long term hope is that bone bricks will be of use, not only in refugee crises, but also in many other healthcare situations, such as accidents and natural disasters – in both developing and developed nations. For example, in the UK around 2,000 patients a year receive treatment for severe fractures requiring surgical reconstruction for bone loss.
The burden to the health service relating to major traumatic injuries is estimated to be in excess of £0.5bn. In addition, the estimated loss of contribution to the economy due to extended periods of rehabilitation is another £3.5 billion.
We believe the bone brick project could help alleviate some of those economic burdens and drastically improve the patient experience. But it is the plight of the Syrian refugees that continues to inspire and inform this project. We hope that, perhaps in five years’ time, bone bricks will be used in the field on humans, finally giving medics and victims an alternative to catastrophic limb amputation.
In the middle of the night, invisible to anyone but special telescopes in two Chinese observatories, satellite Micius sends particles of light to Earth to establish the world’s most secure communication link. Named after the ancient Chinese philosopher also known as Mozi, Micius is the world’s first quantum communications satellite and has, for several years, been at the forefront of quantum encryption. Scientists have now reported using this technology to reach a major milestone: long-range secure communication you could trust even without trusting the satellite it runs through.
Launched in 2016, Micius has already produced a number of breakthroughs under its operating team led by Pan Jian-Wei, China’s “Father of Quantum”. The satellite serves as the source of pairs of entangled photons, twinned light particles whose properties remain intertwined no matter how far apart they are. If you manipulate one of the photons, the other will be similarly affected at the very same moment.
It is this property that lies in the heart of the most secure forms of quantum cryptography, the entanglement-based quantum key distribution. If you use one of the entangled particles to create a key for encoding messages, only the person with the other particle can decode them.
Micius has previously produced entangled photons and delivered them to two ground stations (observatories) 1,200km apart via special telescopes. Scientists showed the photons reach Earth as entangled as they were in orbit.
Then, in 2017, Micius was used to distribute quantum cryptographic keys to ground stations near Vienna and Beijing, enabling a secure virtual meeting between the Austrian and Chinese science academies – 7,400km apart.
None of the communication went through Micius. It only produced and distributed the encryption keys. But both ground stations had to talk to and trust Micius as part of their communication systems and use it as a relay before establishing a link with each other.
A new paper from Pan Jia-Wei’s lab published in Nature shows that Micius has again successfully brought entanglement-based quantum cryptography to its original ground stations 1,200 km apart. But this time the satellite sent simultaneous streams of entangled photons to the ground stations to establish a direct link between the two of them.
This gave them robust, unbreakable cryptographic protection without the need to trust the satellite. Until now, this had never been done via satellite or at such great distances.
Again, none of the communication went through Micius. The satellite provided entangled photons as a convenient resource for the quantum cryptography and the two ground stations then used them according to their agreed protocol. This also involved designing the machinery for distributing the keys and a mechanism for preventing malicious attacks, such as blinding the telescopes with other light signals.
The new paper doesn’t specify how the messages were transmitted in this instance, but in theory it could be done by optical fibre, another communications satellite, radio, or any other method they agree upon.
Secure long-distance links such as this one will be the foundation of the quantum internet, the future global network with added security powered by laws of quantum mechanics, unmatched by classical cryptographic methods.
The launch of Micius and the records set by the scientists and engineers building quantum communication systems with its help have been compared to the effect Sputnik had on the space race in the 20th century. In a similar way, the quantum race has political and military implications that are hard to ignore.
Pan Jian-Wei credited Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures of internet surveillance by western governments with prompting China to boost quantum cryptography research in order to create more secure means of communication. As a result, Micius has been dubbed Sputnik for the ultra-paranoid.
Any country could theoretically trust Micius to provide entangled photons to secure its communications. But the satellite is a strategic resource that other countries are likely to want to replicate, just as Europe, Russia and China now have their own versions of the US-controlled GPS. However, the news of a successful long distance quantum communications link is a sign that we are already living in a new era of communication security.
This article has been amended to correct the time at which distribution machinery and attack prevention were developed
The world has failed to halt global warming. Four years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, most experts predict global warming will exceed the agreed thresholds, with disastrous consequences. As much as the world faces a climate crisis, it also faces a climate governance crisis: we know what must be done to halt climate change but we do not know yet how to get there.
New mechanisms are evidently needed. Blockchain is one technology that has the potential to boost global cooperation for climate action, as I explore in new research. Blockchain is a data structure that stores information as a series of cryptographically linked blocks, which are distributed simultaneously to all participants in a network. The information stored on a blockchain is tamper-resistant. This is useful for generating a single source of truth for any kind of information.
Blockchain technology provides the building blocks for what are known as decentralised autonomous organisations, which have been discussed (and criticised) as potential alternative governance mechanisms at the national level. But the benefits of such a decentralised organisation at the international level would be much higher.
Imagine a decentralised climate organisation, based on blockchain, in which states, companies, and individuals participate and whose interactions are facilitated by so-called smart contracts. These contracts are pieces of computer code running on top of the blockchain, which makes them virtually unstoppable. A common token — let us call it greencoin — allows climate commitments by states to be linked with the flourishing ecosystem of transnational climate initiatives and individual climate action.
Such an organisation would help get the world together to act against climate change in three ways.
1. Boosting transparency
Coordinated action against climate change requires better information. One important task is to ensure that different stakeholders do not claim carbon credits for the same carbon-offsetting activity, such as two companies paying for the same forest to be planted.
Another (more challenging) task would be to verify that carbon-offsetting activities have actually occurred. Blockchain technology, combined with information feeds such as internet-of-things devices, could tap new information sources.
Meanwhile, smart contracts offer an efficient way to reward critical tasks like verifying emission reductions and adaptation measures at the local level.
2. Enforcing commitments
Climate change is an area ripe with broken promises. Consider the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In other countries, worries have grown that the COVID-19 pandemic will thwart government efforts to honour their climate-related commitments.
Through smart contracts, blockchain technology could mitigate the risk of backsliding, provided that states underpinned their commitments with a monetary deposit. If states fail to comply with their emission reduction targets, their deposit could be taken and redistributed as greencoins to those that have abated carbon emissions, for example by planting trees, or other climate action.
More effective enforcement of commitments through smart contracts is only possible where resources have been staked upon commitments. An added benefit of eliminating uncertainty around enforcement is to entice more ambitious climate commitments from those who are concerned about being cheated upon by more powerful bodies.
3. Increasing ambition
Business as usual will not be enough to confront the impending climate crisis. A decentralised climate organisation would allow progressive transnational bodies to “buy” pro-climate transformation in laggard countries.
For example, transnational corporations including Apple, Google and Walmart, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other firms criticised the US decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Under a decentralised climate organisation, they could have devised smart contracts offering compensation to affected workers in exchange for more robust commitment by the US government to decarbonise the economy.
A related benefit of this approach would be to make their demands transparent, which would help less powerful bodies hold corporations to account on their climate-related pledges. For example, Microsoft recently announced it would invest US$1 billion to become a carbon-negative enterprise. This is all very well, but it could be rhetoric. If Microsoft underpinned this pledge by a smart contract with an appropriate stake, it would become inevitable, with huge benefits for everyone whose fortunes depend on powerful players like Microsoft following through on their promises.
A decentralised climate organisation would combine the resources of billions and unite their efforts in combating climate change. Anyone in a blockchain network connected to the system could earn greencoins by planting trees (like “mining” in the Bitcoin system). This would be profitable because greencoins have real value — they would be linked to the international commitments by states that have staked monetary resources on them.
People could also purchase greencoins to support climate action. By increasing the exchange value of greencoins, these people would provide incentives for more rapid tree-planting. Blockchain technology is ideally suited to settle these transactions automatically, provided appropriate systems for verification and the incentive system underlying effective decentralised verification are in place.
Blockchain-based climate governance has undeniable theoretical benefits, but there would be significant obstacles to its realisation.
While the blockchain ensures that once-recorded data is tamper-resistant, it can do little to ensure that the data that is brought onto the blockchain can be trusted. Start-ups like Chainlink have proposed decentralised networks of information feeds as a promising solution to this problem, but for some applications, suitable solutions are hard to find.
A blockchain-based climate organisation might not come to fruition if key players decided not to join. Powerful states or companies might be especially unwilling to participate in a system that makes broken promises immediately transparent and that automates the punishment process. But as long as there was enough momentum, they might slowly be incentivised to get involved.
A virtual entity for climate governance would also require people to accept to be governed by algorithms. And at the moment, this might be the hardest challenge of all.
Amazon has taken a step into the highly lucrative world of gaming by releasing its first title, Crucible. A team-based action shooter, it hopes to rival industry giants like Fortnite. What makes the game unique is that it was developed to be as fun to watch as it is to play. This is because it was created with the company’s gaming live-streaming platform Twitch in mind.
Twitch was acquired by Amazon in 2014. It has become the major platform for gamers around the world to show off their skills and acquire massive fanbases, even rivalling YouTube. In 2019, it attracted 17.5 million average daily users and more than 600 billion minutes of gameplay were watched.
It is easy to understand why it is fun to battle your way across fictional lands but a bit confusing why so many people enjoy watching someone else do it. However, the reasons they do are not so far removed from their own gameplay.
The logic behind the growing popularity of simply watching others play games can be found in the phenomenon of mirror neurons. These are specialist brain cells that seem to play some role in an animal’s ability to mimic.
There is increasing evidence that babies use mirror neurons to copy and learn facial expressions, and to mimic sounds. The idea is that when we see, for instance, a facial expression for the first time, mirror neurons fire in our brains giving us a map of how to copy that same expression through the neural connections to our faces.
There is also some evidence of mirror neurons’ involvement in areas such as empathy. These mirror neurons appear to contribute to a brain system that helps us relate what we observe in others to our own experiences.
This could be key to understanding why so many are driven to watch others play games. When we are watching the action being streamed to our screens, it would be these circuits that fire up and make us feel the highs and the lows, as if it were us playing. This kind of passive psychological involvement is also seen with spectators of traditional sports, such as football.
Learning from watching
Many Twitch viewers watch so they can increase their knowledge and improve their own playing experience. This was found in a study looking at the behaviours of Twitch users specifically. Users reported that they would watch gamers playing to discover new strategies for gameplay and to find out how good certain games are before purchasing them. That second point suggests that Twitch makes a fantastic marketing platform.
What’s more, the study found that social factors were also major drivers for using the service. The more hours that a person spends watching game streams, the greater the opportunity for them to interact with other like-minded members of the online community.
However, the strongest motivator for using the service, by far, was found to be the release of tension. Viewers sought to use the platform for escapism and diversion from their day-to-day lives. This was found to be a major driver behind the number of individual streams that are accessed in one sitting.
It seems likely, then, that we are not only hard-wired to enjoy watching other people play, particularly if we play games ourselves, but also psychologically driven to see streaming platforms as a way of fulfilling our informational, social and escapist needs. This phenomenon creates a demand that Twitch is well placed to supply.
In light of this, it seems an obvious and natural step to begin crafting games that make effective streaming of play to audiences easier, as is the case with the aptly named Crucible. These are the ingredients from which gaming legends will be made.
Our planet is altering at a dangerous pace due to climate change. And at the same time, we seem to be entering a period of unprecedented technological transformation. Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and internet-connected devices are creating increasingly complex intelligent technological systems.
As pressures on the planet and its climate increase, so does the hope that these novel technologies will be able to help us detect, adapt and respond to the growing environmental crisis. There are plenty of examples of how artificial intelligence could do this.
But for that to happen, the people who make and regulate this technology need to rethink some simplistic assumptions about how AI will shape the future of our planet. It’s time to start a serious discussion about how to put AI to use for both people and planet.
Using AI to analyse data from social media and microsensors placed around cities could help us better understand how people use them, revolutionising urban planning and helping mega-cities prepare for a turbulent climate future. AI could even help design products that can be more easily recycled by more quickly narrowing down competing designs to meet sustainability criteria.
With such potential, it’s no wonder major tech companies, governments and other organisations around the world are becoming increasingly interested in the use of AI for sustainability. For example, the Indian government’s thinktank NITI Aayog has partnered with Microsoft to develop AI applications for small-scale farming. And China has launched a seven-year pilot program to develop automated farming technologies such as unmanned combine harvesters or robotic tractors.
If developed in a responsible way, this kind of AI could help create a prosperous future for all without adding to climate and environmental destruction. But that won’t happen until the key players revise their simplistic assumptions about AI.
A key issue is the incorrect idea that the benefits of advances in data analysis and automation will trickle down automatically to those who need it the most. The digitalisation of agriculture is likely to come with high investment costs and a need for developed infrastructure (such as rural internet access) and education among its users.
This might not be a problem for big corporations and rich landowners, but could leave behind many farmers, particularly small ones in emerging economies. We’ve already seen tensions developing between farmers in the US and large technology companies who want to use farmers’ data to create more valuable agricultural products and services.
What’s more, complex ecosystems underpinning food production don’t always benefit from increased efficiency and optimisation of agriculture. In fact, more intensive farming could mean many environments lose their resilience to the stresses and shocks that result from environmental change.
This indicates that current AI technology doesn’t necessarily make the best decisions about how to respond to a situation. Instead, it can end up replicating the same kind of processes that characterised past human decisions, complete with their biases.
The environment is facing a potentially very different set of circumstances to the past due to the changing climate. So applying our current predictive models based on historical data would make its forecasts and recommendations unfit for a new and turbulent ecological context.
Another significant problem for many of these technologies is that they are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Malicious software can disrupt data collection and analysis or remotely control irrigation or nutrient delivery systems with the aim of destroying crop production. And the development of AI for use in cyber-attacks could make it harder to detect attacks and keep malicious software out.
The state of our planet and the potential risks and opportunities embedded in AI have until now been discussed separately. This must change. Technology giants, governments and civil society need to work with sustainability scientists to develop strong principles that guide the development of AI towards sustainability for all.
AI needs to be responsible, not only so that we understand how it makes its decisions and does so without discriminating, but also so that it doesn’t make environmental issues worse. No matter how intelligent technology becomes, its impact on people and the planet will always be our responsibility.
The video conferencing app Zoom gained about 2 million new users in the first two months of 2020 – and that was before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. With so many people now relying on video conferencing for contact with their friends, family and colleagues, it’s no wonder Zoom has seen a significant increase in its company stock price. But the firm has also attracted some negative press recently for issues related to its privacy and security.
I worked in the video conferencing industry for 10 years. During this time, I started a PhD on whether such systems meet the needs of organisations that have to communicate under adversarial circumstances, such as international NGOs and opposition groups under oppressive regimes. My near-finished research shows that Zoom has indeed had plenty of problems, but is far from the only platform with security and privacy issues.
A number of issues with Zoom have attracted public attention, most notably call hijacking or “Zoom-bombing”. Calls that are not set to private or password-protected can be accessed by anyone who inputs the nine- to 11-digit meeting code, and researchers have shown how valid meeting codes could easily be identified (something Zoom now says it prevents).
Zoom has also recently had to make changes to its iPhone and iPad apps to stop Facebook being able to collect data about users. And last year it was forced to fix a problem that could have allowed websites to turn on Mac users’ cameras without permission.
Another issue, recently highlighted by The Intercept, is that Zoom claims its calls can be encrypted, but doesn’t use the kind of end-to-end encryption that many people have come to understand as standard for private communication services. Messages or calls sent with end-to-end encryption are effectively locked with the receiving user’s public key that anyone can access, but can only be unlocked by the user’s private key. This system is used by messaging apps such as WhatsApp to ensure only a message’s recipient can read it – not even the app’s provider has access.
Zoom instead uses the AES-256 ECB method of encryption, which shares the key used to encrypt calls with Zoom’s servers around the globe. This potentially gives them full access to the audio and video streams, although the company has stated no user content is available to its employees or servers once encrypted.
Researchers have also found that encryption keys even up on Zoom servers based in China (where the company has development sites) even when no Chinese participants are in the call. This opens the possibility that the Chinese government, famed for its control of internet communications in the country, could eavesdrop on calls. Zoom has now started offering paying customers the ability to opt out of having data routed through China or other regions.
The problem for anyone looking for a more private system is that many of Zoom’s competitors have their own similar security issues. For example, Microsoft’s Skype and Teams services also use forms of encryption that give the company control over the keys.
So what are the alternatives? The most secure options are arguably those that use end-to-end encryption and are built with open-source code because it can be publicly reviewed to check it doesn’t have any hidden problems.
Signal is a messaging app that falls into this category and also provides video calling from smartphones, but not desktop video calls or video conferencing with multiple parties. Jitsi is also open source and provides end-to-end encrypted video calls via a web browser, and is working on doing the same for multi-party video conferencing.
If these options don’t suit you, then there are things you can do when using Zoom or other video calling services that have potential security issues to maximise your privacy and safety.
Enforce encryption by default and makes sure it’s end-to-end if possible
Lock and password-protect meetings
Unauthenticated users should be held in a waiting room so the organiser can check their identity before admitting them to the call
Make sure a meeting host monitors the participants list and ensures no unknown participant joins
Be careful with meeting recordings and get consent from the participants
Be aware that audio-only participants calling via a regular phone dial-in option will “break” the encryption
Be careful with file and screen-sharing capabilities. They could accidentally disclose sensitive information or be used to spread malicious programs.
In response to the issues raised in this article, a Zoom spokesperson said:
Zoom takes user privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously. Zoom was originally developed for enterprise use, and has been confidently selected for complete deployment by a large number of institutions globally, following security reviews of our user, network and datacenter layers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working around-the-clock to ensure that businesses, schools, and other organizations across the world can stay connected and operational. As more and new kinds of users start using Zoom during this time, Zoom has been proactively engaging to make sure they understand Zoom’s relevant policies, as well as the best ways to use the platform and protect their meetings.
Many new phrases have entered our vocabulary as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. “Zoom fatigue” refers to the mental exhaustion associated with online video conferencing.
We can change how we interact on video calls with adapted social behaviours such as scheduling shorter meetings. But theories from audio and sound research tell us that a lot of what determines how fatigued you become is based on what you are listening to.
The voices transmitted through the internet in real time are unedited and therefore crude to our ears. That is why we can wile away an hour listening to a podcast interview but feel drained after a video meeting – even if we didn’t have to contribute.
The good news is each one of us can contribute to reducing Zoom fatigue. You can change some simple things to improve everyone’s video meeting experience.
Subtle sounds such as key tapping and swallowing sounds will be captured and amplified through the system. Squeaky chairs, eating crunchy snacks and slurping coffee can sound to the listeners as if you are chewing in their ears.
If you want to limit the negative effect your voice might be having on other callers, the problem is you don’t know what it actually sounds like on their devices. Face to face we can hear ourselves in the same environment as our audience hears us and we adjust accordingly but that’s not possible online.
Step into your listener’s shoes: record a meeting on your own and listen back to understand how others hear you. Something as simple as adjusting the position, distance, or direction of your microphone could make a big difference. Switching from a laptop’s built-in microphone to a headphone microphone can mask a lot of environmental noises such as keyboard clicking or room echo.
Your new social space
While the content and topics of our video conversations may remain the same, we are constrained by the technology. Listening to group chats can be exhausting because we have lost the ways we use “back-channel” sounds to give turn-taking feedback.
Network problems can also impact speech clarity. Data loss in the audio feed can cause unnatural sounding voices and missing sounds. Our brain needs to do extra work to fill in the gaps. We use energy concentrating on unnatural voice changes that divert our concentration from understanding the message.
We must acknowledge the technical limits of video chats and adapt by cultivating new conversation etiquettes. Mute your microphones after saying hello and using text chat to interject or raise questions in group conversations. Articulate your own speech clearly (don’t mumble) and turn on closed captions to aid your comprehension. And make sure someone else in the house is not consuming all the bandwidth for Netflix while you are having a video conference.
Arrange your space
Conversations in a household environment bring background noises as well as echoes and reverberation due to room acoustics. Typical background conversations in open-plan offices can easily be filtered out subconsciously by our brain due to its ability to separate sounds by their location or direction.
These spatial cues allow us to focus on a single speaker in a crowded room. This is one reason why side-conversations held in parallel to the main discussion do not work on a video conference. Without the aid of directional information background noises and speech become a lot more intrusive. Rooms at home can produce reverberations that can reduce your ability to understand speech.
To make your home video environment more accommodating, close the door to at least keep pets out, even if it cannot stop kids interrupting. You may not want to convert your living room into a recording studio by putting egg cartons all over the wall but you can make the acoustic environment more “voice friendly” by reducing reverberation and echoes with soft furnishings like blankets or pillows instead of plain walls. The bookcase in the background is not just a pretty prop but also a good acoustic baffle.
Just like social distancing, improving the quality of your video call experience relies on a community effort. As many of us won’t be going back into the office for a long time, we must all work to reduce Zoom fatigue and make calls less of a strain for everyone.
The move towards driverless cars isn’t just a chance for people to relax at the wheel. It’s an opportunity to revolutionise personal transport in a way that offers life-changing benefits to people with disabilities.
But for this to happen, we need the car industry to commit to more inclusive design practices that right now are widely absent, and overcome the challenges of designing new ways to interact with autonomous vehicles. The solution could involve manufacturers drawing inspiration from diverse areas of product design to get the balance right between style and real-world user-friendliness.
The term “inclusive design” is used to describe the consideration of the needs and abilities of a diverse range of people in the design process. The car industry has traditionally focused on designing for people with driving licences – who by definition tend to be the more able-bodied section of the population.
Yet people with disabilities make up a significant minority – 22% of people in the UK (13.9 million) as of 2016-17. Many of these people may be unable to drive today’s cars, whether due to issues such as sight loss, significant physical impairments or cognitive issues.
Having a disability and being reliant on public transport is fraught with difficulties. And having trouble getting around is key among the barriers disabled people cite as stopping them taking greater part in society, whether visiting friends and family or joining a club.
Anyone who has had to have a difficult conversation with an older relative, encouraging them to give up driving often because of cognitive or physical decline, will understand what this can mean. So making transport more accessible is key to enabling people to improve their quality of life – whether through better economic opportunities, less social isolation or restoring dignity.
While autonomous cars will increasingly take away the need for people to physically drive the vehicles, there are other barriers to disabled people using cars that need to be considered. Simply getting in and out of vehicles presents difficulties to many people with physical disabilities – not just wheelchair users – and to many older people as muscle strength decreases with age. This makes thoughtful design touches such as grab handles and side steps widely beneficial.
Operating features that require significant effort, such as folding car seats or tailgates, can be difficult so it’s essential they are designed to work with a reasonable level of force using handles and large contact surfaces. Seat belts also present difficulties as they can be difficult to reach and insert. Restraint systems need a fresh look and a redesign using inclusive design principles to ensure they can be easily used by all in the population.
And for those who are wheelchair users, a simple, easy-to-use restraint system is also required. That’s assuming there’s a well-designed ramp, lowered floor and appropriate space for the wheelchair user to first enter the vehicle.
Self-driving cars will also introduce new challenges, such as the need for interfaces to enable passengers to select a destination or receive information about their journey. To cater for disabled people, they can’t be reliant on only one type of input or feedback. Visual displays may not be suitable for some passengers, just as voice input may be inappropriate for others.
Yet, despite the considerable discussion and resources going into changing personal transport through the development of self-driving cars, there’s little evidence that inclusive design is a major part of the process. This includes from regulators, who are updating their codes to accommodate trials of autonomous vehicles, but apparently without considering how vehicle design could benefit people with disabilities.
Including inclusive design
It’s not difficult to design accessible cars if the needs and capabilities of a diverse population are considered early in the design process. A few car makers have adopted this philosophy, for example, Ford uses a “third age suit” that simulates the limited mobility, vision and sense of touch that many older people experience.
This helps the firm’s engineers and designers to get those important details right, such as their 360-degree door handles that allow the door to be easily opened from the outside using the the whole arm and hand, rather than pull-up handles that require the fingers and wrist to operate them.
Similarly, firms in other sectors have already found ways to develop accessible interfaces. Samsung’s work in producing smart TVs accessible for blind and partially sighted people received the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s Inclusive Society Award. The TV can read on-screen text back to the user and provides verbal feedback about the channel, volume and programme information. It even reads aloud the on-screen programme guide.
The car industry has a choice to make: business class travel for a select few, or truly accessible transport for the wider population, offering dignity and an enhanced quality of life to those who face significant challenges everyday. I know which I prefer.
Yet amid these worrying developments there are positive elements to be found. Many of those who have kept their jobs have found they can keep working without the need for a daily commute. Recent research suggests that up to half of UK workers can do their jobs remotely.
And it’s not just office workers. Teachers, GPs, politicians and judges have all swiftly adapted to professional isolation. In just a few weeks, the traditional workplace has been transformed.
Suddenly fears that technology will destroy job have given way to relief that it can help save them. (Although the prospect of robot doctors treating patients, drones transporting vaccines and 3D printers producing face masks does not seem like a bad idea all of a sudden.)
Of course, working from home (WFH) requires considerable levels of adjustment. But data from our ongoing research shows that, on the whole, people seem seem quite positive about this aspect of their restricted lives.
In the middle of March 2020, we collected tweets using the hashtags #Coronavirus and #COVID-19 to observe how people were reacting on social networks to the pandemic. After processing 60 million tweets and removing the retweets, we focused on 6,500 messages from March 14 to April 6 that contained the hastag #WFH.
The idea was to assess how people were feeling about working from home. Overall, we found that 70.6% of the tweets reflected a positive sentiment towards the idea. The tweets that came from UK users after the lockdown on March 23 saw a rise in the positive feedback sentiment to 78.6%.
We used something called “sentiment analysis” to assess the tweets. For our purposes this was a lexicon-based approach where every tweet is represented as a group of words, which are each scored on a scale from negative to positive. A mathematical algorithm is then applied in order to a make a final assessment of the tweet’s overall sentiment.
We were also curious about the topics people were talking about. One of the more popular methods to extract themes from text is called “topic modelling”, which is essentially a way of processing large amounts of data – in this case tweets – to find out what words and phrases are being used the most.
Words such as “respect”, “inspire” and “proactive” appeared between 1,000 and 3,000 times in the #WFH tweets, indicating a positive response to the concept of working from home over the course of the pandemic.
Generating a word-cloud to observe the frequency of the words appearing in the tweets during this period, we also found the overall sentiment of the social media response to #WFH to be positive. There is a clear sense of productivity, with words such as “team”, “tips”, “satisfaction”, “service”, “remote”, “support” and “good” among the most prominent.
To build a deeper understanding of these positive feelings, we then mapped the sentiment generated from the tweets per day before the lockdown in the UK.
As the effects of coronavirus and lockdown intensified, so too did the mentions of working from home on Twitter. But there were dips too, most noticeably at the end of March 27, where there was a steep drop in #wfh references of nearly 50% which lasted for three days. We believe this could align with media reports highlighting concerns about children’s wellbeing during lockdown and widely expressed worries about the security of online meeting software, which were also expressed in some of the tweets.
There were negative experiences recorded too. For workers with children to look after, the changed dynamic of domestic life created new and widespread challenges. Yet this also inspired moments of gratitude and offers of help. The tweets we looked at showed evidence of small online communities forming, with people very happy to share #WFH tips and ideas.
Of course, working from home is not a new concept. But coronavirus has, in a very short space of time, forced it to become a normality for much wider sectors of the workforce. And overall, our research shows that the response to this has been positive.
This raises a new quandary about what will happen after the lockdown is lifted. Will businesses start to widen the practice to allow more flexibility to their employees? And if they don’t, how will employees feel about a return to the “old” ways of doing things? No doubt the response on social media will give us some clues.