‘The closest thing on Earth to interplanetary travel’

Finding out how fast Antarctic ice is melting is critical to understanding the scale of the climate crisis. The BBC’s chief environmental correspondent, Justin Rowlatt, is therefore joining scientists as they check the health of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But first he has to undergo some checks himself.

We were an hour into the medical examination.

Dr McGovern had asked every conceivable question. He had peered at, measured and squeezed me.

Then there was a pause.

“Now I need to examine your prostate”, he says.

“You’re kidding,” I say.

“I am not,” he replies, reaching for a latex glove.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why men of a certain age should undergo the procedure, I just couldn’t see why this should be a condition of going to Antarctica.

But, as I was discovering, everything Antarctic is extreme. Fall ill and dozens of people might have to risk their lives to try and rescue you.

It is the coldest and driest continent, and is also vast – home to 90% of the world’s ice.

You’re familiar with the marine life here, the penguins, seals and whales, but the largest indigenous land animal is actually a wingless midge.

“Travelling to Antarctica is the closest thing you’ll get to interplanetary travel while staying earth-bound,” one old Antarctic hand told me when I visited the British Antarctic Survey’s HQ in Cambridge.

I had a stack of books about the continent beside me on the long flight to New Zealand.

They are full of tales of the first explorers’ epic exertions in the tooth-shattering cold.

They call it the Heroic Age, but it says a lot about Antarctica that the “heroes” we celebrate were more often failures, defeated by this unforgiving place.

Scott didn’t come back.

Shackleton did, but on his most famous journey never actually set foot on the continent.

Meanwhile Amundsen, who planted the flag, is regarded by some as a cheat, because he didn’t suffer enough.

David Vaughan, the head of science at the British Antarctic Survey, is dismissive of those who come to Antarctica in search of adventure.

“If you want to suffer you can do that just as well in the Lake District,” he tells me over coffee in the spring sunshine of our hotel in New Zealand.

The air smells of fresh-mown grass. Birds squabble in the trees. A Christmas tree flashes incongruously in the corner.

David takes another sip of cappuccino.

“You can die of exposure there too, if that’s what you want to do.”

I’m not heading down south for adventure – but what I’m doing is very adventurous.

I’m here because the ice at the end of the world has begun to stir. Satellite images show the retreat of the mighty Thwaites glacier has begun to accelerate.

It already accounts for 4% of global sea-level rise.

If Thwaites goes, the world’s oceans would rise by over half a metre, but it would almost certainly also precipitate a wider collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – which could add another three metres or more.

The scientists I’m with want to find out how likely this is to happen and, if it does, when.

But only a handful of people have ever been to Thwaites, one of the most challenging places to reach – let alone work in – in the whole of Antarctica.

It is remote, 1,000 miles from the nearest research station, the glacier is riddled with treacherous crevasses, and the whole region is subject to terrible storms.

By the time the C-17 cargo plane skids to a halt on the Ross Ice Shelf we’re already late – snow on the runway has set us back a day.

I walk down the ladder and into a dazzling world of white and blue. The light is refracted into rainbows as it scissors off the ice. It is breathtakingly beautiful but I am entering a world in which time dissolves.

Within days of arriving at McMurdo, the main American research station in Antarctica, I feel as if I have been here for years. It isn’t just that the sun never sets, it is also because the 1,000 or so people here are so friendly.

Perhaps the vastness of the landscape and vagaries of the weather make co-operation and generosity the default option down here.

I’m piling second helpings on to my plate in the galley – the canteen that serves the base – when a man in overalls and a shaggy beard asks what I’m here for.

“I’m with the Thwaites project,” I tell him.

“You mean hurry up and Thwaites?” he says with a laugh.

It turns out not a single flight has made it from McMurdo to our base camp in West Antarctica for days. Three of McMurdo’s Hercules planes are broken and there’s a nasty weather system barrelling our way.

I help myself to an extra scoop of fries. When I sit back down I discover a fascinating marine biologist has joined our table. She’s studying how the extraordinary marine life forms that have evolved in Antarctica’s frigid waters respond to changing sea temperatures.

There are worse places to wait than the end of the world, I tell myself.

How the scramble for sand is destroying the Mekong

A crisis is engulfing the Mekong River, its banks are collapsing and half a million people are at risk of losing their homes.

The entire ecosystem of this South East Asian river is under threat, all because of the world’s insatiable demand for sand.

Extracted from the bed of this giant river in Cambodia and Vietnam, sand is one of the Earth’s most sought-after resources. Up to 50 billion tonnes are dredged globally every year – the largest extractive industry on the planet.

“Extraction is happening at absolutely astronomical rates, we’re having an industrial-scale transformation of the shape of the planet,” says river scientist Prof Stephen Darby at Southampton University.

His studies on the lower Mekong show its bed has been lowered by several metres in just a few years, over many hundreds of kilometres, all in the quest for sand.

From highways to hospitals, sand is the essential component for industries as varied as cosmetics, fertilisers and steel production – and particularly for cement.

In the last two decades demand has increased threefold, says the UN, fuelled by the race to build new towns and cities.

China consumed more sand between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in all of the 20th Century, as it urbanised its rural areas.

Sand is also used to bulk up landmass – Singapore is 20% bigger now than it was at the time of independence in 1965.

“Every year we extract enough sand to build a wall 27m (89ft) high and 27m wide, all the way around the world,” says Pascal Peduzzi of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Not any old sand will do. Desert sand is too smooth and fine to make concrete. Nor is it the kind that is needed to make glass or be used in the electronic industry.

So that is why sand is sought from ancient deposits in quarries – static extraction – or through so-called dynamic extraction from the sea and rivers like the Mekong.

Mr Peduzzi says dynamic extraction can be particularly damaging: “The sand is part of the ecosystem and plays a vital role, which if lost effects biodiversity, erosion and increases salinisation.”

According to conservation charity WWF and the Mekong River Commission, the bed of the two main channels of Mekong Delta lost 1.4m in elevation in the 10 years to 2008, and between two and three metres have been lost in elevation since 1990.

Research in Nature, published last month, says that the sand mining on one 20km (12.5 mile) stretch of the river is “non-sustainable” as it cannot be replaced fast enough by natural sediment from the river’s upper reaches.

It is not just a threat to the humans. The Mekong supports the world’s largest inland fishery, providing a food source for the 60 million people living in the catchment area. The WWF reckons 800 species of fish and one of the largest remaining populations of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, live there.

The Mekong is not the only place where the grab for sand is creating controversy. In Kenya and India for example, there have been violent clashes over the resource, which is consumed at a rate of 18kg for every person on the planet each day.

So is the world running out of sand? Mark Russell, director of the UK Mineral Products Association, says it is not so much about running out, but reliance on harder to find sand.

“While this is a global issue it is playing out at a local scale, it is a resource no one really thinks about,” he says.

One way to tackle the issue is by looking at ways to use the world’s abundant desert sand. Scientists from Imperial College London have taken smooth desert sand and developed a building material which they have called “Finite”. It has the same strength as residential concrete, with half the carbon footprint, and unlike concrete it is biodegradable.

Global Trade

At the same time, limits to supply of river sand are being put in place. Vietnam and Cambodia officially banned sand exports from the Mekong River in 2009 and 2017, respectively.

Yet on the internet, Mekong River sand is advertised in orders from 20,000 to 200,000 tonnes. And Rolf Aalto, a geography professor at Exeter University, has found that while Cambodia claims not to be exporting, Singapore continues to record imports from the country.

The Cambodian Foreign Ministry for Mines and Energy did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.

But the situation illustrates what Mr Russell describes as a global absence of transparency. “If you don’t actually know what you’re consuming or where its coming from or going, it’s incredibly difficult to take informed management decisions.”

There is a lack of data, Prof Darby agrees. “The major difficulty with sand mining is that the lack of governance tends to mean that there is not any systematic data on the extent and magnitude of the trade globally.”

Mr Peduzzi says this is why a world monitoring centre is needed. “At the moment all we have are general estimates and we need to centralise our efforts.”

That is in addition to the resolution on mineral resource governance outlined by the UN in March, which stipulates how countries should reduce the impact of sand mining.

“We just need to be much more clever in how we use it,” says Mr Peduzzi. “Sand has to be recognised as a strategic material, not just an endless supply.”

Is China gaining an edge in artificial intelligence?

“China is betting on AI and investing in AI and deploying AI on a scale no other country is doing,” says Abishur Prakash, a futurist and author of books about the effect of artificial intelligence (AI) on geopolitics.

As developments in AI accelerate, some in the US fear that the ability of China’s powerful central government to marshal data and pour resources into the field will push it ahead.

The country has announced billions in funding for start-ups, launched programmes to woo researchers from overseas and streamlined its data policies.

It has announced news-reading robots and AI-powered strategy for foreign relations. Perhaps most alarming to the US are its efforts to incorporate it into its military.

In the last few years, Washington has toughened oversight of Chinese investments, banned US firms from doing business with certain Chinese companies and increased criminal prosecution of alleged technology theft.

“What the Trump administration is doing is a sign… the US knows that its geopolitical power will be redefined and reconfigured by this era,” said Mr Prakash, who works at the Toronto-based Center for Innovating the Future.

These developments come amid political tension between the two nations. Yet, some analysts worry the US response is counterproductive, arguing that cutting off access to US microchips, for example, could simply accelerate Chinese efforts to develop their own alternatives.

The Trump administration has imposed tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods – retaliation for “unfair” practices it says are aimed at giving China an advantage in the field.

The White House has also pressed universities to review their relationships with Chinese partners and threatened to restrict student visas. It is even said to be looking at rules against certain US investments in China – once nearly unthinkable in free-market America.

The actions are aimed at preserving US leadership in technologies expected to determine economic and military power for generations to come.

“That China will grow to be an economy as large as ours may be inevitable; that we aid their mercantilist strategy through free trade and open investment in our technology sector is a choice,” US Department of Defense officials wrote in a widely cited 2018 report.

China advances

As the US and China race to capitalise on advances in machine learning, facial recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence, Tom Mitchell has a front row seat.

The professor of computer science founded the world’s first research centre for artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon in the US. Since 2018, he has also served as chief scientist at Squirrel, a leading tutoring company in China.

He says the US has more experience building tech companies, but China may have the advantage when it comes to AI applications relying on big data sets – and points to the medical field as an example.

“In the US we’ve had electronic medical records for over 20 years but we still have not put together all the records in the country to run machine-learning algorithms on those.”

He says the US has been inhibited by privacy concerns, as well as a fractured, for-profit industry.

“In China, it’s a different situation. If the government decides that it’s going to have country-wide electronic medical records… then it’s going to happen.”

Prof Mitchell, who is working on using AI to improve education, says working in both the US and China puts him in the best position to invent and apply cutting-edge technology.

But that kind of cross-border collaboration is facing increasing scrutiny, given rising political tensions.

Scaling back

Last year, Chinese investment in the US dropped to $4.8bn (£3.7bn) – its lowest level since 2011 – while US investment in China dipped from $14bn to $13bn, according to the Rhodium Group’s annual report.

High-profile Chinese firms, like insurance giant Anbang and Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, have reportedly sold or scaled back US operations, while China’s Huawei and ZTE have suffered serious losses after being subject to US bans.

In US academic circles, universities are rethinking their ties to China, while US firms doing business in China have also grown more cautious.

Mr Prakash, who works with start-ups, tech firms and governments on questions of artificial intelligence, says while many western firms continue to pursue opportunities in China, current tensions have changed the discussions.

“Geopolitics is now front and centre for all of them,” he says. “They’re forced to say, hey, we’re based in Silicon Valley, we’re selling to part of Asia and now as this tech war unfolds we need to understand what’s possible, what can we do, what are our options.”

Will it work?

Prof Mitchell says policymakers need to distinguish between AI applications that are win-win and those that are truly competitive, such as those for the military.

In the meantime, he says Washington’s increasingly nationalist tone risks alienating America’s foreign students and researchers – many of them Chinese – who have played a critical role in US tech leadership to date.

“To start thinking about putting up export control walls around the US could be as damaging to the US research enterprise as anything that a foreign adversary might try to do to us. I hope we will act rationally and not just out of fear.”

While US concerns about technology theft have merit, “I feel like we’re over-reacting,” says Prof Mitchell.

“The fact that China or the UK or anybody decides they want to be a leader in AI – it would be surprising if they did not. It’s not something to be reviled,” he says.

American national plans have also called for boosting investment, reforming the immigration system and improving education, but those are much more difficult to achieve, says William Carter, deputy director of technology policy at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Being hard on China is an easy political sell,” he says, but warns that, “I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot in a lot of ways”.

The race between the US and China is now moving to other countries, which are being pushed to take sides as tech firms from the two compete for turf.

The US has pressed its allies to stop using equipment from China’s Huawei, for example, citing concerns that Beijing could use the firm’s equipment for hacking. It has also raised human rights concerns.

At a recent conference, a US official argued that Chinese tech companies are “de facto tools” of the state’s Communist Party, saying they “have become deeply enmeshed in Beijing’s system of oppression at home and its increasingly assertive strategic ambitions globally.”

As artificial intelligence technologies drive debates over values like surveillance and privacy, free speech and censorship, conflicts between the two countries are likely to increase, says Nicholas Wright, a fellow at the New America think tank in Washington, who has worked with the US and UK governments.

“To some extent, this is just a generic challenge, where you have a new set of technologies and whomever manages to implement them first and best will gain an advantage… but then there’s also another set of issues which is to do with the specifics of these new digital technologies,” he says.

For now, it may take artificial intelligence to know how the race will end.

Japan’s workplaces rethink ‘drinking with the boss’

Riku Kitamura remembers his first “drinking party” as a new graduate in Japan. The 28-year-old worked for a market research firm and the team would regularly socialise over drinks in the evening.

“[At first] I did feel the pressure that I had to drink more, that I had to catch up to others. It got me quite drunk,” he says.

Drinking with colleagues after work has long been part of Japanese culture. Nomikai, or drinking gatherings, are seen as central to building strong relationships.

But in some offices, those gatherings have become less frequent as concerns over power harassment grow. That’s taking away a path many workers in Japan traditionally relied on to get to know their boss.

Essentially workplace bullying, power harassment ranges from isolating an employee to physical abuse by a superior.

“Forcing people to go to a drinking party is sometimes seen as harassment,” says Kumiko Nemoto, professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

“In the past, it happened all the time. It was part of normal corporate culture in Japan but now it’s seen as power harassment.”

The government wants to introduce rules for employers to prevent power harassment from next year. The move is part of a wider effort to stamp out harmful workplace behaviour in a country known for punishing hours and even death caused by overwork.

Against this backdrop, some managers are hesitant to invite their staff to drinks after work.

Mr Kitamura says over the last three years, bosses have been clear that drinking isn’t compulsory. “Managers are afraid of a backlash,” he says. “I can definitely feel that the managers aren’t pushing it [and] trying to avoid the risk.”

‘People are more aware’

Among them is 47-year-old Tats Katsuki. Mr Katsuki, a manager at a Japanese trading house, admits he doesn’t ask his team to go out drinking as companies take a tougher line on harassment.

“People are generally worried for all kinds of harassment, power harassment, sexual harassment,” he says.

That awareness has spiked over the past five years, and individuals “get fired all the time now for this kind of stuff,” he says.

“Subordinates can always anonymously email or write letters to… a complaints box. People are much more aware and prudent.”

It’s a far cry from the Japanese workplaces Mr Katsuki began his career in more than two decades ago.

Back then, he says there was a “different mentality”. He’d go out drinking with colleagues in Tokyo up to four times a week.

“Your boss would say, are you free now? Let’s go. There was really no way of saying no,” Mr Katsuki says.

The party would carry on after client dinners, sometimes into the early hours. He felt he was probably drinking too much and often battled with hangovers.

But overall, it wasn’t a hardship: “At the time I thought it was good because you get to know your bosses really well. We used to talk about work a lot but also non-work stuff… [and] get to know the other person better.”

His generation came up in the workforce after Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. An era of excess and extravagance ended as a period of prolonged economic pain – known as the country’s lost decade – began.

The idea of a “job for life” started to recede and other forces, such as more part-time staff and women in the workforce, saw the culture within traditional Japanese organisations shift.

Prof Nemoto says before the bubble burst, drinking was an extension of work. But as the business environment changed, so too did expectations on staff – including around socialising with the boss.

New rules

Mr Katsuki says now workplaces in Japan are just like anywhere else in the world, with pre-planned social events like welcome dinners.

He says the amount of alcohol drunk at work functions has fallen and fewer bosses will tap their staff on the shoulder for a night out. That’s due in part to fears around the perception of harassment.

Mr Katsuki’s experience mirrors the shifting workplace dynamics seen elsewhere in the world that have left some unsure of the new “rules” on the job.

He discusses this regularly with his team and has pushed to define the boundaries of what’s acceptable so as not to overstep the mark.

“People are unsure even whether they can say ‘you changed your hairstyle’ to a female employee. There’s a lot less conversation because people are afraid of saying something… and being told that’s harassment.”

Feeling ‘excluded’

Yet as managers attempt to navigate the new terrain, some younger workers are feeling left out. They think the perceived risks have prompted an overreaction.

Mr Kitamura, who now works as a project manager at market research firm CarterJMRN in Tokyo, says newcomers “feel like they aren’t being invited to drink anymore”.

“They feel excluded. Drinking is still a social tool… to really connect with your manager. They will talk to the manager and say, hey why aren’t you inviting me to the drinking party?”

He says while he felt pressure as a newcomer to go to work gatherings, he enjoys drinking and wants to be included.

Parissa Haghirian, professor of international management at Sophia University, echoes that sentiment – and underlines the importance in Japan of forming social bonds over dinner and drinks.

“People like drinking in Japan,” she says. “Drinking and smoking are seen as relaxing things. It doesn’t have such bad connotations.”

“The idea is we do this together, it’s extremely important to be part of it.”

What Trump wants from global trade

President Donald Trump’s approach to international trade is driven to a large extent by his belief that the United States is being unfairly treated by other countries.

His main supporting evidence is the trade deficit – the US buys more than it sells internationally.

He has referred to the deficit as losing money. In one tweet he wrote about losing $500bn (£388bn) a year as a result of crazy trade with China. No more, he promised.

One of his central economic objectives has been to reduce it. In November 2017, his first year in office, he referred to the total deficit with all trade partners of almost $800bn a year as unacceptable. He said: “We are going to start whittling that down, and as fast as possible”

But it hasn’t come down. The figure that President Trump referred to was for trade in goods alone. It has increased in both of the full years since he took office.

It was $750bn in the final year under President Barack Obama, $887bn in 2018, and the increase has continued. We have figures for the first nine months of this year, showing the deficit was larger, though only slightly, than in the same period of 2018.

Mr Trump focuses on bilateral deficits, often suggesting they are evidence of the unfair actions of the other country concerned.

The deficit with China is by far the largest. It rose in Mr Trump’s first two years, but for the first nine months of 2019 it is lower. Both imports and exports have fallen, imports by more.

That is hardly surprising as the two countries have applied increased tariffs to large swathes of one another’s goods.

So a success for President Trump? Only if you think bilateral trade balances really matter. And most economists think they don’t.

Getting one bilateral deficit down does not guarantee you reduce the overall deficit. The deficit with China may be down, but others have increased – Vietnam, Mexico and Taiwan for example.

Global Trade

Part of the underlying story is the fact that the trade balance with the rest of the world is mainly driven not by barriers that countries put in the way of one another’s goods.

Instead, it’s about whether countries buy more goods and services than they produce. Prof Greg Mankiw of Harvard University (who used to be a supporter of the Republican Party) puts it like this: “If you really want to reduce a trade deficit, the way to do it is to bring down spending relative to production, not to demonise trading partners around the world.”

President Trump has, if anything, done just the opposite. His tax cuts have given a boost to the US economy, though that may now be fading. But it’s not really surprising that the trade deficit should rise as Americans – families and businesses – have had more to spend, and some of that money goes on imported goods.

There is an idea in economics known as the “twin deficits hypothesis”, that there is a link between a government budget deficit and a trade deficit – or strictly speaking, a current account deficit that includes some financial transactions in addition to trade in goods and services.

It is by no means a settled debate, but the idea that tax cuts can in some circumstances lead to a larger trade deficit is entirely credible.

So there is a coherent story here that President Trump has taken steps – tax cuts – that make it harder to achieve something else he wants – a reduction in the trade deficit.

That’s not to say that President Trump isn’t on to something, in the sense that his views on trade may reflect real economic damage in some communities. The Nobel Prize winner Esther Duflo says there is among economists an “instinctive view on trade, that it should be good for everyone”. But it’s not true she says.

Although trade boosts growth overall, it does produce concentrated pockets of job losses, she says. That’s not a new view, and it doesn’t mean you can turn the clock back or reverse the losses by putting up new trade barriers.

 

Tech trends 2020: New spacecraft and bendy screens

If your ambition is to fly into space – and you’ve got plenty of spare cash – then 2020 could be an exciting year.

If space travel is not really your thing, but you would like a much bigger screen on your mobile phone, then 2020 might also have some tech for you.

But if you think there are already too many phones out there and the technology industry needs to be less wasteful, well some tech companies might catch up with your thinking.

Here’s a little taster of what might be coming in the next twelve months.

Crewed space missions

2020 is going to be a “pivotal year” for space travel, according to Guy Norris, a senior editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Since Nasa retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has relied on Russian spacecraft to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.

That could all change in 2020 when, if all goes to plan, two US-built spacecraft should start carrying crew.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which can carry up to seven astronauts into orbit, is due for its first test flight today before the first manned flight, likely to be in 2020.

Meanwhile the SpaceX Dragon capsule will go through some final tests in early 2020, and if they all go well then it too would be ready for a crewed mission.

Other systems, designed to reach near-Earth space, could also reach milestones in 2020. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, could be ready to take tourists on its New Shepard suborbital rocket.

Virgin Galactic could also be ready in 2020 to take passengers into space, more than a decade later than founder Richard Branson originally hoped.

It’s reported that more than 600 people have put down deposits for a Virgin Galactic flight, with tickets costing $250,000 (£195,000).

“It’s finally delivery time for a lot of these long promised programmes and a chance for a whole range of technologies to really prove themselves for the first time,” says Mr Norris.

Technology and the environment

Protests by Extinction Rebellion have helped move climate change up the agenda for technology companies.

Among those that will be under pressure are mobile phone makers. It’s estimated there are 18 billion phones lying around unused worldwide. With around 1.3 billion phones sold in 2019, that number is growing all the time.

Mobile phone makers will be under pressure to make their production processes greener and their phones more easily repairable.

The same will go for the makers of other consumer goods including TVs, washing machines and vacuum cleaners.

Also watch the companies that provide mobile phone services. Vodafone has already promised that in the UK by 2023 its networks will all run on sustainable energy sources. Others are likely to follow suit.

Business travel is under pressure as well. Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight says it will become “socially unacceptable” to fly around the world for meetings and firms will switch to virtual meetings.

There could also be green initiatives from the cloud computing industry as well. Their facilities which house thousands of computer servers use huge amounts of power.

Flexible displays

The launch of Samsung’s first foldable phone in April did not go smoothly. Several reviewers broke the screens and the company had to make some rapid improvements before it went on sale in September.

Motorola had a more successful launch of its new Razr, although some reviewers complained about the price. But this is unlikely to hold the market back. Samsung is expected to launch other devices with flexible displays next year – possibly a tablet.

TCL, the second biggest maker of TVs in China, has also promised to launch its first mobile foldable device in 2020 and then other products quickly after that.

It is betting big on the market, having invested $5.5bn in developing flexible displays.

Analysts say that screens will be incorporated into all sorts of surfaces. Smart speakers might have wrap-around displays, watch-like devices will have straps with displays and fridge doors might have large screens.

Super-fast mobile

We can expect the rollout of high-speed mobile phone networks to continue. By the end of 2019 around 40 networks in 22 countries were offering 5G service.

By the end of 2020 that number will have more than doubled to to around 125 operators, says Kester Mann at CCS Insight.

“There could be an interesting development in the way 5G contracts are priced. A 5G contract without a phone will cost around £30 a month and for that you’re likely to get unlimited amounts of data.”

But analysts say that next year we may see prices based on the speed of the service you want – a bit like the way home broadband is already priced.

Vodafone is already offering contracts based on speed in the UK. Also in the UK, the network 3 is likely to push its 5G offering as an alternative to broadband at home, analysts say. That might appeal to people who move around a lot – students for example – and don’t want a fixed line service.

Quantum computing

Will next year be another big one for quantum computing; the technology which exploits the baffling but powerful behaviour of tiny particles such as electrons and photons?

In October Google said that its quantum computer had performed a task in 200 seconds, that the fastest supercomputer would have taken 10,000 years to complete. There was some quibbling over its achievement, but experts say it was a big moment.

“It’s a fantastic milestone,” says Philipp Gerbert, a member of the deep tech group at consultancy firm BCG: “It’s clear they exceeded the classical computer, by what margin you can debate. They disproved some lingering doubts.”

Mr Gerbert thinks other leaders in the field – IBM, Rigetti and IonQ – could also clear that hurdle: “They all have excellent teams, one or two will reach a similar stage over the next year.”

Once the technology is proven, quantum computers could spur breakthroughs in chemistry, pharmaceuticals and engineering.

Google has also promised to make its quantum computer available for use by outsiders in 2020, but has not provided any details yet.

“Clearly people would love to get access to that,” Mr Gerbert says.

 

Airbnb is not an estate agent, EU court rules

The accommodation-booking service Airbnb does not need an estate agent’s licence to operate in France, Europe’s top court has ruled.

The French tourism association had complained that Airbnb did not comply with French property laws.

It means the app’s users avoid a threat of disruption to its service in the country.

Had the court ruled the other way it would have served as a precedent for other EU regulators.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)’s decision was based on its determination that Airbnb was an “information society service” rather than a property broker.

The judges involved also drew a distinction between Airbnb and Uber on the basis of how much control the property-booking app had over transactions on its service.

Airbnb said it would “move forward and continue working with cities”.

What was the case about?

Airbnb is designed to let people rent out spare rooms or entire properties to holiday-makers on a short-term basis.

France’s Association for Professional Tourism and Accommodation (AHTOP) complained that Airbnb was acting as an estate agency without a licence, breaching a local act known as the Hoguet Law.

Airbnb argued that it was protected by EU laws on “electronic commerce”.

What did the court find?

The CJEU said it was satisfied that Airbnb was an “information society service” rather than an estate agent because:

  • Airbnb’s platform was not simply an “ancillary” or add-on service to a wider property business
  • property owners were able to offer their homes for rent through other channels
  • Airbnb did not set or cap the rent charged by home-owners

In addition, it said the French authorities had failed to inform the European Commission about the Hoguet Law at the time the EU directive on electronic commerce was being prepared.

It suggested France’s “failure to fulfil its obligation” could be used as a defence in future court cases.

Why is Airbnb different to Uber?

In December 2017, the CJEU ruled that car-sharing company Uber was a taxi firm and not simply an “information society service”.

The CJEU said the case against Airbnb was “unlike” the one made against Uber, because it could not establish that Airbnb had a “decisive influence” over the accommodation offered on its platform.

Airbnb does not determine the rental price charged for property, and lets customers choose which home to rent.

In contrast, Uber sets the fare for rides in its app, and assigns each passenger a driver.

Huawei: Trouble overseas but boom time in China

Jun Yu can’t resist gadgets.

More than 20 smartphones, old tablets and other devices lurk in a corner of his Beijing home – an ever-growing tech junkyard.

His apartment also boasts a Google Home smart assistant and an Amazon Echo.

“I take three phones out with me every day. I use a phone for Chinese apps, I use my iPhone for Gmail and western apps, and I use my Google Pixel phone for work,” says the 34-year-old tech entrepreneur.

His obsession has paid off though. In 2009, he bought the first phone to use Android, the software that now runs more than 80% of smartphones.

A year later, the physics graduate, founded his own company creating content for Chinese Android users. By 2016 he had sold the company for an undisclosed amount to Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant.

Now he is excited about the next generation of technology, known as 5G. It promises lightning fast internet connections for your mobile phone – fast enough to download movies in a matter of seconds, or to stream high definition TV.

In October, Jun Yu pre-ordered a 5G-ready smartphone, made by China’s Xiaomi.

“4G has enabled many things like mobile video, more immersive gaming. I know 5G will too. But I don’t exactly know how yet,” he says.

But in the US and UK the rollout of 5G networks has been hampered by an international row over one of the most important suppliers of 5G equipment, China’s Huawei.

Rivals is a season of in-depth coverage on BBC News about the contest for supremacy between the US and China across trade, tech, defence and soft power.

The US has banned the use of Huawei equipment in 5G networks over security fears, and has encouraged its allies to do the same. It also maintains a tight control over what US companies can sell to Huawei, which has disrupted sales of Huawei phones overseas.

Industry analysts like Edison Lee, an analyst from financial services group Jefferies, see the US pressure on Huawei as an attempt to break China’s potential dominance of the global 5G market.

“The tech war is based on America’s argument that China’s technological advances have been built upon stolen intellectual property rights, and heavy government subsidies, and their belief that Chinese telecom equipment is not safe, and is a national security threat to the US and its allies,” he says.

“As Huawei and [fellow Chinese firm] ZTE increasingly dominate the global telecom equipment market, the western world will be more vulnerable to Chinese spying,” Lee adds.

Huawei has always strongly denied that its technology can be used for spying.

While western nations worry about one of the key suppliers of 5G technology, China is racing ahead with its 5G rollout.

On 31 October Chinese telecom companies launched 5G services in more than 50 Chinese cities, creating one of the world’s largest 5G networks.

Huawei has built an estimated 50% of the network.

The Chinese Ministry of Information claims that in just 20 days the country registered more than 800,000 subscribers. Analysts predict China will have as many as 110 million 5G users by 2020.

And China’s tech sector is busy coming up with uses for the new tech.

On a large plot of land in northern Hong Kong, researchers are developing 5G powered autonomous vehicles.

Researchers at Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institution are working in partnership with China Mobile, the largest telecom company in China.

They see 5G as being particularly useful for self-driving cars, allowing the cars to build an accurate picture of what’s going on around them, by communicating with other vehicles, traffic signals and sensors in the road.

“For consumers, 5G will possibly transform how we interact with other. For the government, 5G will transform roads and road infrastructure to enable new applications like enhanced assisted-driving and eventually autonomous driving,” says Alex Mui, a researcher on the project.

Industry analysts are not confident that the row between China and the US will be sorted out anytime soon.

“We see the current tensions as a technological Cold War, as tech nationalism intensifies,” says Ben Wood, chief of research, at CCS Insight.

“With the Chinese government firmly committed to establishing China as a world-leading 5G nation, the opportunity for Huawei in its home market is immense.

“However, the rest of the world can’t afford to get left behind, and without access to Huawei infrastructure US mobile network operators in particular will need to rely on alternative suppliers who may be more expensive and less advanced with 5G.”

VW hit with record fine in Australia over emissions scandal

Volkswagen (VW) has been slapped with a record fine by Australia’s consumer watchdog to settle lawsuits over the carmaker’s global emissions scandal.

The A$125m ($86m; £66m) penalty is the highest ordered by a court for breaches of Australian consumer law.

VW has been hit with a flurry of legal action since 2015, when it emerged the firm had been cheating emissions tests.

Australian regulators have also launched proceedings over VW’s consumer loans.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has alleged in a federal court that VW failed to make proper checks into borrowers’ living expenses, or to determine if the loans were unsuitable for them.

The allegations relate to 49,380 consumer loans made between 2013 and 2016.

The fine relating to the emissions scandal came from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which said that VW admitted it had failed to disclose the existence software aimed at cheating emissions tests on 57,000 vehicles imported into Australia between 2011 and 2015.

In 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars had software in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, and then change the performance to improve results.

VW admitted 11 million cars worldwide had software that reduced readings of emissions in tests.

Globally, VW has been forced to pay out more than $33bn in fines, recall costs and civil settlements globally.

Bank of England keeps interest rates on hold

The Bank of England has kept interest rates on hold at 0.75% but indicated it may cut the cost of borrowing if global economic growth fails to recover or Brexit uncertainties persist.

It said the UK economy was expected to pick up from its current weakness.

However, the Bank said it would monitor companies’ and households’ reactions to Brexit as well as global growth.

The Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted 7-2 in favour of keeping the official rate on hold.

“If global growth fails to stabilise or if Brexit uncertainties remain entrenched, monetary policy may need to reinforce the expected recovery in GDP growth and inflation,” the committee said in a statement.

Third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 0.3% was “a little weaker” than the MPC expected at its November meeting, when members also voted 7-2 to keep rates on hold.

It said household spending continued to grow steadily, but business investment and export orders had remained weak.

The Bank predicted fourth quarter growth of 0.1% which again was a weaker outlook than at its last meeting.

It now expects inflation to subside to 1.25% in the spring. That largely reflects weakness in the construction sector, it said.

The Bank’s agents around the UK, who monitor regional economic activity, gave the construction sector its lowest score in six-and-a-half years.

The agents also highlighted falling manufacturing exports, with the car-making sector suffering one of the biggest declines.

‘Pressure’

The weak economy meant companies could not fully pass on higher costs to their customers even as those costs rose, squeezing profit margins.

“All sectors were affected, but margins were most squeezed in construction and consumer facing sectors,” the MPC said.

For those consumer-facing firms, the pressure on margins was heightened by the shift towards online shopping, higher business rates and the rise in the National Living Wage, it added.

That was one factor adding to weak investment. “Investment intentions remain depressed by slower global growth and political uncertainty,” the MPC said.

However, it also said that if global growth did stabilise and Brexit uncertainties faded then the next move in interest rates may be up.

Outlook ‘exceptionally cloudy’

Economists were divided over the direction of rates.

Dean Turner, an economist at UBS Wealth Management, said: “After last week’s election result, the short-term clarity we have on Brexit could give a lift to economic sentiment, especially for businesses. A modest fiscal easing in the forthcoming budget could also push things along a little.

“Overall, though, as attention turns to the December 2020 end of transition deadline, the mood will likely remain subdued and growth weak. We expect that the committee will move further towards a rate cut in 2020 and a quarter point easing in May.”

But Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said: “All told, we still think that interest rates are much more likely to rise next year than to fall.

“But as both the identity of the next [Bank of England] Governor and the willingness of the Prime Minister to sacrifice the economy to achieve Brexit by his timetable are unknown, the outlook for monetary policy remains exceptionally cloudy.”