They probably won’t look much like this. Credit: Moebiusuibeom-en at Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

China’s Google plots bikes with no riders. What could possibly go wrong?

Look, mum, no hands!

You thought Google’s self-driving cars sounded dangerous? Well, imagine the same thing, but with bikes. Bikes that drive themselves around. Bikes that drive themselves around with no one riding them.  

Now imagine them cruising along the traffic-choked streets of Shanghai and Beijing, and ask: what could possibly go wrong?

All this is the vision of Baidu, China’s largest web services company and search engine, which last Thursday confirmed rumours that it’s been developing a riderless “smartbike” for China. Like Google, the firm is sitting on huge amounts of geo location and map data, which it’ll use to create navigation systems. A spokesperson told the Chinese news website Sina that the bikes would also “use intelligent sensors and big data analysis to know the owner’s requirements and health index”. They’ll also, one hopes, be able to spot obstacles and avoid them.

Baidu’s take on the unmanned transport trend seems canny, as bikes are a huge market in China – the Earth Policy institute reported in 2010 that there were 430 million cyclists in the country. Electronic bikes (or “e-bikes”), which travel up to 30 miles per hour, have also seen a surge in popularity in the past 10 years, with 200 million sold in the country by 2013. That’s good news for Baidu: people are keen to travel on two wheels, but not so keen to actually pedal.

The bikes could also make life easier for China’s plethora of cycle courier services, by allowing them to carry packages to destinations without a rider – essentially like a grounded version of Amazon’s delivery drones.

When all this will come to fruition is not exactly clear: the spokesperson said the plans were “long-term” and wouldn’t confirm when the bikes would be on sale.  

It’s not the first time Baidu has followed in Google’s footsteps when it comes new technology. Since mid-2013, they’re been working on prototypes for the Baidu Eye, a headset with a screen with face recognition and image search which responds to voice commands, and which bears no resemblance whatsoever to Google Glass:

Oh.

Image credit: Baidu

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon – in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496