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Tomorrow’s world

Listening to the far side of the planet

A wandering albatross above the Atlantic. Getty Images

Infrasound – acoustic waves below the range of human hearing – can reveal the secrets of “far-flung things”, says Robin Andrews in Wired. An erupting volcano can be measured from hundreds of miles away; elephants can be tracked as they roam the savanna. But the ocean makes a good deal of “irritating infrasound”, which gets in the way of listening to things across the sea. The pitching and rolling of boats also messes with recording.

Enter the wandering albatross, which uses its 11ft wingspan to fly “across vast swaths of isolated ocean”. A Dutch acoustics researcher decided to strap infrasound packs “no more hefty than a TV remote” to 25 of the birds – all it takes is a “special sort of hug” and some duct tape. He ended up with 115 hours of infrasound recordings covering 26,200 miles of flights. This accumulated “infrasonic soundscape” is invaluable: if you know what the ocean sounds like, you can filter out that sound to better listen to other things. The next step is to build a long-distance drone to replicate these “cyberpunk albatrosses”.

Rise of the McRobots

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

McRobots are taking over fast food, says Michael Joseph in Fortune. This year the American restaurant industry found itself short of 1.2 million employees. A photo of a Burger King sign went viral in July, as employees and a general manager quit in unison: the sign outside the restaurant read “WE ALL QUIT”. So now the robots are coming for their jobs.

McDonalds is using voice-based software to take drive-through orders, trying it out at 10 sites in Chicago. The US burger chain White Castle plans to introduce Flippy, a bun-flipping machine, at 10 sites after a successful trial. Hyundai Robotics is teaming up with KFC to develop chicken-cooking robots. And on the delivery front, Domino’s, now a self-described “tech company that sells pizza”, has invested in autonomous delivery cars.

Fast food and tech are a good fit. Many tasks in the restaurant industry are monotonous – and easily automated. Sharp knives, hot oil and slippery floors don’t make for the safest working environment, and using robots should increase efficiency and productivity. They don’t stage walkouts or even call in sick. They can work long hours and won’t jump ship for bigger pay cheques. And they don’t announce they’re quitting in public. Not yet, anyway.

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