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‘15 minutes to save the world’: a terrifying VR journey into the nuclear bunker | Virtual reality

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It became clear that things had gone terribly awry on this particular day when I saw that the most moderate option on the desk in front of me involved killing at least five million people.

I could kill up to 45 million if I chose the more comprehensive of the alternatives laid out on three pieces of paper, but it was hard to focus on the details because there were people shouting at me through my earpiece and from the screens in front of me.

I was experiencing what a US president would have to do in the event of a nuclear crisis: make a decision that would end many millions of lives – and quite possibly life on the planet – with incomplete information and in less than 15 minutes.

In the real world, I was in a meeting room in a Washington hotel, but with virtual reality goggles strapped on. I was sitting behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office. The television news was on and there was a report about Russian troop movements, but the volume was muted and someone was telling me the national security adviser was running late for our meeting.

I tried to shift my focus back to the news but a few seconds later a siren went off and a bald man in a uniform and dark glasses appeared from the door to my left.

“Mr President, we have a national emergency,” a woman’s voice said. “Please follow the military officer right away.”

The bald officer ushered me into a wood-paneled lift which had been concealed behind a wall, and we began our descent.

The VR simulation has been developed by a team from Princeton, American and Hamburg universities, based on extensive research, including interviews with former officials, into what would happen if the US was – or believed itself to be – under nuclear attack. They have called their project the Nuclear Biscuit, after the small card bearing the president’s launch authorization codes.

Over the past few days, it has been tried out in Washington by nuclear weapons experts and former officials (the researchers would not say whether any serving decision-makers had a go).

“You walk into that simulation and come out a changed person,” Richard Burt, who was the US chief negotiator in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, said after his turn.

Having gone through the full, terrifying, 15 minutes, I can see what he means. I emerged from the lift with my military aide into the underground situation room. Unlike the famous scene in Dr Strangelove, I was not surrounded by advisers. In the real world, it is unlikely that they would be instantly on hand when the alarm sounds.

On this occasion my national security adviser was still stuck in traffic, and the military aide is trained to say nothing. His job is to hold on to the briefcase, the “nuclear football”, containing the launch plans and biscuit. In the US system, the president has sole command authority. He or she can make the decision without asking for any advice.

As soon as I took a seat, a voice in my headset started to tell me the situation. Early warning sensors had detected the launch of 299 missiles in Russia which were thought, with high confidence, to be heading for the US mainland and most likely, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in the north-west. An estimated 2 million Americans would be killed. While this was being explained, another voice – this time a secret service officer – was telling me helicopters were on the way to evacuate me.

I struggled to understand all the details because the siren was still going on. It took me a few minutes to remember I was the commander-in-chief and could order it to be turned off. It was silenced immediately but I could not be sure I had not missed a vital nuance.

A general from strategic command appeared on one of the screens in front of me and told me I did not have much time to make a decision and to keep an eye on the digital clock on the conference table. It said I had 12 minutes, 44 seconds left.

“If you don’t make a decision before the clock hits zero, we will lose our entire ICBM force,” the general said, in a voice that implied I had already let the nation down.

The silent military aide opened the football and put my three options in front of me. The first was a “limited counterforce” strike, aimed at Russian ICBM silos and major submarine and bomber bases. That was the version that would kill five to 15 million Russians. Option 2 was a “full-scale counterforce” with a 10-25 million casualty estimate. Option 3 also targeted “war sustaining industries”, the Russian leadership and would kill 30-45 million.

The counterattacking options laid bare.
The counterattacking options laid bare. Photograph: Courtesy The Nuclear Biscuit Project

In 1979, the world came within minutes of nuclear war because someone had left a training tape simulating a Russian attack in the early warning system monitors. In September 1983, Russian computers erroneously showed incoming US missiles. Armageddon was only averted because the duty officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, went against protocols and decided not to act on the alert because his gut told him it was a glitch.

In the decades since, the technology has been updated but it is theoretically possible early warning systems could be hacked just like other supposedly super-secure networks have in the past.

I asked my aides if a cyber attack was possible and was told it was impossible to know for sure. My national security adviser (who had by then overcome his problems with traffic) recalled there had been something in the daily brief about the early warning network repelling a cyber attack.

I decided to scrap all three options and ordered an attack on Russia’s remaining arsenal only after the first incoming missiles had landed and it was confirmed to be a real attack. In case I was dead by then, I was advised to delegate launch authority to the vice president.

What happens next was deliberately left unclear. The simulation ends with the military aide displaying the codes necessary to order the launch. The point of the exercise is to underline the mind-numbing impossibility of the choices facing the leader of a nuclear weapons state.

The nuclear launch codes are displayed.
The nuclear launch codes are displayed. Photograph: Courtesy The Nuclear Biscuit Project

Moritz Kütt, senior researcher at the University of Hamburg’s Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, said the great majority of the participants in the experiment so far had selected one of the three options on the table.

“Most people picked an escalatory option and only very few decided not to respond,” Kütt said.

“People felt they were making decisions under uncertainty,” Sharon Weiner, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University, said. “They wished they knew more or thought that something wasn’t clear, but there was pressure to make a decision anyway.

“I think some people pick an option just because they want to be over,” she added.

The pressure to take one of the options presented by the Pentagon felt almost overwhelming. At one point an aide asked how I would be able to face my country if I failed to respond. The simulation raises the question of who chooses those options in the first place. In the 15 minutes available, it would be impossible to put all feasible alternatives in front of a president, so whoever whittles them down holds a huge amount of power. All we know is that it is someone from the US military. Diplomats, politicians or ethicists are not part of the process.

In the event of a nuclear alert, it would be too late for any broader reflection – just a few minutes of trying to think clearly amid sirens, raised voices and a multitude of unknowns.

“The tendency to take mental shortcuts is greater in high stakes situations,” Weiner said. People take more risks in crises. “Some of the literature says it depends on whether you feel secure personally or in your career. If you feel you’re not doing well, you take unnecessary risks.”

In my case, I froze in the last few minutes of the countdown, unable to think of anything else to do. I should have tried calling Vladimir Putin perhaps, but it turns out the simulation would have told me he was not available.

Shockingly, the researchers found no evidence that any US president except Jimmy Carter, had taken part in realistic drills to practise potentially world-ending decisions. Other presidents occasionally participated in table-top exercises with aides to discuss options but more often sent surrogates in their place.

In January, the research team will take their experiment to Capitol Hill, with the aim of provoking some contemplation about the realities underlying US nuclear planning.

“Hopefully members of Congress will come to experience this and at least see the consequences of the choices they’ve made about nuclear weapons issues,” Weiner said. “They will see everybody in that virtual room is trying to do their job, but it’s an impossible job.”

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4 reasons hybrid working looks set to stay for young professionals

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From priorities to practicalities, Dr Amanda Jones of King’s College London explains why hybrid working may be here to stay and outlines the pitfalls that younger employees will need to avoid.

Click here to visit The Conversation.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

We’re in the middle of a remote working revolution. In the UK, though remote working was slowly growing before the pandemic, in 2020 the number of people working from home doubled.

While this rapid rise can be explained by Covid lockdowns, a recent survey my colleagues and I conducted with 2,000 London workers found that six in 10 employees still regularly work from home despite restrictions no longer being in place. And most don’t want that to change.

Findings from other parts of the world similarly point to a substantial increase in the number of work days being undertaken from home.

For young professionals, the shift has been particularly significant. Before the pandemic, employees in their 20s were by far the least likely to work from home.

In 2022, 64pc of 16 to 24-year-olds we surveyed reported working at home for at least part of the week. This figure is in line with 25 to 49-year-olds (65pc) and in fact higher than for people over 50 (48pc).

Other research also shows that young professionals now engage in hybrid working – dividing their time between their home and their workplace – and may prefer this model to being in the office full time.

US and European data shows that around four in 10 jobs can be conducted from home. But this figure may be higher if we consider that some jobs could be at least partly done from home. In particular, jobs in finance and insurance, information and communication and education are among the most conducive to being performed remotely.

Technologies which support remote working, such as Zoom and Slack, have been available for a number of years. While the pandemic has served as a catalyst for the rise in remote working among younger employees, I would argue that other factors have also contributed to this shift – some of which were already evident before the pandemic.

Importantly, each of these factors suggest this change to the way young professionals work is here to stay.

1. Priorities

Evidence suggests that even before the pandemic, young people were becoming more focused on their own goals, wanted greater flexibility and control, and sought a better work-life balance compared with previous generations. The reasons for this may be related to the changing nature of organisations and careers, which I’ll discuss later.

Our own and other research indicates that remote working, especially working from home (as opposed to, say, at client sites), can boost feelings of flexibility and control and enhance work-life balance. So working remotely could help younger people achieve these goals in a way that traditional working arrangements can’t.

In fact, research indicates that many young people would now rather switch jobs than compromise on the flexibility they gain from hybrid working. So for employers, supporting hybrid working may be necessary to attract and retain the best employees.

2. Practicalities

Across all age groups, participants in our research picked avoiding the commute as the biggest benefit of working remotely. While this has long been a recognised advantage of remote working, it’s important to note that we surveyed London workers – and the commute may be less of an issue for people in other places.

Aside from the time and hassle involved in commuting, travelling to work every day can be expensive. The cost of working in the office goes up if you also factor in lunches, coffees and after-work social activities.

This may be difficult for younger people – who are contending with the rising costs of living, often on lower salaries – to manage. Working remotely can help reduce spending, making it an attractive option – and even a potential lifeline – for younger employees.

3. Career trajectories

Studies show that a move towards less hierarchical, more efficient and flexible organisations results in a “new deal” of employment. Employers no longer guarantee job security and progression for employees, but gain their commitment by providing opportunities – including training programmes – that enhance their employability.

The onus then moves to employees to manage their own career progression, which remote working may help them with. For example, we know working from home can reduce distractions and improve productivity.

Taken with the commuting time saved, young professionals may have more time to dedicate to development opportunities, such as studying for additional qualifications. This could increase their attractiveness in the job market.

Indeed, young professionals seem to be the most likely to switch jobs. If they don’t expect to remain with an organisation long term, they may be less motivated to build strong relationships with colleagues and managers, and unwilling to put their own goals aside for those of the organisation.

4. Managers’ behaviour

Research shows many more managers now work remotely compared with before the pandemic. This change has two important effects.

First, managers who work remotely are likely to find it harder to stop juniors from doing the same. Managers’ ability to monitor and develop their junior staff in person, a common reason for prohibiting remote work in the past, is also reduced if managers are away from the office themselves.

Second, as more managers work remotely, younger employees may feel more confident that doing so won’t prevent them achieving success. Managers serve as role models to junior employees and evidence shows that younger professionals seek success by copying role models’ behaviour.

Avoiding the pitfalls of hybrid working

Despite the positives, younger employees, with comparatively limited experience and networks, may face disproportionately negative outcomes from remote working in terms of recognition, development and networking opportunities.

So if you’re a young professional working remotely, how can you avoid the pitfalls of hybrid working?

Setting your own goals can keep motivation and performance high. Meanwhile, proactively communicating your challenges and achievements to senior and peer-level colleagues can ensure that you receive guidance and recognition.

It’s a good idea to plan some of your time in the office to coordinate with team members or managers. At the same time, it’s useful to try to schedule office visits on different days of the week. This can help maintain key relationships but also help build networks through bumping into colleagues you don’t necessarily work as closely with.

Finally, upping attendance at external conferences and events could increase your value to the organisation through encouraging innovation and fresh ideas, while keeping you aware of external employment opportunities.

The Conversation

By Dr Amanda Jones

Dr Amanda Jones is a lecturer in organisational behaviour and human resource management at King’s College London.

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Kids’ tech: the best children’s gadgets for summer holidays | Gadgets

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With the long school summer holiday well under way, you may need a bit of help keeping the kids entertained. From walkie-talkies and cameras to tablets, robot toys and fitness trackers, here are some of the best kid-aimed tech to keep the little (and not-so-little) ones occupied.

Robot toys

Sphero Mini – about £50

Sphero Mini robotic ball.
Sphero Mini robotic ball. Photograph: Bryan Rowe/Sphero

Lots of tech toys are fads but my longtime favourite has stood the test of time as a modern update to remote control fun. Sphero is a ball you control using a smartphone or tablet, and has hidden depths, with games and educational elements also available.

The mini Sphero ball is a lot of fun to drive around and small enough that overexuberant indoor excursions won’t result in broken furniture and scuffed-up paintwork. The Sphero Play app has games, while the Sphero Edu app is great at fostering creative learning.

Kids or big kids can learn to program, follow examples, get the robot to do all sorts of things, or go deeper and write some code for it in JavaScript. Higher-end versions such as the £190 BOLT take the educational elements to the next level, too.

Tablets

Amazon Fire 7 Kids – about £110

Amazon Fire 7 Kids edition tablet.
Amazon Fire 7 Kids edition tablet. Photograph: Amazon

If you would rather not lend your precious breakable phone or iPad to your little ones, Amazon’s practically indestructible Kids edition tablets could be just the ticket.

The cheapest and smallest Fire 7 has just been updated and is available in a range of bright-coloured cases with a pop-out stand. If your offspring do manage to break it, Amazon will replace it for free under its two-year “worry-free” guarantee.

It does all the standard tablet things such as movies, apps, games, a web browser if you want it, and parental controls to lock it, set time limits and age filters. There’s even an option restricting access to curated child-safe sites and videos but it doesn’t have access to the Google Play store, only Amazon’s app store.

The Kids edition comes with a one-year subscription to Amazon Kids+ (£3 to £7 a month afterwards), which is a curated collection of child-friendly text and audio books, movies, TV shows and educational apps.

The larger £140 Fire HD 8 and £200 Fire HD 10 are available in Kids versions, too, if you want something bigger, or Amazon’s new Kids Pro tablets start at £100 with additional features aimed at school-age children.

Alternatives include LeapFrog’s various educational tablets, which are fine for younger children, or hand-me-down or refurbished iPads (from £150) in robust cases, which can be locked down with some parental controls.

Cameras

VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 – about £39

VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 kids’ camera in pink.
VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 kids’ camera in pink. Photograph: VTech

Before the advent of smartphones, standalone cameras were the way we visually documented our lives, and they still can be a bit of creative fun and inspiration for kids.

The VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 is a “my first digital camera” of sorts made of rugged plastic and simple in operation, which VTech reckons is suitable for three- to nine-year-olds. It captures 5MP photos of reasonable quality and can shoot from the back for selfies, too, all viewable on a 2.4in screen.

The optical viewfinder helps them line up the shot, which they can transform with fun filters and effects. It even shoots video, too. The kid-centric nature of it might turn off older children but every award-winning photographer has to start somewhere before the smartphone takes over.

It needs an SD card for storage and takes four AA batteries at a time, and chews through them fast, so buy some rechargeables to help save money and the planet.

For older children, rugged and waterproof action cams could be the way to go, shooting video and photos. Budget no-brand cams cost from about £80 but secondhand or refurbished models from the big boys such as GoPro and DJI go for about £100 and on eBay and elsewhere.

Fitness trackers

Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 – from about £55

Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 Star Wars edition.
Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 Star Wars edition. Photograph: Garmin

Your child may not need any encouragement to tear about the place but if you are after a gadget to “gamify” and reward their activity – as well as giving them a smartwatch-esque gadget to play with – the Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 could be a winner for ages four and up.

Its watch-like form comes in various themes and designs, including with various Star Wars, Marvel and Disney characters, with custom watchfaces to choose from. The user-replaceable coin-cell battery lasts a year, so you don’t have to worry about charging it. Water-resistance to 50 metres means swimming should be no problem either.

It tracks steps, activity and sleep with motivational messaging. It has mini games to play once your child has hit their goals, and can all be managed from a parent’s phone or tablet, so you can keep an eye on their data. Parents can even set goals, competitions with their own activity levels, chore reminders and tasks that can earn virtual coins for them to trade for rewards with you.

It is button-operated rather than touchscreen, and the backlight doesn’t stay on long to preserve the battery.

If you are a user of Google’s Fitbit trackers yourself, then the firm’s Ace 3 (£50) means you can compete on activity, but it needs charging every seven or so days. Other cheaper adult-focused fitness trackers such as the Xiaomi Mi Smart Band 6 (about £29) may be better for older children.

Walkie-talkies

Motorola T42 Talkabout – about £35 for three

Motorola Talkabout T42 two-way radios.
Motorola Talkabout T42 two-way radios. Photograph: Motorola Solutions

Walkie-talkies are a great replacement for phones, allowing kids and big kids to keep in touch without fear of fees or smashed screens.

There are plenty of child-centric options available with various character themes but basic units usually work better. Motorola’s T42 Talkabout comes in various colours and multipacks.

They are simple to set up, with a pairing button and multiple channel selection to find a clear one. Once going, just push to talk, even over long distances. Their quoted 4km range might be a bit ambitious but they should be good for at least 500 metres in urban environments, or much further in the open air.

They take three AAA batteries each, which last about 18 hours of talking or roughly three to four days in active use, so you might need a small army of rechargeable batteries.

They have a belt clip and loop for hooking to a carabiner (metal loop) or similar, and are fairly rugged, too, so should survive being launched across a room or two.

Nestling’s camouflage walkie-talkies (about £26) are also a popular choice but there are lots of choices under £30 available on the high street.

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India’s latest rocket flies but payloads don’t prosper • The Register

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India’s small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) made a spectacular debut launch on Sunday, but the mission fell short of overall success when two satellites were inserted into the incorrect orbit, rendering them space junk.

The SSLV was developed to carry payloads of up to 500 kg to low earth orbits on an “on-demand basis”. India hopes the craft will let its space agency target commercial launches.

Although it is capable of achieving 500 km orbits, SSLV’s Saunday payload was an 135 kg earth observation satellite called EOS-2 and student-designed 8 kg 8U cubesat AzaadiSAT. Both were intended for a 356 km orbit at an inclination of about 37 degrees.

That rocket missed that target.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) identified the root cause of the failure Sunday night: a failure of logic to identify a sensor failure during the rocket stage.

ISRO further tweeted a committee would analyse the situation and provide recommendations as the org prepared for SSLV-D2.

ISRO Chairman S Somanath further explained the scenario in a video statement, before vowing to become completely successful in the second development flight of SSLV. “The vehicle took off majestically,” said Somanath who categorized the three rocket stages and launch as a success.

“However, we subsequently noticed an anomaly in the placement of the satellites in the orbit. The satellites were placed in an elliptical orbit in place of a circular orbit,” caveated the chairman.

Somanath said the satellites could not withstand the atmospheric drag in the elliptical orbit and had already fallen and become “no longer usable.” The sensor isolation principle is to be corrected before SSLV’s second launch to occur “very soon.”

Although ISRO has put on a brave face, its hard to imagine the emotions of the school children who designed AzaadiSat. According to the space org, the satellite was built by female students in rural regions across the country, with guidance and integrated by the student team of of student space-enthusiast org Space Kidz India.

EOS-2 was designed by ISRO and was slated to offer advanced optical remote sensing in infra-red band with high spatial resolution. ®



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