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Weird science: 10 strange tech stories from 2015
By Glenn McDonald,
Info World, 24 December 2015.

The weird news story represents a genre into itself in the media world. These are the light and fizzy reports of dumb criminals and animal hijinks that regularly pop up on news sites, broadcasts, and social media. Interestingly, many straight-up articles about science and technology research end up in the weird news section. Because the world of high tech moves so fast, these items surface for a couple of days, raise a few eyebrows, then recede under the relentless waves of information overload.

In fact, these technology stories flash and fade so quickly that we often don't appreciate how genuinely bananas they are, nor do we ponder their larger implications. Here we take a look at 10 of the weirder tech stories of 2015, including updates on self-replicating machines, bacteria-powered sportswear, and time-traveling computers.

And now, here's the news...

1. Skin patches create human batteries

Image courtesy National University of Singapore via IEEE Spectrum

The tipping point has finally arrived: Machines are using people for batteries. Back in January, researchers at the University of Singapore unveiled a power system for mobile devices that grabs up energy directly from human skin. The postage-stamp-sized dermal patch actually harvests static electricity generated by the triboelectric effect, caused by friction between two dissimilar surfaces.

When attached to the user's forearm and throat, the device gathers energy from everyday activities like speaking or grasping objects - initial tests produced enough energy to power 12 commercial LEDs. The dermal patch is actually only one of several systems in development that draw energy from humans to power wearables and mobile devices - it's a big area of research right now. Did we mention the urine sock battery?

2. Quantum computing system travels in time

Image courtesy CyberHades/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

An international group of researchers made headlines a few week backs when they announced, in all seriousness, a computer model that sends data back in time. You'd need a doctorate or three to really get your head around it, but here's the gist: Via the profound strangeness of quantum physics, data packets can be sent through a "closed time-like curve" that acts as a kind of wormhole through the fabric of space-time.

If the time-traveling data packets are "entangled" with another data system in the here-and-now laboratory, the correlations between the two data sets can power a kind of supercharged, time-traveling quantum computer. That computer could, in turn, be used to solve mathematical problems that have heretofore been impossible to resolve. Also, the temporal data packets would spin off an alternate universe, but there are always a few bugs with these things...

3. Hitachi appoints first AI boss

Image courtesy NASA/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

This was inevitable, really. In September, multinational conglomerate Hitachi announced the promotion of the world's first artificially intelligent middle manager. According to the press release, the artificial intelligence system is tasked with overseeing (human) warehouse employees, issuing work orders, interfacing with cloud-based big data systems, and "improving efficiency by 8%."

The corporate-speak in the press materials is a little hard to decipher, but the upshot is the new AI management unit is much more than an automated software system. The AI boss thinks and reacts in real time, monitoring changes in logistics and even weather conditions. Hitachi's new synthetic manager is also fluent in the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen, which encourages maximum efficiency at all levels of production.

Best of all, it won't get drunk at the office holiday party.

4. Artist draws using only his eyes


In any given year, some of the most fascinating science stories emerge when the worlds of technology and art collide. Such is the case with artist Graham Fink, a British multimedia specialist who creates portraits simply by staring at a computer screen.

It's not quite that simple, of course. Fink uses advanced eye-tracking software - plus an inhuman level of concentration - to create images by shifting his gaze around a screen. The eye-tracking camera, meanwhile, uses infrared light to track minute movements of his pupils as he "draws."

Runner-up in this year's art-meets-technology news: the activist photographer who hacked surveillance cameras for an eerily compelling photo exhibit.

5. Robots programmed to learn like kids

Image courtesy University of Washington

This is what happens when you put computer scientists and developmental psychologists in a lab together. A multidisciplinary research team at the University of Washington announced in November a new system for teaching robots how to learn…like human children learn. By combining child development research with machine learning algorithms, the new approach hopes to replicate - oh, you know - several million years of biological evolution.

The new pedagogy technique might be less worrying if it weren't for some (ostensibly) unrelated news that broke earlier in the year. In June, researchers at the University of Cambridge built a mother robot that can independently build its own baby robots, selecting for optimal traits from each generation of offspring. Anyway, I'm sure it will all work out fine.

6. Biohacker gives himself night vision

Image courtesy Sciences for the Masses

The term "biohacking" has several different connotations these days, but in the realm of DIY technology it refers to those insane courageous persons who experiment on their own bodies in the name of science. In May, a biohacker group published open source research of one man's remarkable experiment, in which he apparently gave himself superhero night vision.

Here's the squirmy part: Volunteer test subject Gabriel Licina achieved the night vision effect by having a substance called Chlorin e6 injected directly into his eyeballs. An organic compound known to have light-amplifying properties, the Chlorin e6 gave Licina temporary low-light vision out to a range of about 50 meters, according to the independent research group Science for the Masses. Licina evidently suffered no adverse effects, other than looking exceptionally creepy for several hours.

7. Shapeshifting sportswear powered by bacteria

Image courtesy MIT Media Lab

In the future, when your sweatshirt morphs and wriggles as you work out, remember this news item. In October, MIT's Tangible Media Group debuted a synthetic "second skin" material that changes shape on its own, opening flaps and vents that allow perspiration to evaporate. Put another way, when you start to sweat, your shirt starts moving around.

The BioLogic material, designed to be 3D printed onto wearable fabrics, is activated by specific thresholds of heat and moisture. Here comes the real fun: The nanoscale actuators in the fabric are actually living microorganisms - specifically, the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, which has been used in medicine and fermentation for centuries. MIT is working with sports outfitter New Balance to bring the technology to retail shelves.

Runner-up in this year's weird wearables category: antiwireless underwear.

8. 'Morpho' hackers pull off cyber punk heists

Image courtesy Colin/Wikimedia Commons

Amid non-stop headlines this year concerning mass cyber crime and state-sponsored online snooping, news reports surfaced over the summer about an intriguingly secretive hacker group. According to a long-term research project by security software vendor Symantec, the hacker collective called Morpho is operating like an elite jewel thief in the online world.

Morpho is suspected of actively infiltrating major corporations - including Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter - then selling off stolen intellectual property for profit. Evidence suggests that Morpho heists play out like classic cyber punk science fiction, with elements of corporate espionage and data ransoming. At least 49 companies in 20 countries have been targeted, according to Symantec's report, and one researcher suggested that rogue intelligence agency veterans may be involved.

For such cutting-edge crime, no one seems to mind that William Gibson was writing about all this 30 years ago.

9. Emoji ideogram awarded "Word" of the Year


Meanwhile, on the linguistic front, technology mounted a major frontal assault on the English language this year. In November, the august institution known as Oxford Dictionaries made history when it named an emoji as its official Word of the Year for 2015. Not the term "emoji," mind you, but an actual emoji pictogram - specifically, "Face with Tears of Joy," pictured above.

Emoji is the Japanese term for those digital ideograms that have infested texting and social media in recent years. Oxford University Press analyzed frequency and usage statistics and determined that "Face with Tears of Joy" was the most used emoji, around the entire world, in 2015. When Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year isn't a word at all, it's safe to say times are changing.

10. Samurai robot challenges swordmaster

Image courtesy Yaskawa Electric/YouTube

Finally, we have the curious case of the samurai robot, which made news over the summer thanks to one of the year's most eye-popping viral videos. In what amounts to the world's coolest product demo, a katana-wielding robot goes head-to-head with a world champion Japanese sword master - and comes out on top.

Japanese robotics company Yaskawa Electric Corporation produced the video, in which five-time world record holder Isao Machii is outfitted with a motion-capture suit. Technicians then carefully mapped the sword master's movements - down to his individual breaths - and fed the numbers into the company's Motoman-MH24, a precision robot used in industrial and medical applications. The resulting competition is well worth checking out.

Thus, we can go forth into 2016 secure in the knowledge that robots - in addition to everything else - have mastered ancient Japanese sword techniques. Seriously, why don't we hand the planet to them now and save all the bother?

Top image: The BioLogic material. Credit: Tangible Media Group/MIT Media Lab / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

[Source: Info World. Edited. Some images added.]

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