Weird science! 10 strangest tech stories of 2016

From erotic robotics to biotech for defying death, tech news sketched out a truly weird future coming soon

Weird Tech News 2016
Nervana, Softbank Robotics, Goodyear

The 10 strangest tech stories of 2016

Science and technology news usually takes a backseat in mainstream media coverage. Contemporary attention spans being what they are, technical topics are often deemed too obscure, or their implications too complex, for the average reader. That's a shame, if for no other reason than this: Pay attention and you can find deliciously weird stuff in the sci-tech section, with occasional forays into the truly bonkers.

Here we take a look at 1o of the stranger stories of 2016, selecting for items that generally flew under the radar and/or those with odd implications for the future. Click on through for updates on weaponized display technology, erotic robotics, and a biotech initiative that literally defies death.

And now, here's the news....

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Google patents human flypaper for cars

Google patents human flypaper for cars

If the last decade or so has taught us anything, it's that Google thinks of everything. Here's a for instance: In May, the giant tech company filed for a patent on a kind of human flypaper for self-driving cars. The idea: If a Google autonomous vehicle does strike a pedestrian, the flypaper will keep said pedestrian from bouncing off or rolling underneath and suffering further injuries. It makes a twisted kind of sense, really.

According to the patent filing: “The front region of the vehicle may be coated with a specialized adhesive that adheres to a pedestrian, and thus holds the pedestrian on the vehicle in the unfortunate event that the front of the vehicle comes into contact with the pedestrian.” To keep random detritus from sticking to the car -- bugs, trash, squirrels -- the adhesive surface would be itself covered by a thin eggshell coating designed to split apart on impact. The patent also includes a technique for peeling off the unfortunate pedestrian “after a period of time.” No, seriously.

AI cracks ancient game of Go
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AI cracks ancient game of Go

Way back in January, researchers with Google published a startling paper in the marquee journal Nature. It seems the Google team had developed an artificial intelligence that could compete with grandmaster-level players at the ancient Chinese game of Go -- generally considered the world's most complex strategy game. According to mathematicians, Go is more complicated than chess by several orders of magnitude. Previous computer systems had never risen above the amateur level.

The AI, called AlphaGo, uses neural network technology engineered to replicate the functions of the human brain. Actually, the AI system employs two digital brains. Initially programmed with more than 30 million individual moves, the AI subsequently created its own strategies by playing against itself, running thousands of games between its two neural networks. AlphaGo proved to be a quick study. In March, the AI won four out of five games against world champion Lee Sodol. Oh, the robots are now beating us at foosball, too.

Electric earbuds promise serotonin serenity

Electric earbuds promise serotonin serenity

After several years of development and a $600,000 crowdfunding campaign, the electric earbuds dubbed Nervana finally went on sale in 2016, promising a kind of “listener's high” for users willing to be mildly zapped by their music device. The concept is undeniably appealing: By way of tiny electrical pulses, the Nervana earbuds stimulate nerves in your ear canal, ostensibly triggering the release of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.

That's the pitch, anyway, and there's some science to back it up. The $289 Nervana system was developed by a team of physicians and engineers who tweaked existing medical therapies that leverage vagus nerve stimulation. Nervana plugs into your phone or mobile device, then matches the beat of your music with mild electric zaps powered by a 9-volt battery. I actually tried out an early production model, and while it didn't bliss me out, it was clear that something was going on. Your mileage may vary.

Giant fighting robot prepares for showdown
Kristine Ambrose

Giant fighting robot prepares for showdown

In a world of rapidly accelerating technological advances, is it too much to ask that we finally see some giant fighting robots with frickin' buzzsaws for arms? I submit that it is not. For several years now, the delightfully entrepreneurial engineering team over at MegaBots Inc. has been hyping an upcoming title fight between its giant Mark II robot and the massive Kuratas bot from Japan.

These aren't the remote-controlled battle bots of cable TV yore. These are 15-foot-tall fighting robots designed to house a human pilot and do battle in arena combat scenarios. If all goes according to plan, both bots will be equipped with melee and projectile weapons (and massively redundant safety features for pilots and spectators). While there's plenty of P.T. Barnum in all of this hype, there's also genuine momentum to establish a professional fighting robot league. MegaBots lined up critical corporate sponsorships this year and launched a slick online documentary series.

Mini force fields steer tiny microbots
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Mini force fields steer tiny microbots

If there's one thing spookier than giant fighting robots, it's tiny swarming robots that you can't even see. Engineers at Purdue University achieved a robotics breakthrough in 2016 with a system that can both power and control microscopic robots by way of magnetic force fields. The microbot models used in the study are “about the size of dust mites” -- evidently a standard metric in this line of work -- but the technology can work with robots as small as 250 microns.

Batteries aren't an option at that scale, which is why the magnetic field solution is such a big deal. Plus, the new technique allows for swarms of microbots to perform complex tasks that require cooperative behavior. “Think of ants,” said lead researcher David Cappelleri. “They can independently move, yet all work together to perform tasks such as lifting and moving things.” Good thinking. What could possibly go wrong?

Goodyear rolls out spherical tire of tomorrow

Goodyear rolls out spherical tire of tomorrow

Back in March, venerable tire manufacturer Goodyear unveiled a new spherical tire designed to let automated vehicles move any direction at any time -- forward, backward, sideways, or diagonal. It was such a weird thing for the typically staid company to do that many observers thought it was an early April Fools' Day joke.

Nope. The Eagle-360 may be a mere concept design at this stage, but it's plenty real and Goodyear even displayed a model of the tire at the 86th Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland. The trick? The 360 concept employs a magnetic levitation system that basically suspends the vehicle over the four spherical tires, no axles needed. Some sort of magnetic drive would presumably provide power, but it's all a mystery past that -- Goodyear has released no technical details. Bonus weirdness: The 3-D printed tire treads are a biomimetic design based on brain coral. The future is going to be fun.

Biotech company to bring back the dead

Biotech company to bring back the dead

In recent years, scientists in the emerging field of resuscitation medicine have proposed the idea that death is less an event than a process, and that some processes can be reversed. Back in May, U.S. company BioQuark generated the weirdest biotech story of the year when it announced plans to, yes, bring back the dead -- kind of. The researchers will attempt to regenerate the brains of patients declared clinically dead.

The proposed trial combines multiple procedures and therapies designed to “reboot” the minds of brain-dead patients who are being kept alive solely through life support. The plan is to inject stem cells directly into the brain, initiating a process similar to that which allows reptiles to regrow lost tails and limbs. Meanwhile, lasers and other nerve stimulation techniques are applied to the brain stem. The ReAnima Project -- how about that name? -- has reportedly received approval from health agencies in India and is recruiting potential patients.

Mad scientist builds laser bazooka

From the DIY desk, we have the curious case of the homemade laser bazooka, which made headlines around the world in July. It all began when a YouTuber calling himself styroyro posted an alarming video of a laser device he had fashioned with DLP projector parts and scrap components salvaged from eBay. After a friendly intro, our enthusiastic host fires up the 200-watt handheld laser, which proceeds to instantly ignite anything it's pointed at -- cardboard, wood, even plastic.

For comparison, consider that the average handheld laser pointer is 0.005 watt. Even a standard laboratory laser only rates about half a watt. “This baby right here sits at 200 watts, which means it's 400 times over the most dangerous rating imposed by the FDA!” says styropyro in the video. It's good to see the young people applying themselves, don't you think?

Humans get turned on by touching robots

Humans get turned on by touching robots

It's generally understood, in the world of academia, that given enough grant money and discretionary time, graduate students will study anything. To wit: Over the summer, students in Stanford's Department of Communication published research suggesting that humans get turned on when feeling up robots. How did they arrive at this conclusion? The scientific method, of course.

In a series of experiments, a decidedly unsexy Aldebaran NAO robot was programmed to instruct humans to touch various places on its humanoid body. Volunteer subjects -- four female, six male -- were outfitted with sensors to track sexual arousal. Over the course of 26 trials, participants became aroused 90 percent of the time when touching the robot's “less accessible” regions. “Social conventions regarding touching someone else’s private parts apply to a robot’s body parts as well,” the study concludes. Science marches on.

Mathematical equation reveals the secret to happiness
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Mathematical equation reveals the secret to happiness

Mathematics is, of course, the essential foundation of all technology. And technology, in turn, is intended to benefit mankind. So here's some news we can all use: In June of 2016, a cross-disciplinary team of scientists in the United Kingdom announced a historic breakthrough -- a mathematical equation for happiness. No joke. The project involved researchers from leading European universities and was published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

You'd need a doctorate or three to really wrap your head around it all, but the gist is this: By quantifying emotional states, the equation can be used to assess and even predict happiness under certain conditions, taking into account variables like expectations, risk, reward, and guilt. The equation is the final result of a multiyear collaboration between mathematicians, psychologists, and neurologists. If you speak math, you can read the paper itself -- the first and only published recipe for happiness. Progress! There's no stopping it.