Weird Science: The 10 Oddest Tech Stories of 2014

Online telepaths, culinary AI, criminal drones -- the tech world was full of offbeat surprises this year

Weird science: The 10 oddest tech stories of 2014
Credit: hitchBOT
Weird science: The 10 oddest tech stories of 2014

Every now and again, strange events from the world of high tech bubble over to the general news cycle and make headlines for a day or two. No doubt these crossover hits favor reports that enforce the general populace's sentiment that technologists are fringe lunatics with their eyes on our collective future demise. This phenomenon has become more common in recent years as the intersections of technology and pop culture have become busier and more crowded. In 2014, plenty of technology weirdness cycled through the "odd news" section of mainstream media outlets. But for the real connoisseur of weird tech news, there's a very specific sweet spot.

It concerns those instances in which emerging technology seems to misbehave, wandering to places we don't anticipate, thereby generating a moment of cognitive dissonance. Here we take a look at 10 of the weirder tech stories of 2014, featuring online telepaths, moonlighting artificial intelligences, and criminal drones. And now, here's the news....

IBM creates AI foodie chef
Credit: IBM
IBM creates AI foodie chef

Advances in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing continued to make headlines in 2014, with Johnny Depp getting all transcendent and ex-"Jeopardy" champ AI Watson doing on-the-fly Twitter translations and demonstrating its first machine learning API. IBM launched another cognitive computing initiative earlier this year, partnering with the Institute of Culinary Education to create what is essentially a hipster foodie AI chef.

Designed to think, experiment, and learn, the computer chef has generated recipes like Belgian Bacon Pudding, Swiss-Thai Asparagus Quiche, and the deeply disturbing Austrian Chocolate Burrito. The foods, prepared by a team of carbon-based chefs, have been touring around to industry events in the IBM Food Truck -- three words that really should never appear in sequence.

3D printer hacked into tattoo machine
Credit: Instructables
3D printer hacked into tattoo machine

"Trypanophobia" is the medical term for fear of needles, and for us dedicated tryanophobes, this may be the scariest tech story of the year. Back in April, a group of psychotic French design students hacked a commercial 3D-printing machine and added, yes, an actual tattoo gun.

Check out the accompanying video and you'll see that the machine pretty much works how you think it might. A young insane person volunteer sticks his arm into the tattoo machine, whereupon his flesh is inked automatically by the computer-controlled needle, in place of the printer's original extruder. In case you're interested in making your own tattoo machine, the team has posted full instructions on the hack at Instructables.

Fans of Franz Kafka will note that “In the Penal Colony” got a little less metaphoric.

Robot hitchhikes across Canada
Credit: hitchBOT
Robot hitchhikes across Canada

Then there's the curious case of the Canadian hitchhiking robot. In July, researchers from a pair of Canadian universities deployed hitchBOT onto the highways of the Great White North, where the experimental 'bot ultimately traveled from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Victoria, British Columbia -- hitchhiking the entire way.

The project was part of a larger research study concerning the utility of social robots and the psychology of human kindness. Using its LED-screen face to petition for rides, hitchBOT made the coast-to-coast trip in 21 days, plugging into cars' cigarette lighters to recharge, posting videos on social media, and relying on the kindness of strangers. Canada, generally regarded as the planet's nicest nation-state, may be the only country where this could have worked.

University builds city of robot cars
Credit: University of Michigan
University builds city of robot cars

More from the robotics desk: Back in May, an odd little news story started making the rounds about a fake city sprouting up in southern Michigan. Designed by engineers and robotics researchers at the University of Michigan, the 32-acre simulated city center is intended to be a future home for hundreds of autonomous robots.

Well, sort of. The Mobility Transformation Facility is a test site for the future of automated vehicles and self-driving cars and trucks. Situated only a few dozen miles from the original Motor City of Detroit, the ersatz metropolis will eventually include a four-lane freeway, merge lanes, stoplights, a railroad crossing, and even mechanical bicyclists and pedestrians.

Drug-smuggling drone crashes outside of prison
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Drug-smuggling drone crashes outside of prison

Probably the single most prevalent tech topic in 2014, drones made for weird news throughout the year -- from controversial FAA decisions to eerie footage of Chernobyl to insanely great Halloween projects.

In July, authorities at the maximum security Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina reported on a new and potentially problematic drone development. It seems someone attempted to fly a small drone loaded with contraband -- marijuana, tobacco, and mobile phones -- over the walls and into the prison yard. The scheme didn't work, though. The drone crashed short of the prison walls.

Smartphones are the new plumage
Credit: Thinkstock
Smartphones are the new plumage

Sometimes the worlds of hard science and social science converge to make news in a weirdo, Venn diagram kind of way. Such was the case in October when researchers at the University of Würzburg in Germany released a report that was both intriguing and entirely predictable. According to the study, men who are single or in uncommitted relationships are more likely to purchase high-end smartphones than other men.

The phones are a mating signal of sorts, the researchers conjecture, intended to communicate that the bearer of the phone has sufficient resources to provide for potential partners. "Studies have suggested that, as part of short-term mating strategies, men are particularly willing to engage in conspicuous consumption to attract mates," according to the research abstract. The full report will be published early next year in the prestigious quarterly journal Incredibly Obvious Things We Get Paid to Quantify.

Scientists test Internet telepathy
Credit: Mary Levin, University of Washington
Scientists test Internet telepathy

Another odd trend in 2014 involved news stories about an emerging kind of online telepathy -- really. In November, researchers at the University of Washington sent direct brain-to-brain transmissions over the Internet in which one test subject was able to move the hand of another, simply by thinking about it.

In a similar study back in August, scientists from several different countries employed Internet-linked neural devices to essentially broadcast one person's thoughts to other people around the world. The single-word thoughts (like "hola" and "ciao") were detected by electroencephalogram units, translated into binary code, then reassembled in the receivers' brains by way of transcranial magnetic stimulation technology.

Google Glass app promises brainwave control
Credit: MindRDR
Google Glass app promises brainwave control

In yet another variation on the theme, an intriguing open source app surfaced over the summer that -- in terms of strict dictionary definition -- appears to give users telekinetic powers. The MindRDR system uses Google Glass plus a commercially available EEG headset to let users take pictures and post social media -- using brainwaves.

The dermal patch on the headset can be positioned to detect when you're concentrating hard on a particular image in your field of view. When the displayed indicator reaches a threshold, MindRDR snaps a pic via the Glass camera and uploads it automatically to whatever online destination you've previously chosen. When news broke about MindRDR in July, nerdier observers noted that the effect is arguably telekinetic -- you're effecting change in the material world by the power of thought. Jean Grey would be proud.

Smartphone chip beams real hologram
Credit: 20th Century Fox
Smartphone chip beams real hologram

Speaking of nerdy, the new "Star Wars" trailer has fans geeking out yet again, nearly 40 (!) years after the first film's debut. That movie featured one of the most iconic images in all of science fiction: R2-D2 projecting a free-floating hologram of Princess Leia imploring Obi Wan Kenobi, "You're my only hope."

Hope for actual free-floating holograms has waned in the years since -- the technology is further away than the Death Star, it seems. Or maybe not. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported on a low-profile but impressively funded project to create a hologram projector chip small enough to fit into a smartphone. The report even featured video evidence -- a short clip of the technology generating a 3D hologram of floating dice.

Letterman hosts hologram musical guest
Credit: "Late Show with David Letterman"/You Tube
Letterman hosts hologram musical guest

In the absence of actual free-floating holograms, you can always rely on show business to bring you the next best thing. In October, the indefatigable David Letterman welcomed his first hologram musical guest: the Japanese pop star sensation known as Hatsune Miku.

The technology behind this particular brand of hologram is similar to that used for famous previous appearances by, for example, hologram Tupac. The image appears to be free-floating, but it's actually projected onto a transparent 2D surface. Hatsune Miku's "voice," meanwhile, is synthesized from vocal samples. Nevertheless, the virtual pop star is regularly booked in theaters and arenas. Hatsune Miku's name, by the way, translates roughly to "First Sound From the Future." There you go.