The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2016

wacky tech 2016 1
Reuters/ Thomas Peter

A significantly zany year

As we close out the year and look at some of the, shall we say more interesting, stories of the year we find quite a tech collection. Everything from NASA’s poop challenge and the most significant advances in Ethernet’s illustrious history to the rise of robot doctor overlords. Take a look at 30 of the year's weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories.

Related: The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2016 (so far!)

The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2015

The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2014

Yes I said space poop challenge

Yes I said space poop challenge

NASA is holding another one of its public challenges. This one seems particularly challenging – a $30,000 prize for fecal, urine, and menstrual management systems to be used in the crew’s launch and entry suits over a continuous duration of up to 144 hours. An in-suit waste management system would be beneficial for contingency scenarios or for any long duration tasks, NASA stated. The system must operate in the conditions of space - where solids, fluids, and gases float around in microgravity (what most of us think of as "zero gravity") and don't necessarily mix or act the way they would on Earth, NASA said.

ransomware ts

FBI wants to know about your ransomware experience

The FBI in September issued a plea for those who have been hit by ransomware to report this to federal law enforcement so that the country can get a better sense of just how bad this problem really is. While security vendors have pumped out scary numbers about ransomware infections, with some variants supposedly compromising as many as 100,000 computers a day, the FBI says that it has had a hard time gauging the scope of the issue. It suspects many victims -- both individuals and businesses -- don't report incidents for any number of reasons, including that they don't know where to turn and fear loss of privacy. {thanks to Bob Brown}

Anti- robocall progress

Anti- robocall progress

An initial progress report by the FCC-sanctioned and industry-led Robocall Strike Force in October was highlighted by the claim that a trial of a single fraud-prevention technique had resulted in a 90% reduction in consumer complaints about scams involving automated phone calls falsely claiming to be from the IRS. A trial implementation of what’s called a “Do Not Originate” list, in other words phone numbers that are allowed to receive calls but not make them. A common technique used by robocall fraudsters is to spoof legitimate phone numbers such as IRS 800-numbers to convince call recipients they are speaking to the genuine article. When the IRS provided the strike force with a list of such numbers and participating carriers began limiting those numbers to incoming calls only, there was a dramatic 90% drop-off in consumer complaints about IRS-related scam attempts. [thanks Paul MacNamara]



Got innovation?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency this week announced a program it hopes will get the world’s deep-thinkers to collaborate and explore emerging science and technology for advanced applications. The advanced agency is proposing an online community known as Gamifying the Search for Strategic Surprise (GS3) that would “apply a unique combination of online game and social media technologies and techniques to engage a large number of experts and deep thinkers in a shared analytic process to rapidly identify, understand, and expand upon the potential implications and applications of emerging science and technology. The program will also develop a mechanism to identify and quickly fund research opportunities that emerge from this collaborative process,” DARPA stated.

No iTunes cards for IRS via Flickr (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

No iTunes cards for IRS

The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning in July about a scam that sounds ridiculous but is nonetheless surprisingly common: Con artists are convincing victims that they’re from the IRS and will accept outstanding payments in the form of iTunes cards. From an FTC blog post: People have told the FTC about scammers who called and demanded iTunes cards as “payment.” Bogus “IRS agents” told people they owed back taxes and would be arrested soon, unless they bought an iTunes card and gave the code to the “agent.” Phony “government grant” officers called and promised a big payout, after the person bought an iTunes card and read the code to the “grant officer.” Other fraudsters told people their grandkids were in jail and the only way to help was — you guessed it — to buy an iTunes card and read the code over the phone. All the stories were false.” . [thanks Paul MacNamara]

ethernet cables
Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Unlocking a more time-sensitive Ethernet network

The demand from Internet of Things, automotive networking and video applications are driving changes to Ethernet technology that will make it more time-sensitive. Key to those changes are a number of developing standards but also a push this fall from the University of New Hampshire InterOperability Laboratory to set up three new industry specific Ethernet Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) consortiums – Automotive Networking, Industrial Networking, and ProAV Networking aimed at developing deterministic performance within standard Ethernet for real-time, mission critical applications.

phishing attempt

El Paso gets phished

The El Paso Times this week reported that the city had been scammed out of $3.2 million through a phishing scheme that targeted municipality’s street car development program. El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city became aware of the scheme in October after the city’s CFO discovered that a $300,000 vendor payment had been redirected to a different account. Shortly after, a $2.9 million payment was misdirected to a fraudulent vendor the Times reported.

Your robot doctor overlords will see you now

Your robot doctor overlords will see you now

Seems the days of the annual trip to your doctor’s office may be fading in favor of a virtual healthcare provider. At least if you follow the research presented by Gartner this year which predicted by 2025, 50% of the population will rely on what it called virtual personal health assistants (VPHA) for primary care, finding them more responsive and accurate than their human counterparts. "Eliminating the physician for annual exams and primary health will happen, but, we need to recognize that this is a radical departure from primary care today. New channels of medical care create the need for changes in behavior, thinking, and perhaps even law. However, many barriers that might have been perceived as obstacles are already fading," Gartner stated.


speech recognition system

Say what?

Microsoft researchers say they have created a speech recognition system that understands human conversation as well as the average person does. In a paper published in October the Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Research group said its speech recognition system had attained “human parity” and made fewer errors than a human professional transcriptionist. The milestone comes after decades of research in speech recognition, beginning in the early 1970s with DARPA, Microsoft wrote. Over time, most major technology companies and many research organizations have developed speech recognition technologies including BBN, Google, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and IBM.

Elon Musk’s next great adventure: Colonizing Mars

Elon Musk’s next great adventure: Colonizing Mars

You cannot say that Elon Musk doesn’t dream big. Today he outlined what would be his biggest aspiration ever – colonizing Mars. “I think the first trips to Mars are going to be really, very dangerous. The risk of fatality will be high. There is just no way around it," he said. "It would basically be, 'Are you prepared to die?' Then if that's OK, then you are a candidate for going." The details of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System mission are daunting -- it requires a massive booster system and spacecraft (think a ship north of 416 feet tall and 55 feet in diameter – NASA’s Apollo mission rocket, Saturn 5 was 363 feet tall) that would be capable of carrying about 100 people and their luggage to the Red planet. Musk ultimately wants to send 200 people per flight to eventually lower the cost which could start at $200,000 per person.

Space Surveillance Telescope

I see you clearly now

The DARPA-developed Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) this year got a new permanent home in Australia with the Air Force Space Command where it promises to rapidly bolster the nation’s ability to more quickly spot and track faint objects in space. The Air Force, says the SST features unique image-capturing technology known as a curved charge coupled device (CCD) system, as well as very wide field-of-view, large-aperture optics, and doesn't require the long optics train of a more traditional telescopes. The design makes the SST less cumbersome on its moveable mount, letting it survey the sky rapidly, the Air Force says.

The evolution of Ethernet

The evolution of Ethernet

The IEEE this year ratified a new Ethernet specification -- IEEE P802.3bz – that defines 2.5GBASE-T and 5GBASE-T, boosting the current top speed of traditional Ethernet five times without requiring the tearing out of current cabling.The Ethernet Alliance wrote that the IEEE 802.3bz Standard for Ethernet Amendment sets Media Access Control Parameters, Physical Layers and Management Parameters for 2.5G and 5Gbps Operation lets access layer bandwidth evolve incrementally beyond 1Gbps, it will help address emerging needs in a variety of settings and applications, including enterprise, wireless networks.

cyber incidents

Astounding figures

Since 2006 cyber incidents involving the Federal government have grown 1,300%. A Government Accountability Office report on Federal cybersecurity offers little in the way of optimism for the cyber-safeguard of the massive resources the government has control over. “Federal information systems and networks are inherently at risk. They are highly complex and dynamic, technologically diverse, and often geographically dispersed. This complexity increases the difficulty in identifying, managing, and protecting the myriad of operating systems, applications, and devices comprising the systems and networks. Compounding the risk, systems used by federal agencies are often riddled with security vulnerabilities. For example, the national vulnerability database maintained by the Mitre Corporation has identified 78,907 publicly known cybersecurity vulnerabilities and exposures as of Sept. 15, 2016, with more being added each day,” the GAO wrote.

Guinness says the tool is largest solid 3D printed item
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Guinness says the tool is largest solid 3D printed item

At 17.5 foot long, 5.5 foot wide and 1.5 foot tall, the 3D printed aircraft design tool has earned the title of largest solid 3D printed item by Guinness World Records. The 1,650-pound apparatus known as a trim-and-drill tool is comparable in length to a large sport utility vehicle and will ultimately be tested for use in building the Boeing 777X passenger jet. Basically, the tool will be used to secure the jet’s composite wing skin for drilling and machining before assembly, according to researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ONRL) who developed the tool.

habitation cislunar concept

Space living

NASA in August picked six companies to develop prototype deep space habitats that astronauts could somewhat comfortably live in on long space journeys – particularly to Mars. According to NASA, an effective habitat contains “pressurized volume plus an integrated array of complex systems and components that include a docking capability, environmental control and life support systems, logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities.” NASA said it wants US companies, universities, and non-profit organizations to offer their best ideas for space living systems that would include reliable life support systems, fire safety, atmosphere revitalization and monitoring, water processing, lighting, and fire detection and radiation protection.

elm composite

It’s alive!

Perhaps one day we’ll see bridges that repair themselves or houses that could restore walls after a fire. Sounds a bit like science fiction yes but a new program announced by the masters of making science fiction fact, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, this year announced a program that would combine the structural properties of traditional building ingredients with attributes of living systems to offer a class of living material that could be grown where needed, self-repair when damaged and respond to changes in their surroundings. DARPA said its Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program will develop tools and methods that facilitate the engineering of structural features into cellular systems that function as living materials. These living materials would display hallmarks of biological systems, such as the ability to actively sense and respond to the environment, or to heal after damage, the agency stated.


Personal solar powered aircraft
Reuters/Denis Balibouse

Personal solar powered aircraft

Solarstratos, a solar-powered two-seater aircraft with a mission to fly some 24,000m (78,000 feet) above earth set to take place in 2018, is pictured during the roll out presentation in Payerne, Switzerland.

ransomware locked computer stock image cropped
Bet_Noire / iStock

Cisco defines ransomware scourge

Enterprise-targeting cyber enemies are deploying vast amounts of potent ransomware to generate revenue and huge profits – nearly $34 million annually according to Cisco’s Mid-Year Cybersecurity Report. Ransomware, Cisco wrote, has become a particularly effective moneymaker, and enterprise users appear to be the preferred target. On the horizon: faster and more effective propagation methods that maximize the impact of ransomware campaigns and increase the probability that adversaries will generate significant revenue.

db cooper map

FBI leaves infamous “DB Cooper” crime mystery to the ages

The FBI in July pulled the plug on the infamous Dan “DB” Cooper hijacking/ransom case. You may recall that in November 1971, between Seattle and Reno, Cooper parachuted out of the back of an airliner he'd hijacked with a bag filled with $200,000 in stolen cash. He's never been found, though some of the stolen money was recovered.

Safe robotic maneuvers

Safe robotic maneuvers

DARPA is proposing consortium of industry players that will research, develop, and publish standards for safe commercial robotic servicing operations in Earth’s orbit. Specifically, DARPA said it wants to create the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations or CONFERS that looks to establish a forum that would use best practices from government and industry to research, develop and publish non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards for on-orbit servicing operations, DARPA stated.

Virgin and Boom want to build supersonic jets

Virgin and Boom want to build supersonic jets

Supersonic travel may indeed become a reality (again) if Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin group and start-up Boom Supersonic have their way. Boom in November showed off its XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator, or Baby Boom, a subscale prototype of what is to be the Boom supersonic passenger airliner which Boom says will be “the world’s first independently developed supersonic jet and the fastest civil aircraft ever made.” The two-seat prototype aircraft is expected to make its first flight in late 2017 with a commercial passenger plane perhaps coming in few years, the company said.

landing on an asteroid
European Space Agency

Smashing spacecraft into asteroids

Planetary scientists expressed support for the future European/NASA asteroid redirect mission to develop technology that one day might prevent the Earth from being smacked by a destructive asteroid by smashing a spacecraft into an asteroid to change its trajectory. Proponents are trying to garner worldwide support for the mission pointing to the European Space Administration ministerial conference in Luzern in December where the decision will be made whether or not to fund the ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). AIM is part of an over-arching collaborative effort with NASA known as the Asteroid mission.

Hybrid airship

Hybrid airship

The Airlander 10 hybrid airship is seen after it recently left the hangar for the first time to commence ground systems tests before its maiden flight, at Cardington Airfield in Britain on Aug. 9, 2016. The Airlander can stay airborne for up to five days at a time if manned, and for over two weeks unmanned.

Now that’s a start-up
Reuters/Charles Platiau

Now that’s a start-up

A view shows construction in progress at the Halle Freyssinet, a former freight station which will become Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus, in Paris, France.

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Reuters/Toru Hanai


Japan's On-Art Corp's CEO Kazuya Kanemaru performs with his company's 8 meter tall dinosaur-shaped mechanical suit robot 'TRX03' during its demonstration in Tokyo.

Drone delivery
Reuters/James Akena

Drone delivery

A drone is placed on a launch pad at operations center in Muhanda, south of Rwanda's capital Kigali where Zipline, a California-based robotics company delivered their first blood to patients using a drone in October.

Table tennis robot
Reuters/Toru Hanai

Table tennis robot

Japan's Omron Corp. demonstrates a table tennis playing robot at CEATEC (Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies) JAPAN 2016 at the Makuhari Messe in Chiba, Japan.

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Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

Boldly going where no man has gone before – for 50 years!

Who knew that a TV series that debuted on Sept. 8, 1966 would have such a lasting impact on the world? Star Trek premiered on that date "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Indeed, the U.S.S. Enterprise and its crew over the years since have changed wildly (through five TV series and 13 movies) to alter our perception of what space and space exploration might be.

The White House on AI

The White House on AI

The White House in October issued report on future directions for AI called Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence. In it, the report comes to several conclusions – some obvious and some perhaps less so. For example, it accepts that AI technologies will continue to grow in sophistication and ubiquity, thanks to AI R&D investments by government and industry. The report also advocates for AI standards, stout cybersecurity and control over its potential impact on jobs.


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