In Pictures: The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2014 (so far!)

2014 has featured crop circles, advanced toilet tech, flying saucers, wild software development

  • There’s never any shortage of cool, strange or weird news in the high-tech world. The trick is whittling the sheer volume of those stories into a manageable presentation. This year we have everything from crop circles and advanced toilet tech to flying saucers and wild software development. Take a look!

  • Workers carefully unload 21-foot crocodile robot "Longlong" from the roof of a van, after it reaches Crocodile Park in Pasay city, metro Manila. The robot, inspired by Lolong, the largest saltwater crocodile to have been in captivity, contains thousands of mechanisms costing around $1,818 and took three months to build by robot experts.

  • A girl wearing a feces-shaped hat prepares to slide down into a 16.4-foot toilet at an exhibition titled "Toilet !? Human Waste and Earth's Future" at the Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo. The exhibition, explores the world of toilets, with the main exhibit centering around a massive toilet into which visitors are allowed to slide to simulate the journey of human waste matter into the sewers.

  • Workers assemble a 10-metre-tall homemade "Transformers" replica on the outskirts of Shangha. Li Lei, owner of a small factory, uses his spare time and money to build "Transformers" replicas for rent or sale. The new Transformers movie, which opened in June, has brought the factory many new orders, according to Li.

  • Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists said recently they have invented a video highlighting technique called LiveLight that can automatically pick out action in videos shot by smartphones, GoPro cameras or Google Glass users. LiveLight constantly evaluates action in a video, looking for visual novelty and ignoring repetitive or eventless sequences, to create a summary that enables a viewer to get the gist of what happened.

  • Taking a page from NASA’s rocket powered landing craft from its most recent Mars landing mission, the European Space Agency is showing off a quadcopter that the organization says can steer itself to smoothly lower a rover onto a safe patch of the rocky Martian surface. The ESA said its StarTiger’s Dropter is indeed a customized quadcopter drone that uses a GPS, camera and inertial systems to fly into position, where it then switches to vision-based navigation supplemented by a laser range-finder and barometer to lower and land a rover autonomously.

  • Yoshimoto Imura became the first man to be arrested in Japan for illegal possession of two guns he created himself using 3D printing technology. The 27-year-old, a college employee in the city of Kawasaki, was arrested after police found video online posted by Imura claiming to have produced his own guns. Gun possession is strictly regulated in Japan.

  • Looking to bring lighter, more powerful and less expensive systems for various applications such as communications, radar or guidance systems, DARPA said this week it had recently demonstrated an all-silicon, microchip-sized system on a chip that runs at 94 GHz. DARPA claims that this chip is the first time a silicon-only package has achieved such a high frequency, which falls in the millimeter-wave range.

  • Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) the high-risk, high-reward arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, will soon hold a Proposers Day to explain one of its new projects it says could revolutionize machine intelligence by constructing algorithms that utilize the same data representations, transformations, and learning rules as those employed and implemented by the brain. The specific goal of the program, known as Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) is to create what IARPA calls “a new generation of machine learning algorithms derived from high-fidelity representations of the brain’s cortical microcircuits to achieve human-like performance on complex information processing tasks.

  • NASA wants to send ever-heavier spacecraft – along with humans at some point – to Mars. Along those lines the space agency successfully tested a flying saucer-like craft from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii in June. NASA says it is developing three flying saucer, or rather Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) systems. The first two are supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerators -- very large, durable, balloon-like pressure vessels that inflate around the entry vehicle and slow it from Mach 3.5 or greater to Mach 2 or lower.

  • The US Office of Naval Research recently offered a $7.5 million grant to university researchers to develop robots with autonomous moral reasoning ability. While the idea of robots making their own ethical decisions smacks of SkyNet - the science-fiction artificial intelligence system featured prominently in the Terminator films - the Navy says that it envisions such systems having extensive use in first-response, search-and-rescue missions, or medical applications.

  • "Game of Thrones" author George R. Martin was asked if he worries about computer virus' ruining his 1,000 page tomes on the Conan show earlier this year. Martin's answer: He doesn't because he prefers to write on a DOS computer running WordStar 4.0.

  • Interesting admission from the Central Intelligence Agency as it confirmed the long-held suspicion that it indeed had a role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union in 1958. In April the CIA posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA's role in publishing Boris Pasternak's iconic novel in Russian which gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.

  • A newly released response to one particular public UFO sighting only increases the notion that the military - which was often forced into looking into "flying saucer" sightings - was exceptionally skeptical about such reports. The National Archives published a letter and photo collected under Project Grudge - an Air Force investigation into flying saucer sightings in 1949. The Archives writes that the document "is a classic example of the skeptical tone taken by the [Air Force and Grudge] study [stating bluntly the letter doesn't even deserve a response]."

  • The TED organization has teamed with competition extraordinaires at X Prize to develop a contest whose ultimate goal would be to have an AI-based robot "deliver a compelling TED Talk with no human involvement." Now this competition at this point is more of an idea - there is no money behind it yet and the groups are actively soliciting public input on what the parameters of such a competition would be. X Prize posted this concept of what the competition might look like stating "elements of this concept may or may not be used. We'd like to hear your ideas."

  • The Cyber Grand Challenge (CGC) is a tournament for fully automated network defense, DARPA says. Others call it the world's first tournament to see who can build the best fully automatic network defense system. The CGC will pit teams that will create automated systems that will compete in real-time to evaluate software, test for vulnerabilities, generate security patches and apply them to protected computers on a network. The CGC's goal is to vastly improve the speed and effectiveness of IT security against escalating cyber threats, DARPA says. The winning team from the CGC finals would receive a cash prize of $2 million, with second place earning $1 million and third place taking home $750,000.

  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency today embarked on it plan to build a super vertical take off and landing or VTOL aircraft that can fly fast and carry a big load. DARPA said it has awarded Phase 1 of anticipated three phase award contracts to Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation; The Boeing Company; Karem Aircraft; Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation to begin developing the VTOL X-Plane which is expected to fly in the neighborhood of 460 MPH and carry some 12.5% of its gross weight in cargo. The plane's gross weight should come in between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds, DARPA stated.

  • A software competition announced recently by the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA) group is looking to the public to develop what it calls an "algorithm that identifies and extracts such signals from data recorded while volunteers engaged in various types of trust activities." The Investigating Novel Statistical Techniques to Identify Neurophysiological Correlates of Trustworthiness (INSTINCT) Challenge the public to develop algorithms that improve predictions of trustworthiness, using neural, physiological, and behavioral data recorded during experiments in which volunteers made high-stakes promises and chose whether or not to keep them.

  • Providing his space travel firm lifts off, Sir Richard Branson said earlier this year he’d like to build hotels in space as destinations for his travelers. Virgin Galactic is expected to fly its first suborbital passengers within a year. “If we can get enough people wanting to fly [to space] we can start building Virgin hotels in space, we can start doing trips to Mars, we can colonize Mars, we can start pulling asteroids back to Earth to see what minerals they have got in them,” he said during an interview on The Jonathan Ross show in the UK.

  • Looking to build a hypersonic transport that would be the heart of less expensive satellite launch system, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said it awarded three contracts for work on the spacecraft. DARPA said Boeing; Masten Space Systems; and Northrop Grumman Corporation would begin phase 1 work on the agency’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program that aims to design, build, and demonstrate a reusable Mach 10 aircraft capable of carrying and deploying an upper stage that can place 3,000- 5,000 lb. satellite into low earth orbit (LEO) at a target cost of less than $5M per launch.

  • An unidentified team member shoves an LS 3 (Legged Squad Support System) robot that was galloping off course, back on track during a high-speed demonstration. The device is designed to accompany soldiers and Marines any place they go on foot, helping to carry their gear.

  • A robot musician performs during the "Robot Ball" scientific exhibition in Moscow.

  • One of those Y2K bugs that just won’t go away: The AP reported that the Selective Service System mistakenly sent notices to more than 14,000 Pennsylvania men born between 1893 and 1897, ordering them to register for the nation’s military draft and warning that failure to do so is ‘‘punishable by a fine and imprisonment.’’ The glitch originated with the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles during an automated data transfer of nearly 400,000 records to the Selective Service. The records of males born between 1993 and 1997 were mixed with those of men born a century earlier, Selective Service spokesman Pat Schuback told The Associated Press. The federal agency didn’t know it because the state uses a two-digit code to indicate year of birth.

  • Barracuda Networks co-founder Michael Perone tweeted this photo which grabbed a good bit of attention and raised a number of perplexed questions. My colleague Paul McNamara got an answer: “It is the former switch for Bigeye, Barracuda’s largest conference/training room. Earlier this year, we began a total renovation. During the renovation, a new wall was built in that area – and the switch ended up getting stuffed in the ceiling (no one will admit to it!) -- just above the new conference room.

  • Want to send a selfie to Mars? A privately funded, $25 million mission to send time capsules onboard satellites to Mars might just be your ticket. The Time Capsule to Mars project from the of the nonprofit outfit Explore Mars, plans to land three cubesats on Mars within the next five years. The spacecrafts’ payload will include images, videos and other forms of expression from people around the globe, according to the project's organizers. The time capsule could be opened by later generations of human explorers or other space travelers.

  • University of Tokyo researchers said they have come up with what they called a disposable organic sensor – one that can be placed inside a diaper and will wirelessly ping the local mom or dad that the diaper needs changing. Now there’s a good use of high-tech.

  • An artist from Berlin has developed a program that sniffs out nearby Google Glass devices and denies them entry to Wi-Fi networks. Julian Oliver, the designer behind what he's dubbed, told Wired that he found a unique character string in Google Glass' MAC addresses and designed the app to recognize the address when a Glass unit tries to connect to a nearby Wi-Fi network. Then, the app uses the Aircrack-NG program to send the device a deauthorization command on behalf of the network, according to Wired. (Thanks to colleague Colin Neagle for this item)

  • Twinkind co-founder Timo Schaedel looks at a 3D-printed figure of himself at the Twinkind 3D printing studio in Berlin. A 3D-printed likeness is produced by taking a 360 degree photographic scan of a person, which is then rendered into a 3D digital model and retouched to meet the requirements for printing. The printing machine uses this digital model to produce a high-resolution solid figure.

  • Weirdness began the year with the admission by chip-maker Nvidia that an elaborate crop circle that appeared in late December in a grain field in California was a stunt. "This is a confession," said Jen Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia during a news conference in Las Vegas, before he explained how his company came to create the circle in a field of barley near the town of Salinas. It was linked, he said, to his company's latest processor for mobile devices, the Tegra K1.

  • Workers take photos of recovered Atari games at the old Alamogordo landfill in New Mexico. Documentary filmmakers deliberately looking in a New Mexico landfill in April unearthed hundreds of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" cartridges, considered by some the worst video game ever made and blamed for contributing to the downfall of the video game industry in the 1980s.

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