Popular Science


Welcome to the smart speaker power war

Popular Science

By now, we've become accustomed to smart speakers shaped vaguely like cans. The original Google Home, the upcoming Apple HomePod, the Amazon Echo and Echo Plus, the UE Blast, the Harmon Kardon Invoke, and a whole pile of others all opt for life as a cylinder. The Google Home Max, however, looks like a traditional speaker, and that leaves lots of room inside for sonic power. The $400 Google Home Max does everything you'd expect a typical Google Home device to do, like tell you the weather, play trivia games, control smart home devices, and of course, sync up to music services like Spotify and Pandora. The Max is roughly the size of a large bread--not the wimpy Wonder Bread from the super market, but a hearty loaf from the farmer's market.


You once again have to register your drone--yes, even the little ones

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That means that people once again must register their drones (or any other remote-controlled flying device that meets the criteria) at the FAA's site for small Unmanned Aircraft System registration service. The registration still costs $5, and you still have to put put that registration number on the drone when you're flying it. The FAA suggests writing it on in permanent marker, using a label, or even etching it into the drone. The potential penalties for failing to register are potentially steep-- civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties up to $250,000 or three years in jail. Of course, those are assuming severe incidents result from unregistered drone flight, but the site does say pilots need to keep the registration certificate handy during operation or could possibly face punishment.


We're scientists who turn hurricanes into music

Popular Science

Sonification offers a few benefits over traditional data visualization. One is accessibility: People with visual or cognitive disabilities may be better able to engage with sound-based media. Sonification is also good for discovery. Our eyes are good at detecting static properties, like color, size and texture. But our ears are better at sensing properties that change and fluctuate.


This tiny bit of the brain could offer clues about addiction

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Neuroscientists know a lot about what happens in the brain when someone decides to do something, like reach for a cookie on the office snack table. What they're less certain about, though, is what happens when someone starts to do something, and then quickly decides to stop--like starting to reach for a cookie, seeing that there's a spider sitting on it, and pulling your hand away. New research published this week in the journal Neuron points to a small area of the brain, called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (rVLPFC), as the region responsible for taking in contextual information (like the spider) and using it to update the original plan. It's more monitoring the intent to stop, and not actually doing the stopping," says Kitty Xu, who conducted the research during her doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins. Xu is now a user-experience researcher at Pinterest.


Watch the weird videos used to train AI what different actions look like

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Teaching computers how to understand actions in videos is tougher than getting them to understand images. "Videos are harder because the problem that we are dealing with is one step higher in terms of complexity if we compare it to object recognition," says Dan Gutfreund, a researcher at a joint IBM-MIT laboratory. "Because objects are objects; a hot dog is a hot dog." Meanwhile, understanding the verb "opening" is tricky, he says, because a dog opening its mouth, or a person opening a door, are going to look different. The dataset is not the first one out there that researchers have created to help machines understand images or videos.


Amazing new sci-fi books to give (and then borrow from) your friends

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Sometimes you just need to get far, far away. Below, a selection of science fiction published this year that will give you or your loved ones a chance to visit other worlds and times, many that eerily mirror our own. In addition to robots and spaceships, you'll see wars, rising sea levels, genetically altered beings, and revolution. Some books ride the line between science and fantasy, mixing magic with technology or scientific hypotheses. Wherever your tastes fall in the sci-fi smorgasboard, there's something here that'll make a great gift (that you can borrow).


AI can figure out a place's politics by analyzing cars on Google Street View

Popular Science

Google Street View images are filled with cars. That is a simple and pedestrian truth, and one which artificial intelligence researchers have taken advantage of to do something surprising. By analyzing car type, they were able to make predictions about the demographic information of the people in the cities they studied. For example, the team, largely from Stanford University, analyzed whether they saw more pickups trucks or sedans in a given city. With a greater number of pickup trucks, the urban area had an 82 percent chance of voting Republican, and with more sedans, there was an 88 percent chance it voted Democrat.


This squishy little robot can lift 1,000 times its own weight

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Our future robotic overlords may have a gentle--but firm--touch. Researchers from Harvard and MIT have created a soft robot with origami-inspired muscles capable of hoisting incredibly heavy loads. There are plenty of good reasons to make your robot a squishy one. So-called soft robots are perfectly suited for squeezing into the tight spaces one might expect in a search-and-rescue scenario after a disaster. They're also more impervious to damage than traditional bots made of hard materials, which are liable to shatter under too much force.


Humans still rule drone racing, but NASA's AI pilot might change that

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For the NASA drones to successfully fly around a course, the devices need to know where they are in space. For that, they use two onboard cameras--one that looks forward, and the other, down, a common setup for mid-to-high-level consumer drones. Drones that fly around outside can make use of GPS, but that's not an option when flying indoors, in a complex environment, at speeds of 30 to 40 mph. The drone also needs an onboard three-dimensional map of the course at hand, so it can match what it sees with the cameras to that internal map and know where it actually is. That process is known as relocalization.


Six gadgets that work with your smart speaker to automate your home

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Dozens of gizmos will work with one or both of these speakers, and third-party manufacturers continue to bring out additional ones. If you'd like to see all of your options, Google has made a list of Home-compatible devices and Amazon has collected the Echo-compatible ones. With so much smart tech out there, it can be hard to figure out which device to buy first. So we collected six of our favorite gadgets for smartening up your home. Google's dinky streaming dongle works like a charm with Google Home.