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What the Past Thought the Future Would Be Like

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Taking a stroll through old Popular Mechanics and Popular Science-type magazines is always good for a few smiles. Here are ten images worth taking a closer look at:

So whatever happened to the robots we were promised in the 50s and 60s -- you know, the ones that would be helping us around the house? Sure, we've got iRobot Roomba vacuums and Husqvarna's automower, but they don't quite measure up to the one on the cover of this mag. How long until Mitsubishi's wakamaru hits the average home?

Here's one they sort of got right! Personal watercraft (PWC) first hit the scene in the 1960s. In the "˜70s, they quickly became known colloquially as Jetskis after Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A. introduced the JET SKI® watercraft. This was the first stand-up PWC. PWC now come in sit-down models that can hold up to 3 people.

Google "ski car" and you'll find a pantload of Web sites recommending the best vehicles to take on a ski weekend. The only true skiing cars were invented almost simultaneously in Russia and New Hampshire in the early 1900s. Both systems fitted track and ski units to existing cars—U.S. inventor, Virgil White, used the Ford Model T. These were forerunners to modern snowmobiles. Fun Fact: The first McDonald's drive-thru accessible by snowmobile was opened in Piteaa, Sweden in 2002.

This futuristic design never came to fruition. The clear plastic top and upholstered armchairs in a living room-like setting promised a smooth ride, however, car production ground to a halt in January 1942 because of World War II. One of the few newly designed cars of 1942 was the Buick Roadmaster convertible. Its list price was $1,700.

The first submarine for personal use was designed in the 1970s by Graham Hawkes. Most personal subs launch from the rear of yachts. Aruba offers submarine tours to tourists on personal submarines and the company, U.S. Submarines, has created the first luxury style sub. For about $30 million you can design and own a Seattle 1000 complete with 5 state rooms.

The first interactive fishing game was, er, cast by Radio Shack in 1977. Since then, the technology and realism of the games have improved. In 2007, Wii released "Hooked!" that uses a fully functional rod controller equipped with a rotating reel to simulate natural fishing.

In 1966, a Motorola engineer invented the pocket TV with a 1-1/8 inch screen. But he died before he was able to convince Motorola to mass produce the invention. D'oh! The first mass produced mini television was created by Panasonic in 1970. It weighed just under 2 pounds and had a 1.4 inch screen. Considered a futuristic flop, Panasonic waited another 10 years before marketing another mini-television.

While it didn't look anything like this cover image, the first motorcycle to break the 300 mph mark was the Yamaha Silverbird in 1975. Believe it or not, way back in 1937, the BMW streamliner motorcycle reached a then-record-breaking speed of 173 mph.

Harold Graham piloted the first untethered flight of the Bell Rocket Belt, invented by Wendall Moore, in 1961. The flying belt could only stay in flight for 20 seconds. Later on in the 60s, the Bell Company recreated the flying belt with a jet turbine that could run for 26 minutes but could barely lift off the ground. In 2008, EAA Airventures launched the Martin Jetpack. Deemed "the world's first practical jetpack," it will be available for private sale in late 2010—guess who's putting it on his Amazon wish list right now?!

The closest man has come to this fantabulous image, is the International Space Station(ISS) that was begun in 1998. The station is still under construction and won't be ready for another year, minimum. It has been continuously manned since 2000. The ISS hovers just 250 miles above Earth, hardly deep space, however it was visited by its first tourist, Dennis Tito, in April 2001.

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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