With the advent of “the Internet of things” (or “IoT” if you prefer), it has become possible to put electronic gizmos in nearly any consumer product. If you ever wanted to add a speaker, some LED lights, or a GPS tracker into a some random household object, now’s the time!
Strangely, despite the existence of IoT-enabled clothing (“wearables”), the IoT has not yet addressed a common garment-configuration question: “is the zipper on my jeans still unzipped?” (Figure 1).
Yet the technology already exists to alert the wearer of this fashion faux pas!
The solution here is incredibly simple: to detect if the zipper is unzipped, just conduct electricity through it. If the circuit is closed, then electricity will be conducted and we know that the zipper is zipped (Figure 2).
This information can then be transmitted to the user’s smartphone, which will make an informed decision to potentially send the wearer the text message “FYI: your fly is unzipped.”
This is one of the most obvious applications for “IoT wearables.” How is this not yet a product!
PROS: Brings a long-overdue technological update to an ancient leg-covering technology.
CONS: Malfunctions may result in a particularly unpleasant electrocution. This is the price of progress.
In early 2022, the word-guessing game “Wordle” had a moment in the spotlight as an Internet sensation.
In this game, a player attempts to guess a 5-letter word in as few tries as possible. Each guess provides a user with a certain amount of information as to how close they are to the actual correct answer (in a fashion similar to the game “Mastermind”).
A number of alternative word-based versions were quickly created, but—strangely—no general-purpose game for guessing X words of length Y letters has yet been made available.
Until now! A very user-unfriendly command-line Python script is now available for playing a clone version of Wordle with as many words and letters as you like (Figure 1).
One important new feature is that we can also specify, say, “–letters=12” to guess twelve-letter words (Figure 3) instead of five-letter words.
Or perhaps instead of twelve-letter words, we want twelve words:
But the real bonus here is that you can increase the numbers as much as you want (Fig. 5)—at least, until you run out of words in your dictionary.
Most musical instruments are capable of playing more than one note a time. This is typically referred to as a “chord.”
Unfortunately, the list of chords is relatively small and well-understood (Fig 1): once music students learn them, they won’t have any more aspirational chord-learning goals, and will surely become demoralized.
We can take inspiration from Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, which begins with “…I’ve heard there was a secret chord…” . Unfortunately, the specific secret chord in question is never revealed, so we’ll have to just create our own new set of “secret” chords.
These will use letters beyond just A, B, C, D, E, F, and G; perhaps even including Greek letters, Chinese characters, ancient Sumerian cuneiform.
There’s only one problem: what would these new esoteric chords actually be? For one possibility, see Figure 2.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear how additional “forbidden chords” could be created for instruments like the piano, where the internal workings are somewhat isolated from the user, and thus resistant to the shenanigans described in Figure 2.
By motivating music students with the tantalizing secret of forbidden knowledge, we can improve national musical education!
PROS: Motivates music students. If the “strum in two locations” system in Figure 2 is adopted, musical efficiency (notes per seconds) is increased by 100%, which should give our nation a competitive edge in the creative arts.
CONS: None! This is entirely practical, and should be adopted immediately.
In the modern era, people generally have at multiple wirelessly-enabled Internet-accessible cameras and microphones (Figure 1) within arm’s reach for 90% of their waking hours.
The proliferation of cameras in the home can pose a privacy issue: the only thing preventing a camera and microphone from turning on is software, which means that it’s fundamentally impossible to guarantee that a camera can’t turn on at any moment.
Many cameras have a tiny “on” light (Figure 2), but this is usually not especially noticeable.
The most obvious solution is also the most widespread: physically cover the camera! As long as there’s no electronic mechanism to open the cover, software bugs (and malware) can’t uncover the camera. The user has to physically reach over to it every time they want it on.
The most popular solutions:
▪ Yellow sticky note. Works fine, but annoying to add/remove. Can fall off laptop screens.
▪ A more “professional” plastic camera-blocking slider that sticks (with adhesive) to the laptop screen. This works extremely well, but the user must remember to close the slider.
We can enhance this plastic camera-cover slider by making it spring-loaded, so that it will automatically close after a certain amount of time (Figure 3).
Now the user can’t forget to re-cover their camera after using it for a meeting!
A fancier version of this idea be integrated into the laptop itself by the manufactorer: a physical cover that could be closed by software (perhaps after a configurable time delay) but could only be opened by a user-controlled physical mechanism.
PROS: This is a practical extension to the plastic “camera cover slider” device.
CONS: It’s a bit unclear how sturdy the aftermarket circular cover would be in practice: it might be too large and awkward to survive daily use on a laptop.
Many foods require a certain minimum amount of cooking time, yet there isn’t always an obvious visual indicator of “done”-ness.
As a result of the lack of a visual indicator, a chef must laboriously inspect food by (for example) cutting into it, poking it with a fork, or tasting it. These time-consuming tasks reduce our overall national productivity!
It should be feasible to put color-changing dyes into various foods that will indicate that a certain temperature has been reached for a certain amount of time (Fig 1).
This could be especially useful for steak: if the steak changed from red (raw) to green (rare) to blue (medium rare) to purple (medium), etc…, then even the most inept cook could make a proper steak every time. And the person who requested the steak would instantly know that the steak was cooked to their specifications. For a table that ordered more than one steak, no longer would the waiter need to remember which was which!
PROS: Should decrease the number of under-cooked foods, thus reducing food poisoning cases.
CONS: May lead to a tyrannical regime in which eating al dente pasta is taboo (similar to cannibalism or eating household pets), simply due to the lack of color change in the pasta. Also, if the “properly cooked” color is always the same (e.g., suppose it is green), then people might start to assume that every green object in the world is edible.
Hiring a new employee can be difficult: It’s hard to find a candidate who collaborates well, is reliable, is cool under pressure, and has a valuable set of skills.
The job interview process is archaic, and most interviews rely on the candidate self-reporting their behavior (e.g. “how did you resolve a conflict that you had with a coworker?”).
The candidate might provide an true answer, but these questions are easy to predict, so a well-prepared candidate could just be telling a fake rehearsed store instead.
The worst part is, a fake story that had been told many times would probably sound better than a real “on the spot” answer! Thus, the current system may actually penalize honest candidates.
Fortunately, there’s a situation that is very similar to the job interview: the team-assembly part of a heist in a movie. Most jobs require the same qualities that a heist protagonist should have (reliability, trustworthiness, skill, etc.).
Thus, the solution is obvious: instead of conducting a traditional interview, have the candidate plan a heist!
The most promising heist templates are ensemble cast movies with an overcomplicated scheme. For example, Ocean’s Eleven (1960 & 2001), The Italian Job (1969 & 2003), La Casa de Papel (2017), The Heist of the Century (2020), and some of the heists in Grand Theft Auto V (2013).
These heists have the following useful qualities:
The mission is sufficiently complicated as to resemble running a business.
Everyone brings a different skill to the mission.
The cast usually has a low proportion of crazed murderers (although there may be one or two).
Heists to avoid using as templates would include Heat (1995), Bonnie & Clyde (1967), and Point Break (1991), since:
The “heist” is basically just one or more regular bank robberies with minimal planning.
Everyone has the same skillset (“can hold a gun”).
The cast contains a non-negligible fraction of unstable murderers. “Unstable murderer” is a personality trait that is generally considered non-desirable by employers.
Regardless of the heist movie we choose as our template, a heist-styled interview will allow a candidate to demonstrate how they work in a high-pressure high-stakes situation.
The interview would work as follows:
The candidate arrives for the interview and gets a coffee.
The interviewer unrolls a “heist planning” blueprint (and/or a corkboard with lots of red string on it) and asks the interviewer what their proposed role would be in the heist depicted in the blueprint (Figure 1).
After, say, 15 minutes of planning, the interviewer supplies some gloves and a mask for the candidate, and the interviewer and candidate go down to the garage, where a van is waiting to pull off the heist. The candidate then takes their preferred role in the heist (e.g. demolitions expert, driver, hacker, etc…).
To avoid a high attrition rate of employees, the heist is pre-arranged in a fake “escape-room” like scenario. This will provide the same time pressure and simulated danger as an actual heist, but avoid the ~25% chance of each heist participant being gunned down (this would be bad, since the heist-hiring-process would otherwise result in fewer employees, which is the opposite of what hiring is for).
Using this heist-based hiring process has several advantages: it shows how a candidate actually operates under stress (rather than being self-reported), it allows a candidate to demonstrate their teamwork skills, and it lets the employer know if the candidate has otherwise-hard-to-evaluate skills (such as crashing through a skylight while rappelling down a rope dangling from a helicopter).
PROS: Allows companies to evaluate their job candidates on heretofore-unobservable qualities. Could also be used by criminal masterminds who are planning an actual heist.
CONS: Interviewing can already be stressful, so it’s unclear if “what if we made it even more stressful” is a great solution. Could cause otherwise-non-heist-inclined individuals to get a taste for danger and turn to a life of crime.
Frequently, people post an unrealistically rosy “curated” version of their lives on social media: e.g. “Wow, here I am on this beach vacation! And I got a promotion! And I’m at a party with friends, it’s great!”
Unfortunately, some people experience dissatisfaction in their lives as a result of comparing themselves to the curated ”best of” experiences on other people’s profiles.
In order to fix this issue, social media apps can simply provide a toggle switch in their user interface: do you, the user, want to see other people who are (allegedly) having a better time than you, or a worse time? This would then determine which posts were shown on a user’s news feed.
For example, a user who picked the “show me people having a better time than me” option would see:
Your former boss on a foreign vacation.
That one high school classmate driving a $200,000 car.
Obviously these are only superficial trappings of success, but they can be very convincing on social media!
While the “show me people having a worse time” option could consist of posts by:
Your neighbor who got arrested for illegally attempting to smuggle 100 snakes out of the country in his jacket.
Your classmate who is recovering in the hospital after going on a “soda only” fad diet.
This system could be more generalized as well: it could show posts that will convey a certain desired emotion to the end user. For example, imagine a “degree of positivity” menu that one could select on every social media site (Figure 1).
A mockup of the results of selecting “delusion” and “despair” is shown in Figure 2.
It’s hard to believe that this feature doesn’t already exist! Maybe it does…. but only behind the scenes, as some shadowy administrator option in your favorite social media apps?
PROS: Would allow people to avoid depression as a result of comparing their own lives to unrealistically-optimistic vignettes shown on other people’s social media profiles.
CONS: If the user sets their profile to “despair,” this system might induce depression and/or a paranoid degree of worry about being (partially?) eaten by a shark.
In ancient times, most animals were kept around for specific functional purposes (e.g. “eat the mice” or “guard the village” or “be eaten by me, the human.”). However, these days, most animal-owners have pets that don’t actually have a specific job to do.
We should be able to enhance the lives of both humans and their companion animals by giving those animals a job to do. Some animals are obviously more suited to having “jobs” than others: for example, a monkey or dog has a very flexible set of capabilities, while a fish or snake is substantially more limited in most circumstances.
In this case, we’ll focus on adapting the humble bat to practical human companionship. This is a great idea for several reasons:
Many species of bats already dwell in large groups, so they should be basically pre-adapted to live in a social environment.
Bats that sleep on cave ceilings won’t require any additional square footage to live in. This makes them the ideal pet for a downtown apartment where floor space is at a premium.
But the best part of the bat is its practical utility, as seen in Fig. 1 and Fig 2.:
This type of multi-use pet wouldn’t be limited to bats, either. Almost any medium-sized mammal (mink, cat, ferret, etc…) could work as a self-heating furry scarf. A snake could be used as a safe method of changing out-of-reach light bulbs and getting items off of high kitchen shelves. The opportunities are endless!
PROS: Brings a new sense of purpose to people’s currently-unemployed pets.
CONS: If these animals get too good at their jobs, they might overthrow humans and give us the Planet of the Apes treatment.
Ramen noodles in a cup (Fig. 1) are a popular so-called “instant” meal, beloved by graduate students, programmers, and a wide variety of individuals who lack culinary pretentions.
Despite being called “instant” noodles, these noodles actually require a non-zero amount of time to eat! Part of this is due to the fact that the noodles must be individually located and extracted from the noodle cup.
In order to bring even more lightning-quick efficiency to the instant noodle cup, we propose to pre-coil the noodles into one single noodle strand (Fig. 2), thus allowing the contents of the noodle cup to be efficiently slurped out (perhaps, optionally, through a straw).
It is possible that a noodle lacks the structural integrity required to allow full extraction of the cup’s contents without a meal-interrupting noodle break. If testing reveals that to be the case, we may add additional structural support to the noodle by wrapping it in strands of digestible fiber, or perhaps coating the weak points (the curves?) with a layer of fondant cake frosting.
With this change, the cup of noodles truly becomes the “instant” meal that it was destined to be.
PROS: Increases ramen consumption efficiency, which will allow graduate student researchers to more effectively develop scientific breakthroughs.
CONS: If the coiled ramen is compressed in a spring-like fashion, it’s possible that it could catastrophically unspool, sending razor-sharp ramen shards everywhere. This would be similar to the phenomenon of an exploding tire (which can, somewhat non-obviously, shoot steel wires out everywhere). Fortunately, it’s likely that the total worldwide casualties from accidents of this nature would be < 100,000 graduate students annually.
Imagine a boat: but someone added a canopy, and now it travels underwater (Fig. 1). Now you’ve got a submarine! That’s all the background you need. (Actual submarine construction may be somewhat more complicated.)
There has been interest lately in putting sails on oceangoing vessels again: this is proposed as a cheap (but somewhat mechanically complicated) way to increase fuel efficiency.
Unfortunately, because a submarine is UNDER the water, there’s no way for it to easily benefit from new sail technology.
The fix here is easy: the submarine can deploy a kite-like sail that can pull it through the water (Fig 2).
It might also be possible to deploy a sail on an extremely tall retractable persicope-style mast.
This would be a great way of increasing the fuel efficiency of non-nuclear submarines and would serve as a safety feature, notifying other vessels in the area that they should watch out for a submarine (which could help avoid a repeat of this 2001 submarine-sinking-a-boat incident).
The exact nature of the kite / sail must be determined by licensed sail-ologists: in particular, the initial raising of the sail out of the water remains an unsolved technical question of submarine sail research.
As an added bonus, a sail-deploying-submarine can be a way for a nation’s navy to brag to other countries. It basically says “we have so much military funding that we can build a super-expensive stealthy underwater vessel and then not even use the stealth feature!” The intimidation factor here cannot be overstated.
PROS: Reduces fuel usage, thus allowing submarines to be operated at bargain-basement prices.
CONS: This kind of sail will probably only work in the exact direction the wind is blowing. Can you “tack” and sail upwind with a submarine?