Idea: Communal voice assistant that chimes in during fact-based discussions

With all the AI voice assistants around today there are lots of interesting applications people are dreaming up. Here’s another one.

You could set your voice assistant on the table and start having a discussion or debate that inevitably involves bringing up facts about news or history or how something works. A lot of times when someone doubts what was said a phone will come out to do some fast wikipediaing or other searching. If a AI could somehow either know or be triggered to check something, that’d be an interesting new dynamic to the conversation. It could do things like:

  • Correct misquotes and other slight error in the discussion, e.g. “Actually, the NOAA temperature data were corrected in 1950 because the volunteer network switched from morning readings to afternoon readings.”
  • Fill in details about a headline someone read (person: “Didn’t I read a headline about radiation dose in beagles?”, AI: “The recent UC Davis study shows a correlation between dose rate and lifespan.”)
  • Look up details and say them when they’d help

It’d have to be a really smart AI to know when its utterances would be useful in a dynamic conversation. It could start by just lighting up when it thinks it has something to contribute and people could allow it to chime in, rather than having it chime in only when someone wakes it. Then eventually once it’s smart enough it could chime in on its own. The future is fun.

Mobile gas station to fill-up self-driving vehicles while they are in motion

You know how some airplanes can get their gas filled up while in the air by tankers (aerial refueling)? And how ships at sea do this too (underway replenishment)? And you know how self-driving cars and trucks are taking over everything soon? Well there’s going to be a need for mobile gas stations on the road.

A ship at sea refueling
Underway replenishment (Gregg Macready/MOD)

Think of it! Long-haul trucking will want to go non-stop, and to do so there can be little sections of road where a tanker truck drives alongside the main truck, hooks up a hose, and refuels it for 10 minutes while everyone’s moving. Then the self-driving truck carries on and the tanker truck crosses the road, services a truck going in the other direction, and repeats until it eventually has to fill up from a bigger tank nearby.

Another manifestation is a thing on a long rail that refuels you as you drive alongside it. The hose could be on a sliding coupler that maintains a hermetic seal.

This could happen with passenger vehicles too. Presumably people will hop in their cars at night and expect to wake up in Florida the next day so they’re going to need automated gas refilling as well. Ideally this would be underway but I guess if gas stations could just fill up cars that roll in that’d be acceptable too. It will be more comfortable and less disturbing if this happens while on the road though.

That’ll be a billion dollar industry soon. If they’re electric cars, these will be charging stations instead of refueling stations.



There’s a gaping hole in the internet. It’s an unfathomable network allowing communication between almost every person in the developed countries. But in our cities, where tens of thousands of people live within a half mile of each other, sense of community seems to be declining. Seems like the internet could bring back that lost sense of community somehow.

The internet has made several attempts at community relations. On one hand we have craigslist, connecting local strangers anonymously for housing, buying/selling stuff, finding soccer teams in new places, etc. On the other hand we have facebook connecting people who have already met to share photos, statuses, messages, and other fun info. But there’s still something missing. That something is called neighborcasting. Or so I just named it.

Imagine a service where you signed up for a profile and were presented with a map. On the map, you draw an area that represents where you live. This could be a circle around a building, a block, a neighborhood, or a whole city, depending on how comfortable you are with disclosing your whereabouts. Then, a bunch of other circles or squares show up on the map in your area. There is a list of filters that you can choose to sort through all the information — among them:

  • Events going on within x hours from now (with many sub-categories like music, hiking, volunteering, etc. )
  • Item share (sugar, USB cables, a special tool, a tent)
  • Restaurants and stores (with many sub-categories)
  • Random musings (what people are thinking about)
  • For sale
  • Looking for a date
  • Going to the park with dogs
  • Ride share to x location (you choose x on a second map)
  • Advice
  • many more

You see, other people would put out neighborcasts, specifying which category it fits in, where it is located, and how long of a range it has. For instance, if someone’s looking for some baking goods from someone in their close vicinity, they can set their cast so that only people within a few blocks can see it, thus eliminating clutter. In your filters, you can even ask to “show me neighborcasts in my area that have a range that is less than 10 blocks,”  so you don’t have to see advertisements or other spam (which will be banned out of the commercial filter).


This concept would bring opportunities to interact with the community back, especially to heavily populated areas. If you were feeling like meeting some people who are also interested in jogging, or also wanted to let their dog interact with some other dogs, all you’d have to do it to put out a neighborcast about it and interested neighbors could reply right then. You could get graphical maps of what’s going on around you right now in a way unlike anything humans have ever had access to. The internet makes it possible!

Neighbors aside, if companies casted about their happy hour or about a speaker who’s coming soon, or about some deal, people would have instant access to the information. Users could hold up their iPhones or Android phones and spin them around 360 while watching the list of things to do in that direction go flying by until they found one they liked. Then they’d just start walking in that direction! How awesome is that?!


The biggest concern with this is obviously privacy. The embodiment of this concept would have to treat this issue very carefully. Since users would all have profiles (unlike on craigslist where anonymous posting is allowed), there would be a rating system, where if someone made someone else feel uncomfortable, they’d be able to let others know. Mechanisms would have to be in place to keep people with bad reviews from just getting a new account. If someone gets a black mark or whatever, there’d have to be a process for them to alleviate that somehow, so they wouldn’t be social outcasts for the rest of their lives as the world moves on around neighborcasating.

Since users aren’t supposed to say exactly where they live, just which general vicinity they live in, I’m not too worried about the location-based creepiness that much.

Hopefully you get the idea. I think this kind of thing would be revolutionary, and I’d LOVE to use it. If only I could get my roommate to develop it…

Here’s a very basic concept drawing on a google map:

-Nick Touran

February 2010

Hot Tub Controller

So, I have to tell you about the hot tub project. It’s been going on for a few weeks now and we just basically finished it. I (with some help from Jesse) have set up a microcontroller to control and monitor the hot tub. We have a temperature sensor mounted on the heating element tube and we wired in a relay to control when the heater turn on. Then we wrote code to allow it to interface with email, the internet, and even text messages! For real. Look:

Text message from the hot tub
Text message from the hot tub

Haha! Here are some more gems:

Temperature plotsand you can control it with this form:

control_formOr you can just control it from the command line:

terminalSo here’s what’s going on. Firstly, there’s an arduino connected to a USB port of the computer in the basement. Here’s a pic:

ArduinoOne of the digital pins on the Arduino is connected to a OneWire bus with three temperature sensors hooked up to it with a pull-down resistor connecting the bus to the 5V line. That’s the green wire. The ground is white ground.  The three sensors are hooked up (in parasite power mode) to 30 feet of indoor/outdoor CAT-5 wire from Home Depot. I surrounded each temperature sensor with a piece of 3/8″ O.D. copper tubing (which is miraculously already corroding) and pinched them down and sealed them up with Silicone. Here’s a pic of the outdoor sensor.

Outdoor temp sensor in copper

Anyway, yeah. The last sensor, the one on the tub, is wrapped in lots of insulation from the hardware store to try to keep the outdoor temperature from affecting the hot tub readings.

On another digital pin (the orange wire), we have a relay circuit that we can turn on and off easily. In the hot tub, it connects the wire that connects the coil of the main heater relay. So it’s  a relay for a relay, effectively. We just set the temperature dial very high and use the Arduino to cut it off when we want. We got the circuit from here. Here’s a copy of that:


Nice. I used a relay that can handle up to 30A, 240V, with a 12V coil. I got the 12V by splicing off of the hard drive power cable inside the computer (blue wire, with white blue as ground. That’s the same ground, but we didn’t want to tap into the fragile cat5 wire again). That’s unfortunate because it requires the computer be on to have the heater on. A better design would not rely on the computer to maintain control of the hot tub.

The rest of it is just software. I’m using the pySerial module to read and write to the USB tty device in 32-bit Ubuntu 8.10 Linux. The code that I compiled on the Arduino chip simply accepts simple characters through the serial port and does as asked. It knows how to turn heater on, off, read temperatures, and tell whether or not the heater is on. I’ll build some safety logic in soon. Right now, all the control logic and communication is done in Python on the computer. I have an Arduino class that abstracts the commands the Arduino knows. Then there’s the hottubController class that checks the sensors and turns the heat on and off accordingly. It calls the communication class, that checks for commands in an IMAP email account, submits temperature information to a MySQL database on my server, and sends command responses via SMTP. The text messaging functionality works simply because you can easily use the text-to-email gateways used by many major phone companies. The MySQL stuff is done with the MySQLdb python module, which is fairly simple.

The web form is a python cgi that makes that simple HTML table and sends the commands in. The plotter is another python script that reads the database and puts the data into an HTML file, which is then parsed by the flot JavaScript plotting routines on the clientside, allowing zooming and dynamic date x-axis labels, which are awesome.

Still to come: predictive hot tub times. Since the heating is very linear, it’s possible to extrapolate the time at which the tub will reach a given temperature. You’ll get a text that says: “the hot tub will be ready at 10:37PM” How cool will that be at the bar?

With all the copper, casings, arduino, sensors, relays, silicone, insulation, and various other tools I bought during this, it’s up to about $100, not including the computer. Not bad!

More Details

In case you’re wondering or debugging the hot tub controller, here are some more details.

The breadboard setup for the hot tub controller
The breadboard setup for the hot tub controller
Here's what the arduino wires look like. Nothing special.
Here's what the arduino wires look like. Nothing special.

Out at the hot tub, you’ll see a silver toggle switch. Under normal operation, this should be in the center position. To shut down special features and go back to plain-old hot tub, put the switch in the up position. This gives control of the hot tub back to its internal thermostat. It also disables the 10 second heater delay relay.