Smart Assistants Need To Get Smarter

Science fiction has regularly portrayed smart computer assistants in a fanciful way. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and J.A.R.V.I.S. from the contemporary Iron Man films are both great examples. They’re erudite, wise, and capable of doing just about any reasonable task that is asked of them, short of opening the pod bay doors.

Cut back to reality, and you’ll only be disappointed at how useless most voice assistants are. It’s been twelve long years since Siri burst onto the scene, with Alexa and Google Assistant following years later. Despite years on the market, their capabilities remain limited and uninspiring. It’s time for voice assistants to level up.

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Lighting Up With Chemistry, 1823-Style

With our mass-produced butane lighters and matches made in the billions, fire is never more than a flick of the finger away these days. But starting a fire 200 years ago? That’s a different story.

One method we’d never heard of was Döbereiner’s lamp, an 1823 invention by German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner. At first glance, the device seems a little sketchy, what with a tank of sulfuric acid and a piece of zinc to create a stream of hydrogen gas ignited by a platinum catalyst. But as [Marb’s Lab] shows with the recreation in the video below, while it’s not exactly as pocket-friendly as a Zippo, the device actually has some inherent safety features.

[Marb]’s version is built mainly from laboratory glassware, with a beaker of dilute sulfuric acid — “Add acid to water, like you ought-er!” — bathing a chunk of zinc on a fixed support. An inverted glass funnel acts as a gas collector, which feeds the hydrogen gas to a nozzle through a pinch valve. The hydrogen gas never mixes with oxygen — that would be bad — and the production of gas stops once the gas displaces the sulfuric acid below the level of the zinc pellet. It’s a clever self-limiting feature that probably contributed to the commercial success of the invention back in the day.

To produce a flame, Döbereiner originally used a platinum sponge, which catalyzed the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the air; the heat produced by the reaction was enough to ignite the mixture and produce an open flame. [Marb] couldn’t come up with enough of the precious metal, so instead harvested the catalyst from a lighter fluid-fueled hand warmer. The catalyst wasn’t quite enough to generate an open flame, but it glowed pretty brightly, and would be more than enough to start a fire.

Hats off to [Marb] for the great lesson is chemical ingenuity and history. We’ve seen similar old-school catalytic lighters before, too.

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Digital Microscope With An On-Screen Multimeter

Some things go together, like chocolate and peanut butter. Others are more odd pairings, like bananas and bacon. We aren’t sure which category to put [IMSAI Guy]’s latest find in. He has a microscope with a built-in digital multimeter. You can see the video of the device in operation below.

The microscope itself is one of those unremarkable ten-inch LCD screens with some lights and a USB camera. But it also has jacks for test probes, and the display shows up in the corner of the screen. It is a normal enough digital meter except for the fact that its display is on the screen.

If you had to document test results, this might be just the ticket. If you are probing tiny little SMD parts under the scope, you may find it useful, too, so you don’t have to look away from what you are working on when you want to take a measurement. Although for that, you could probably just have a normal display in the bezel, and it would be just as useful.

At about $180 USD, it’s not exactly an impulse buy. We wonder if we’ll someday see an oscilloscope microscope. That might be something. These cheap microscopes are often just webcams with additional optics. You can do the same thing with your phone. If you don’t need the microscope, but you like the idea, can we interest you in a heads-up meter?

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