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8 Robotic Body Parts

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The future is arriving at the speed of ...time. Back in the 1970s, Lee Majors received bionic implants that made him The Six Million Dollar Man. But that was fiction. In the 1980s, we were introduced to a cyborg with living flesh grown over it called The Terminator. That was also fiction. All that time, roboticists and medical researchers were working on real machines to take over the functions of human organs, such as respirators, mechanical hearts, and dialysis machines that we are familiar with. But what about other body parts? Here are some that can change someone's life, or maybe just give us a laugh.

1. Robotic Hand Shakes Yours

In the world of videoconferencing, it's difficult to get close to people. Businessmen often size each other up by shaking hands, a custom that goes back to antiquity. Roboticists from Osaka University have a way to fill in that gap in global meetings. The Robot Hand is made of silicon and sponge, can be heated to body temperature, and is embedded with pressure sensors. The hand that controls it remotely transmits the grip and amount of pressure to the person he's shaking hands with.

2. Robot Lips Send Kisses

Long distance romances suffer the same lack of tactile sensation. Up to the plate steps Kissenger, a robotic device that connects with a faraway lover via Skype. That is, if your lover has another Kissenger. The sensors in the odd-looking device transmit your lip movements to your partner. And vice-versa. The company that makes Kissenger, Lovotics, also makes a couple of other devices to transmit your passion.

3. Robotic Butt Responds to Touch

At first glance, and you may blush, the robot butt seems like some kind of art project. But it appears to be an exercise in robotic research. A human-shaped pair of buttocks named Shiriresponds to different kinds of touch with one of three reactions: tension, twitch, and protrusion. Sensors trigger the reaction of airbags implanted in the posterior.

4. Robotic Armpit Sweats

How many times have you said to yourself, "Gee, I wish I had an artificial armpit that sweats"? This prototype armpit produces industrial Japanese sweat, sort of like the real thing. This was built by Kevin Gren­nan, as part of the art project called The Smell of Control: Fear, Focus, Trust.

5. Robot Skin Senses Touch

Stanford researcher Zhenan Bao has been working on electronic skin. The flexible, stretchable, and resilient skin is embedded with tiny sensors that can detect the sensation of touch. Embedded transistors notice changes in the sensors and send signals about it. And it's solar-powered! There's no word on whether the skin will ever be implanted in humans, but the applications for using it on robots or in uniforms is exciting. The sensors in the electronic skin could someday be programmed to detect biohazards, weapons, or nuclear fallout.

6. Robot Eyes See

Dianne Ashworth suffered severe vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa. The Australian was fitted with a bionic eye in July. The device, developed by Bionic Vision Australia, is a set of glasses with a camera attached. A wire from the camera is implanted in the user's retina, so the light signals are sent directly to the retina, and then via optic nerve to the brain. The bionic eye requires the patient to have some functioning retinal tissue. See a videoof the device.

For those who have no retinal function, the Argus II bionic eye implant is beginning to be used in Europe. The device includes camera goggles and a wireless receiver that is implanted behind the eye. The receiver consists of 60 electrodes, which lights up like a 60-pixel display and sends those signals to the optic nerve. It may be lo-res, but it's an artificial retina!

The Bio-Retina by the Israeli company Nano Retinagoes a step further by generating 576-pixel grayscale image onto the receiver connected to the optic nerve. Another advantage will be that wireless signal transmission is replaced by laser lights that shine from glasses into the iris and onto the receiver. The Bio-Retina is not yet available, and is scheduled to go into clinical trials in 2013.

7. Robot Mouth Sings

The rubber robotic mouth was developed by Professor Hideyuki Sawada at Kagawa University in Japan to help hearing-impaired people with their speech. It was creepy enough when we first saw (and heard) it in 2010, but later we heard it sing!In this video, the mouth sings the Japanese children’s tune “Kagome Kagome.” The lips start to move about 30 seconds in.

8. Robot Muscles Walk

Claire Lomas completed the London Marathon this past May with the aid of a bionic suit, even though she is paralyzed from the chest down. The 32-year-old Lomas broke her neck and back in a horse riding accident in 2007, but she can walk with the aid of an exoskeleton. The $69,000 walking apparatus, called the ReWalk bionic walking device, responds to changes in balance, and takes a step when the wearer indicates the desire for one. After the marathon, Lomas took the exoskeleton home for everyday use. ReWalk assists with walking, standing, sitting, and even climbing inclines and stairs, thanks to an on-board computer. Photograph from Argo Medical Technologies.

See also: 7 Robot Animals and Creepy-Crawlies.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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