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Hey! Who you callin' a Neanderthal?

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The Times reports today that scientists are reconstructing the Neanderthal genome, which has led to lots of debate about whether we should clone one, were that possible. Putting aside what society would actually do with a cloned Neanderthal (put him in some unholy Pleistocene Park? cast him in a Geico commercial?), the guy would need some major image rehab, because over the years his species has been scientifically slandered. Here, courtesy of Channel 4, are 10 Neanderthal myths that need debunking:

  • Neanderthals grunted, they couldn't speak: For many years, scientists believed that Neanderthals' mouth and throat were designed in a way that prevented them from speaking like us. In 1983, scientists found a Neanderthal hyoid bone at a cave in Israel. It completely changed the debate. The hyoid is a small bone that sits in the throat, holding part of the vocal mechanism in place. It was almost identical to modern humans', suggesting that the Neanderthals' throat was, in fact, designed for speech.
  • Neanderthals were hairy: Neanderthals' image as hairy brutes has more to do with prejudice than scientific fact. They were probably no hairier than many people today. Computer simulations have shown that, for Neanderthals, excess body hair could have caused overheating. If Neanderthals overheated, sweat could have frozen to their body hair in the arctic-like conditions, with potentially fatal consequences.
  • Neanderthals were stupid: Neanderthals had brains as big and in some cases even bigger than ours. But this doesn't prove they were 'brainy'; brain size doesn't necessarily correlate with intelligence. Neanderthal brains were also a different shape from ours, and could have been 'wired-up' in a different way. Their skilfully made tools demonstrate considerable intelligence and forethought, but we can still only speculate how similar or different Neanderthal thoughts might have been to our own.

ha1.jpgThey walked with bent-knees like a chimp or orangutan
Studies of Neanderthal fossils show that they would have walked upright, in a very similar way to us. The slouched caricature is largely due to an inaccurate reconstruction of Neanderthal remains done at the start of the last century. We now know that this individual's gait was caused by arthritis.

We are descended from Neanderthals
Most experts now agree that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end; a species that became extinct about 30,000 years ago. In recent years, this belief has been supported by groundbreaking research on Neanderthal DNA. Tiny quantities of DNA have been recovered from Neanderthal bones and then analysed on computers. The results support the view that they are different species to Modern Humans.

Neanderthals were club-swinging thugs
There is no evidence that Neanderthals made or used heavy wooden clubs. However, there is good evidence that they made spears, and a wide variety of stone tools. Many of these tools were incredibly sharp. Some had a cutting edge sharper than a surgeon's scalpel.

They were savage, uncaring brutes
In recent years, scientists have discovered evidence that Neanderthals cared for elderly and sick members of their group. For example, one elderly Neanderthal found in Iraq had suffered multiple fractures on the right side of his body and may have been blinded in one eye. Many of his injuries had healed, indicating that somebody must have cared for him for the rest of his life.

Modern Man killed off the Neanderthals
After surviving for 250,000 years in Europe, Neanderthals became extinct just 10,000 years after modern Man arrived, implicating us in their fate. However, there is no evidence for conflict. Indeed, in some regions of Europe, the two populations co-existed for thousands of years, perhaps peacefully. Slightly lower birth rates and higher mortality rates, combined with an increasingly unstable climate are now thought to have killed off the Neanderthals.

Neanderthals bred with Modern Man
Some scientists claim that a child skeleton, found in Portugal in 1998, has a mixture of Neanderthal and Modern human features. For them, it's proof of interbreeding. Other scientists dispute the claim and DNA tests on 3 other Neanderthal fossils have found no evidence for interbreeding. Research on the child continues. The debate is far from over.

Neanderthals were scavengers, not hunters
Neanderthals may not have used projectile weapons, which to some people suggests that they lacked the ability to kill large prey. However, the large proportion of injuries found on Neanderthal bones - likened to those of modern day rodeo riders - suggests that they did engage in the close-quarter killing of large animals. Large accumulations of bones at the bottom of some cliffs suggests that they also chased herds of mammoth, deer and reindeer over the edge, reducing risk of injury to themselves.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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