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Joking Robots, Fat-Detecting Chairs and a Suddenly Shrinking Lake

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So this robot walks into a bar"¦

C3PO.jpg What's a robot's favorite album? Spark Side of the Moon.
Robots don't get that joke, since it requires a (relatively) complex analysis of word substitution and figuring out why it's funny. Two researchers at the University of Cincinnati are working on a robot that does understand simple puns, though. By giving the bot a vocabulary and then teaching it how certain words can be substituted for others, they say they can teach the robot to recognize and react to simple jokes. It's still not complex enough to distinguish between a groaner and a knee-slapper or pick out an inappropriate joke, but the researchers say they're working on it. Which means that we're moving ever closer to smart-aleck robots in the vein of C-3PO.

Don't Go Into the Light

Cop shows could get a lot more gross if a new flashlight designed for the Department of Homeland Security catches on. The light has the normal ability to blind a suspect, but also adds a feature to make them feel disoriented and nauseated. The device will shoot pulses of bright light from LEDs at a suspect, creating a disorienting feeling (it's similar to helicopter pilots who crash after looking at the interrupted light through the chopper blades). This temporary sickness would allow police to take the suspect away more easily, but could also leave them an unpleasant mess to clean up.

Better than Chugging Water

hic cup.jpgThere are so many cures for the hiccups, from the terrifying to the tasty (I always try eating a spoonful of peanut butter, even though it's worked exactly 0 percent of the time). There's always room for a new one, so here comes the Hic-Cup. This muzzle-like device puts electrodes on your temple and cheek and creates a current when you fill the cup with water and drink. The resulting current effectively stops the hiccups. The device's website has plenty of success stories, but does nothing to quell any concern about strapping an electrified cup to one's face.

More science news after the jump!

Not So Superior Anymore

Lake Superior has always kind of been the big dog of the Great Lakes, with its gargantuan size (a surface area as large as South Carolina) and financial prowess. But something is going wrong in the lake- the water level has dropped to its lowest point in eight decades and the temperature has risen 4.5 degrees since 1979. This is spelling trouble for the lake's fans- beachgoers now have to contend with muckier shores, while fishers have to seek out cool water for the fish. Global warming is the obvious suspect, but some are taking a more noir approach and accusing the government of funneling the water to surrounding cities and farms for political gain.

Couches with Emotional IQ'sfuwapica300707.jpg

Everybody's got that favorite couch, the one that's so faded and stained you can't even tell what color it is, but it doesn't matter because it probably wouldn't match the room anyway. Now Japanese researchers have designed furniture that will react to the people and objects around it by changing color. Fuwa pica, which translates to "˜soft and flashy,' has a set with a table containing a computer and LCD display and four chairs. The computer picks up on the environment and mood of the person, slowly changing color to match an object on the table. Also, in an inexplicably cruel feature, the chairs will also turn red when a heavy person sits on it "as if the blood pressure was rising high," in the words of one of the creators.

Do the Wave

Add the ocean to the increasingly crowded list of alternative energy sources. Scientists have designed a buoy device that floats on the ocean's surface with a Slinkie-like polymer inside that contracts and expands with the bobbing of the waves, creating an electrical current. Currently, the Electroactive polymer artificial muscles have only generate enough to light a small light bulb, but they've been kept in tame waters. It might be worth it to try them on some gnarly 40-footers.

Under My Umbrella

Because of the god-awful, overplayed Rhianna song, I've been doing my best to avoid any mention of umbrellas this summer, but I couldn't pass this story up. Ambient Devices has unveiled an umbrella that tells you when it's needed. The handle has a radio transmitter that picks up weather reports from AccuWeather and glows accordingly- soft pulses for a drizzle and flashes for a thunderstorm. Finally we'll be able to cut the awkward "will I look foolish if I bring the umbrella and it doesn't rain" debates out of our mornings.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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