Original image

5 Things Your Car Will Finally Do In 2020

Original image

This article was written by John Brandon and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

We'll spare you the far-future posturing and flying-car jokes, but the future looks bright. In fact, we've already made some pretty impressive headway. The 2008 Mercedes S-Class can change lanes on the highway automatically, and both the Toyota Prius and the Lexus LS-460 can self-park at the push of a button. But that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's in the works. With eyes wide and mouths agape, mental_floss peeked under the curtain at the cars of the future. Here's what we can tell you about what you'll be driving in 2020.

1. Your Car Will Predict The Future

Self-parking cars are great and all, but there's a big difference between features of convenience and the kinds of safety technologies on the horizon. We're talking about cars that can see into the future and react on a dime—whether that means detecting a person crossing the street or swerving to avoid oncoming traffic.

crystalball.jpgThere's no doubt the artificial intelligence required to protect you from those dangers is incredibly sophisticated, but it's becoming more widely available every day. Vehicles equipped with hundreds of sensors will be able to monitor their surroundings, both from a short-range perspective (to detect things like barriers and stop signs) and a long-range perspective (to detect things like a truck barreling toward you). But they won't be working alone.

Cars of the future will also utilize video monitors located at intersections. Currently planned for many towns and cities across the United States, these monitors will feed data to your car over a wireless network. From as far as 30 miles away, they'll be able to transmit video imagery right to your dashboard. So, if you didn't see that pedestrian walking into the street, the video system would know where you were, know about the pedestrian, and warn you to pay attention. It's similar to Google's new Street View maps system. Already available in larger cities like San Francisco and New York, the application shows fluid, 360-degree video images of nearly every block in the area. And while it's only accessible from computers now, similar real-time images will soon be available right on your dash.

Taking the concept one step further, engineers also plan to equip cars with computer processors that can analyze these kinds of video feeds to assess abnormalities in traffic. So rather than just warning you of an upcoming obstacle in the road, cars will use the data to deploy airbags at just the right location within the vehicle. Or, they could decide to take over the steering when needed. Basically a smarter version of the existing Electronic Stability Control feature (available on several luxury car models now), the cars will monitor weather and traffic, and adjust tire speeds to make sure you stay on the road and don't flip the vehicle. How long 'til everyone on the block has one? The system will be required on all new U.S. cars for the 2012 model year, but you should expect to see it even sooner than that.

2. Your Car Will Talk To The Road "“ And The Road Will Talk Back

It's one thing to have a car that senses other vehicles, but something else entirely to have the road itself know where your car is at all times. To make that possible, city governments and automakers are joining forces to launch new Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) systems. Using short-range wireless signals, vehicles will be able to communicate not only with each other, but with all the infrastructure on the road. Transportation agencies in cities across America currently have plans to install DSRC technology at major intersections and high-accident areas. In response, major auto manufacturers will offer DSRC support for their cars. The communication network will monitor where cars are traveling, as well as read traffic-light information and road-sign sensors. With both cars and roadways enabled, formerly unimaginable safety benefits will become a reality. For instance, ambulances will be able to trigger upcoming traffic lights to change from red to green.

GPS-satellite.jpgBut there are plans to go even further. According to DaimlerChrysler, old satellites (accurate to about 3 feet) could be replaced with much more powerful Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, which could pinpoint your vehicle to a few centimeters. And while there are only 30 active GPS satellites in space today, engineers hope to have as many as 50 in the future. The new system will be able to track weather conditions and suggest alternate routes. For example, you could avoid a tornado in Kansas or damaging hail in Fargo, or loop around Chicago traffic using real-time data that's continually updated.

3. Your Car Will Take Itself Into The Shop For Maintenance

Having wireless networks set up along the roadways—such as those necessary for seeing images of upcoming intersections—translates to endless possibilities for cars and drivers in the future. Example: Imagine passing a maintenance station that remotely signals your in-car navigation system that it's time for an oil change. Better yet, it could go ahead and wirelessly upgrade your car's software modules or check the performance of its safety sensors.

Perhaps even more exciting are the possibilities for electric hybrids. Once electric cars outnumber gas-engine cars, satellite-based wireless power systems could recharge vehicles from space. How's that possible? The satellites would gather solar energy from space and then transmit the power to a receiver on the vehicle via a wireless signal. It would work the same as a wireless computer network, except the signal would carry energy instead of data.

4. When You Drive Through McDonald's, Your Car Will Be Debited, Not Your Visa

Microprocessors are already embedded into many parts of an automobile—from an engine's control-valve timing system to the seat controls. So why not have a microprocessor that manages financial transactions? Several states already offer special debit cards that mount to your windshield as you pass through a toll, but those are primitive compared to what's to come.

In the future, when you pull into the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant, a local Wi-Fi network will be able to communicate with your vehicle by way of an encrypted wireless signal. In other words, after you order your food, the car will automatically make the financial transaction. And the electronic signature? It's likely that the navigational systems in your car will have expanded beyond route planning and safety warnings into something involving a signature pad that would allow you to type in a passcode (or use a fingerprint or eye retina scan) as an electronic signature. Once the infrastructure is in place, your car will become like a mini-ATM for drive-thru establishments. Of course, whether or not that's a good thing for your budget remains to be seen.

5. Go Ahead, Take A Nap. Your Car Will Drive Itself.


Futuristic cars tricked out with their own ATMs and self-maintenance features sound nice, but for many engineers, that's just the tip of the iceberg. The real holy grail? A fully automated, driverless car.

Shining a big spotlight on such efforts is DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), a Department of Defense organization aimed at perfecting the robotic technology needed for safe, autonomous military vehicles. In 2005, Stanford robotics expert Sebastian Thrun (who we gushed over in our last issue on page 33) won the DARPA Grand Challenge with his autonomous car, Stanley. Although the competition is aimed at developing machinery to protect soldiers, Thrun believes the technology will reach civilians sooner than you might think. And driverless cars, he believes, could save thousands of lives each year.

In June 2007, Thrun's new robotic roadster, Junior, completed several test runs in preparation for the DARPA Urban Challenge (scheduled for November 2007). Although Junior never went faster than 15 mph, it made a three-point U-turn and navigated through a four-way stop. That's right; Thrun is getting close to achieving a fully automated, road-ready car.

Where could this lead? Well, a highway system for starters—say, from San Francisco to Los Angeles—for driverless vehicles only. Using a wireless signal, barriers on either side of the road could communicate with cars to keep them on track. And vehicles could simply use older cruise-control technology to maintain steady speeds. Conceivably, this would allow drivers to sleep through long stretches of highway—or at the very least read the morning paper and drink their coffee. Another advantage is that these routes could have less restrictive speed limits—likely well over 100 mph—which could redefine the morning commute for many Americans.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
Original image

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.