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Creatively Speaking: Shai Reshef

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A new university is opening its doors this April, and guess what? It's going to be 100% tuition-free!

University of the People, the brainchild of an Israeli entrepreneur named Shai Reshef, will be a virtual school, the world's first tuition-free, Internet-based academic institution. The idea is pretty remarkable in its simplicity: provide universal access to college—even in the poorest parts of the world.

"Education, just like democracy, should be a right, not a privilege," says Reshef.

UoP will be open to any student with access to a computer and an Internet connection. And with the 500 rupee laptops now hitting India (that's about $10, believe it or not), seems college is about to get much, much more affordable. Check out the whole interview with Reshef below and find out how you can help out by volunteering.

DI: University of the People "“ sounds like Lincoln meets Stalin. Kidding. It's an amazing concept, and one that really fits the present zeitgeist. How'd you dream it up?

SR: I have always thought there is one issue that unites people around the globe "“ a need for improved education. As the founder of KIT, the eLearning partner of the University of Liverpool, in the Netherlands, I realized that the tools for providing accessible higher education were out there, but the price was too high. Then I began working at and discovered the strength of online study communities. I realized by coupling open-source technology and open courseware with online academic networks, we could create a global chalkboard and provide affordable collegiate level education to people worldwide.

DI: How many students will you be accepting straight away?

SR: [We] anticipate tens of thousands of students to enroll within the first five years of operation, although enrollment will be capped at 300 students in the first semester.

DI: What kind of degrees do you plan on offering?

SR: In the initial stages, UoP will offer two undergraduate degrees: a BA in Business Administration and a BSc in Computer Science. The University plans to offer other degrees in the future.

DI: Who will "teach" the classes?

SR: The student body will learn through peer-to-peer teaching with the guidance of respected scholars. Within the online study communities, students will share resources, exchange ideas, discuss weekly topics, submit assignments and take exams. A larger community of educators, comprised of active and retired professors, master level students and other professionals, will be available to answer students' questions, discuss topics and provide support.

DI: Is it free to apply?

SR: The University is tuition-free. However, we plan to charge nominal application and examination fees ($15-$50 and $10-$100 respectively), which will be adjusted on a sliding scale based on the economic situation in the student's country of origin.

DI: Clearly the demand will far outweigh your ability to accept students. How many students do you anticipate turning away each year?

SR: Our hope is to be able to accommodate any student that applies and meets the enrollment requirements.

DI: What language will the classes be taught in?

SR: For now, classes will be taught in English. If there is a great demand for additional languages, we will add them in the future.

DI: What countries do you think you'll get the most applicants from?

SR: The student body at UoP will be comprised of students from all over the world. The demand and need for access to higher education, however, is particularly strong in under-developed and developing countries so we expect to see an influx of students from those areas.

DI: Who are your major funders?

SR: We are making an initial investment of $5 million, $1 million of which I am contributing. The rest of the money will be raised through donations by individuals, companies and other organizations.

DI: It's all quite exciting, but what are the chances an endeavor like this can realistically succeed?

It depends on how many people volunteer their services. We encourage all of your readers to visit our Web site and volunteer.

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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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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