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BristleBots

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At the New York Toy Fair, Scholastic unveiled a new book and kit by Klutz entitled Invasion of the BristleBots, with the tagline "Part Robot! Part Toothbrush?" It has the components for a child to assemble two BristleBots, which are tiny robots made from a toothbrush, a watch battery, and a vibrating pager motor. What fun! See, I've encountered BristleBots before. In fact, YouTube has a raft of videos featuring homemade BristleBots. They skitter around like insects on amphetamines until you giggle yourself silly. It all started on December 19th, 2007 when Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories posted instructions for making this tiny robot they called a BristleBot. The accompanying video was well worth sitting through the technical aspects to see the little booger in action.

The BristleBot became an internet sensation, and the videos began to roll in.

Fourteen months later, reporters from several toy and gadget blogs noticed the BristleBots kit at the toy fair, and were delighted to see Windell Oskay's creation enshrined in a Scholastic offering. But neither Windell, nor evil mad partner Lenore Edman, nor Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories were mentioned anywhere in the book or kit. This discrepancy was noted by Make, DVICE, and Engadget among others. The folks at EMSL were justifiably hurt. Windell and Lenore are open source proponents who publish ideas and encourage others to try them and even improve upon them, but to see their idea for sale on Amazon with no attribution is a kick in the head.

Klutz released a statement on Scholastic's blog detailing how and when the BristleBots were developed. Bloggers weren't buying it. It's just too much to believe the exact same idea and the exact same name arose independently in the same year. A promotional video for the Klutz kit was even posted as a response to the original EMSL BristleBot instruction video. Within a few days, Lenore finally spoke with Pat Murphy, BristleBot developer at Klutz. In an updated response on Scholastic's site and at Klutz, Murphy admitted no wrongdoing, but said that the second printing of the book will include acknowledgment of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories. Whether this is enough to save Klutz's reputation in the blogosphere is another matter. Many EMSL fans and robotics geeks are vowing to buy only the second printing of the kits.

Invasion of the BristleBots is available to pre-order from Amazon for $19.95. Or you can make your own for the cost of the components.

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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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