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New TV Alert: Science Channel & Popular Science Team Up for "Future Of..."

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Starting tonight at 9pm (ET/PT) and on Mondays hereafter, a new science show hits The Science Channel -- it's called Popular Science's Future Of.... I've seen the first few episodes, and think it's worth watching. The premise is simple: the host -- blogger/comedian Baratunde Thurston -- visits scientists who are working on prototypes of new inventions, then tries them out. In the first episode, Superhuman, Baratunde tries out a series of inventions related to human performance and body enhancement (including several from my favorite Nerdvana, the MIT Media Lab) to see how they really work. Below is a roundup of some of the key stuff covered in the first episode.

Cooling Glove

Stanford biologists are making a cooling device that you wear on your hand; by sticking your hand into this thing, you can quickly and safely reduce your core temperature -- thus reducing sweating and potentially avoiding overheating during a workout. (Pictured above: Baratunde trying it out.) Why a glove? Well, the hand acts like a radiator for the body, and lots of blood flows through that area -- by cooling the hand, blood throughout the body can be cooled quickly. This invention already works, it's just a bit bulky at the moment. I'm hoping for a Michael Jackson-style sparkly glove that I can rock at the gym.

Limb Regeneration Powder

You've probably heard the story of the guy who grew about a half-inch of his fingertip back (including fingernail) at the ripe of age of 72, using an experimental powder derived from pigs' bladders. (If you haven't heard this, read a quick summary at Wikipedia. Basically, an older man accidentally cut off a segment of his finger, and his brother, a University of Pittsburgh scientist, tried an experimental regenerative powder on him. It worked.) While some scientists disagree about whether any regeneration actually happened here (some say it's just normal healing), this powder certainly seems like interesting stuff -- could it, or a regenerative substance like it, someday lead to regeneration of dying organs (thus doing away with transplants), or missing limbs? Baratunde explains...though he doesn't lose any fingers trying it out.

Wearable "Sixth Sense" Projector/Camera/PDA/Phone/Everything Device

An MIT Media Lab project, the Sixth Sense device is a wearable computer that hangs around your neck (Snow Crash gargoyles, anyone?) and instead of a screen, uses a micro-projector that projects its contents onto the nearest wall, car, whatever. It also includes a camera, so you can use your hands to interact with the picture in mid-air, implementing a sort of "touchscreen" without the touching. While it's still in the research phase (it's bulky, the picture it projects is a little unsteady, and so on), this gizmo is at least academically interesting -- and who knows, perhaps it's what we'll all be using in the not-too-distant future.

And Much, Much More...

The first episode also covers super-muscled mice (and Bully Whippets, those creepy hulk-style dogs), bionic Terminator-style contact lenses, and prosthetic limbs for athletes (that last one is the closest to a practical application, as its primary researcher is a double amputee and uses his own research samples every day). It's compelling stuff, presented in a clear and unaffected manner. Most of the time, I find these "pop science" shows to be way too dumb or hyper to hold my interest -- I want more science, less wackiness. This show finds the right balance, with an intelligent (and fun) host, compelling subject matter, and a healthy dose of actual science content. Having blogged about science and tech for several years, I recognized many of the projects in the upcoming episodes (for example, the Siftables "smart blocks") -- this is the real deal.

So tune in tonight (Monday, August 10) at 9pm (ET/PT) on The Science Channel to catch the first episode. There'll be many more, coming each Monday night, for your science-loving enjoyment. For more information: official website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, and I'm sure you can find the rest from there.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]