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Preview: Maker Faire Africa

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What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix? That's exactly the question that organizers of the first Maker Faire Africa intend to answer starting tomorrow, when inventors, venture capitalists, journalists, and curious members of the general public gather in Accra, Ghana, for a 3-day celebration of do-it-yourself innovation. The aim of the event, an offshoot of similar gatherings in the United States held over the past few years, is to identify, spur, and support local development by bringing Africa's brightest inventors and idea men and women together in a single forum.

A Maker What?

rubeThe original Maker Faire was held in April 2006 in San Mateo, California. Sponsored by MAKE Magazine and billed as the world's biggest celebration of science, engineering, and crafting, the event drew roughly 20,000 visitors. Maker Faire's popularity has grown in the years since, with MAKE sponsoring events in Austin, Texas, and Newcastle, United Kingdom, in addition to subsequent gatherings in San Mateo. "It's pinnacle geek culture that you can't find anywhere else in the world," one product designer told Wired last year. MAKE is busy preparing to host Maker Faire Rhode Island in September. One of the most popular exhibits to appear at several Maker Faires since the event's inception is the life-size, Rube Goldberg-esque mousetrap inspired by the classic board game of the same name. Another geeky favorite is the Diet Coke and Mentos-fueled Bellagio-style fountain.

Into Africa

While MAKE isn't an official sponsor of Maker Faire Africa, the editors of the magazine allowed the Maker Faire Africa organizers to use the MF name and they'll be covering the event. Maker Faire Africa was the idea of entrepreneur and TED Africa Director Emeka Okafor, who authors a blog, Timbuktu Chronicles, about innovation in Africa. "The aim is to identify, spur and support local innovation," Okafor originally wrote on Ned.com, where he launched his idea for Maker Faire Africa in 2008. "At the same time, Maker Faire Africa would seek to imbue creative types in science and technology with an appreciation of fabrication and by default manufacturing. The long-term interest here is to cultivate an endogenous manufacturing base that supplies innovative products in response to market needs."

Why Ghana? Why Now?

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Okafor and his fellow organizers, including AfriGadget.com founder Erik Hershman and Nii Simmonds of the blog, Nubian Cheetah, scheduled the first Maker Faire Africa to follow the International Development Design Summit, which was held in Kumasi, Ghana. Finished prototypes from the summit, which was organized by MIT and ran through Wednesday, will be presented at MFA. Okafor hopes this week's Maker Faire is the first of many in Africa.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

One of the featured presenters scheduled to speak at Maker Faire Africa is William Kamkwamba, a Malawian who, against all odds, built an electricity-generating windmill as a teenager out of primarily scrap materials. Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of school at the age of 14 because his family couldn't afford the nominal annual tuition. After reading a library book about wind energy, he constructed a windmill out of a broken bicycle, a tractor fan blade, and blue-gum trees, among other things. His prototype windmill powered four light bulbs, two radios, and mobile phones, and Kamkwamba soon built two more windmills to provide his family with electricity, a luxury only 2 percent of Malawians could afford. After news of his ingenuity spread, Kamkwamba was invited to speak at the TEDGlobal 2007 conference, where a group of investors agreed to finance his education. Kamkwamba has since authored a book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which will be released in September, and is the subject of a documentary.

Other Presenters

Among the other inventors who will attend Maker Faire Africa are Dominic Wanjihia, who invented a device called the Evapocooler to cool camels' milk for transportation in Somalia, and a pair of Kenyan students who designed a pocket-sized and pedal-powered cell phone charger that can be attached to the back wheel of a bike. Hershman, who regularly profiles similar inventions on AfriGadget.com, is attending Maker Faire Africa with the goal of getting feedback on a collaborative design effort with the Portable Light project and messenger bag-maker Timbuk2. Hershman has brought several prototypes of the FLAP (Flexible Light And Power) bag "“ a messenger bag outfitted with a solar panel connected to an LED light "“ to Ghana to determine how useful the device would be to people in Africa. You can read more about the FLAP project here.

Maker Faire Video Vault

Here are several videos from previous Maker Faires, including a successful run of the life-size mousetrap.
2009 Bay Area
2008 Austin
Life-Size Mouse Trap

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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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May 23, 2017
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