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Internet Addiction in Asia

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There's some debate over whether "internet addiction" is even properly classifiable as a behavioral disorder, but if it is, there's certainly a not-insignificant percentage of folks in the U.S. that would qualify. For whatever reason, it seems that the most shocking statistics I hear about internet addiction come from Asia. South Korea boasts of being the most wired country in the world, with 90% of homes partaking of inexpensive, fast internet connections. Not coincidentally, Korean experts have said that up to 30% of their population under 18, or about 2.5 million people, are at risk for internet addiction. From the New York Times:

They spend at least two hours a day online, usually playing games or chatting. Of those, up to a quarter million probably show signs of actual addiction, like an inability to stop themselves from using computers, rising levels of tolerance that drive them to seek ever longer sessions online, and withdrawal symptoms like anger and craving when prevented from logging on. It has become a national issue here in recent years, as users started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end. A growing number of students have skipped school to stay online, shockingly self-destructive behavior in this intensely competitive society.

Though China has far fewer homes connected to the internet, it has identified similar problems: one study claims that more than 10% of Chinese college students are internet addicts. What both Korea and China have done to combat these addictions is to create a system of "boot camps," which have stirred a bit of controversy of late.

The Times describes one Korean boot camp:

During a session, participants live at the camp, where they are denied computer use and allowed only one hour of cellphone calls a day, to prevent them from playing online games via the phone. They also follow a rigorous regimen of physical exercise and group activities, like horseback riding, aimed at building emotional connections to the real world and weakening those with the virtual one. Initially, the camp had problems with participants sneaking away to go online, even during a 10-minute break before lunch, Ms. Lee said. Now, the campers are under constant surveillance, including while asleep, and are kept busy with chores, like washing their clothes and cleaning their rooms.

Chinese techniques have been known to be more aggressive. Until recently, some Chinese doctors administered electroshock treatment to net-addicted teens; the practice was banned after an outcry by parents (and after it was shown to have little or no effect). Net addiction boot camps are rougher, too, and often force unwilling participants to endure hours of military-style drilling and physical punishments for infractions. Two kids have died at Chinese boot camps in recent months after being beaten. Now China's government has banned physical punishment in such camps.

A treatment program called ReStart recently opened here in the U.S., in Redmond, Washington. Treatment doesn't involve drills or beatings, though:

The five-acre center in Fall City, about 30 miles east of Seattle, can handle up to six patients at a time ... and uses a cold turkey approach. Patients spend their days in counseling and psychotherapy sessions, doing household chores, working on the grounds, going on outings, exercising and cooking.

Whatever the approach, the effectiveness of such programs, in Asia or in the U.S., has yet to be proven.

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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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