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Something New to Worry About: Vampire Bats

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Well, if you live in the Amazonian regions of Peru, it's something to worry about. Peruvians are quite worried, and with good reason: in past weeks, four people have died from vampire bat attacks -- not from blood loss, but from a peculiar form of rabies that the bats carry known as "dumb rabies," which paralyzes its victims rather than turning them into foaming-at-the-mouth psychotics.

So why are the bats suddenly a problem? It's thought to be a combination of factors: first and foremost, deforestation of the Amazon is forcing the bats out of their traditional habitats, and secondly, the spread of farming and livestock-raising into rainforest-adjacent areas is giving the bats a new and easy-to-feed-upon source of food -- cows. So the bats are moving into peopled areas and multiplying at the same time, a bad combination. When I heard this strange bit of news, I decided to learn a bit more about vampire bats. Here are a few of the most interesting factoids I happened upon:

"¢ Their saliva contains a substance that prevents their prey's blood from clotting, aptly named draculin.

"¢ The inferior colliculus, part of the bat's brain that processes sound, detects the regular breathing sounds of sleeping animals, their main food source.

"¢ A vampire bat's upper incisors lack enamel, which keeps them razor sharp permanently.

"¢ Socially, vampire bats are an unusually altruistic species. They cannot go more than about two days without a meal of blood, and because food sources are sometimes rare, lucky bats are known to share food with unluckier ones by regurgitating portions of past meals into the mouths of other bats, mouth-to-mouth, in an activity that strongly resembles kissing.

Less informatively, but perhaps more entertainingly, this song has been stuck in my head all day.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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