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What is “Awesome?” IBM’s Watson vs. Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

IBM has a history of pitting man versus machine in PR stunts that capture headlines — and yeah, it’s happening again, tonight. In 1989, IBM took on chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov using its Deep Thought machine…and lost. In 1996, IBM returned with Deep Blue…and lost. But in 1997, a reengineered version of Deep Blue narrowly defeated Kasparov (IBM refused Kasparov’s requests for a rematch; the topic is thoroughly covered in the documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine). So what’s my point? Starting tonight, IBM’s Watson computer will play Jeopardy against Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The three Watson shows air tonight (January, 14 February 2011) through Wednesday, and you can bet nerds worldwide will be glued to their TV sets. Check your local listings for channel and time info.

Here’s some video of a short preview match from earlier this year (watch closely for how the buzzer timing seems to be crucial — Jennings apparently tries to buzz in on all of these questions but barely misses most of the buzz opportunities):

For technical details about Watson, check out this article — some sample specs:

Watson is comprised of 90 Power 750 servers, 16 TB of memory and 4 TB of disk storage, all housed in a relatively compact ten racks. The 750 is IBM’s elite Power7-based server targeted for high-end enterprise analytics. (The Power 755 is geared toward high performance technical computing and differs only marginally in CPU speed, memory capacity, and storage options.) Although the enterprise version can be ordered with 1 to 4 sockets of 6-core or 8-core Power7 chips, Watson is maxed out with the 4-socket, 8-core configuration using the top bin 3.55 GHz processors.

So it’s two men against 2,880 cores of computing power and a massive database of human knowledge. Who will win? Honestly, my money is on Ken Jennings by a nose (and that’s not just because Ken writes for us — I just think he’s the man). Having Rutter in the mix will serve to split the humans’ scores, so the games may come down to aggressive betting on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. My advice for the humans: if you get a Daily Double, bet the farm, because there’s no buzzer disadvantage involved. Given that there are three games, we’ll have three long days of tension — and nerds of the world may be sorely disappointed if Watson wins the first round.

After the jump: a preview of NOVA’s The Smartest Machine on Earth, which airs February 9th at 10/9c on most PBS stations. The episode digs into the history of Watson and similar computer systems. I have seen an early cut of this NOVA episode, and it is required viewing if you’re even remotely interested in Watson — all the key players are interviewed, and the technology is discussed in depth. You also get to see projects like Cyc, which uses a very different approach to language learning.

Previous coverage: IBM Invents Jeopardy-Playing Computer, More on IBM’s Jeopardyputer, and 4 Classic Battles Between Man (or Horse) and Machine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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