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As American as Apple Pie Bombs

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American institution or not, Nikita Khrushchev probably wasn’t impressed with the mysterious homemade apple pie he received during his first visit to the United States in 1959.

Though the visit was historic, many Americans were less than thrilled that the Russian Premier was on U.S. soil. With this knowledge in hand, Khrushchev’s security detail had instructions to be even more cautious than usual. When a rather large package arrived at the Soviet Mission headquarters in New York with “Pie-Perishable” handwritten on it, officers had cause to be alarmed. Using a portable X-ray machine to check out the contents of the parcel, the team was quite concerned to see what looked like wires inside. Immediately, all traffic in a six-block radius was cleared and a bomb squad took the pie to Rockaway Point in Queens to detonate what they assumed was the explosive device inside.

You can imagine how shocked the squad was when they carefully opened the package, ready for the worst, and found only a homemade apple pie, just as the inscription on the box said. What was originally believed to be wires was actually the chain to a necklace with a locket pendant etched with the Ten Commandments. It was sent by Virginia McCleary of Luling, Texas, who was amused by the hubbub surrounding the whole affair. When security contacted her, she told them it was simply pie. “It was the Ten Commandments that stirred everything up,” she later commented.

Other stops on Khrushchev’s trip were quite varied: he visited a farm in Iowa (pictured), a supermarket in San Francisco, Eleanor Roosevelt’s New York home, IBM’s headquarters, a steel mill in Pittsburgh, the Twentieth-Century Fox Studios, and finally met with President Eisenhower at Camp David. He intended to go to Disneyland but had to change plans when security wasn’t able to assure his safety there. Let’s hope he got to sample jewelry-free pie at some point during his visit.

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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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