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5 Animals Playing Video Games

To make your Monday complete, I present you with a variety of videos featuring animals playing video games, along with analysis of whether they are good at the games. BEHOLD:

1. Real Lizard Eats Virtual Ants

A bearded dragon plays "Ant Smasher," an Android phone game. He or she is excellent, clearly differentiating between ants and other insects in the game, but seems to do a little unnecessary lip-licking. Best YouTube comment: "Thumbs up? if you are an Ant and you find this offensive."

(Via Kottke.org.)

2. Bonobo Plays Ms. Pac-Man (With Help)

With some encouragement by researcher Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, this bonobo plays Ms. Pac-Man. Skill level: low -- ghost avoidance strategy needs work. (See a bit more of this in Savage-Rumbaugh's excellent TED Talk; a snippet of this Pac-Man video is shown at the very end, minus narration.)

3. Cats Play "Game for Cats" on iPad

Two cats attempt to master an iPad game called, appropriately, Game for Cats (iTunes link -- the game is free). The cats seem generally confused by the notion of a screen, and attempt to go underneath the iPad, with unsatisfactory results. Their claws also keep getting stuck on the carpet; for optimal play, perhaps a carpet isn't a great idea. In general, the cats seem pretty interested in smacking those mice, though their technique isn't optimal.

Related: there's a similar app in which cats "paint" as they stomp on virtual mice (iTunes link; app costs $1.99).

4. Cat Frustrated By Duck Hunt

This poor cat does a great job playing Duck Hunt, but lacks the Nintendo Zapper Light Gun -- so that obnoxious in-game dog keeps popping up and mocking the poor feline's apparent failure. Skill level: excellent. Virtual dog's conduct: unsportsmanlike.

5. Hamster Inhabits Real-World Platformer

While not a video game per se, some industrious hamster owner has put together a diorama version of a platformer game (reminiscent of 8-bit NES games like Super Mario Bros.) and unleashed his hapless hamster into it. The hamster does a pretty good job traversing the maze, but takes a few breaks to do some adorable self-grooming.

Got More?

Leave comments with any videos I missed! (Note: the "dog playing Tony Hawk" you see all over YouTube is fake.)

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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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