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Proof: Babies Can Be Jerks

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ThinkStock

By Lauren Hansen

It's human nature to want to hang out with people you have things in common with. ("You like chocolate-peanut-butter ice cream? So do I! Let's eat chocolate-peanut-butter ice cream together!") On the one hand, this trait is a positive one, since it helps people form social bonds. On the other, those shared interests can, at the very least, lead to the formation of cliques that exclude others for their differences. Worse yet, groups may reach the point at which they applaud when harm comes to outsiders — just think of the mean girls in high school who revel in others' pain. Researchers already knew, thanks to previous studies, that babies, like adults, had the propensity to like babies similar to them, gravitating toward those with the same taste in food or toys. But scientists wanted to examine whether the dark side of social identification was prevalent in babies as well. Do the roots of malevolent social biases take hold in infancy?

How it was tested

 
Researchers recruited 9- and- 14-month-old babies for two separate studies. First, the infants' preference for green beans or graham crackers was established. Then the babies watched a series of puppet shows that featured a graham cracker-liking puppet and a green bean-liking puppet alternately being helped and harmed by other puppets. Finally, the babies chose between the helper puppet or the harming puppet.

The outcome

 
With combined samples of more than 200 infant participants, researchers found that both age groups overwhelmingly preferred the character that helped the puppet similar to them, over the character that harmed the similar puppet. But, surprisingly, when it came to the puppets that were dissimilar to the infants, the majority of babies in both age groups opted for the character that harmed them. In fact, their preference for the harming character, in the dissimilar scenario, was just as strong as it was for the helping character in the similar scenario. When the study was conducted again, this time with the addition of a neutral puppet, researchers found that the older group responded even more robustly to the harmer puppet.

Why this might be

 
The fact that babies act this way even before they can speak suggests that social biases "are based in part on basic aspects of human social evaluation," rather than learned through interacting with others. In other words, our social biases might be more nature than nurture.

What the experts say

 
The results are disheartening, says Karen Wynn, senior author of the study and professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. "I was surprised, and my liberal bleeding heart sunk like a stone when we found them actually choosing, really robustly, the puppet who punishes." Wynn says there's need for more research, however. For one, the reasons behind the babies' choices are still unknown. Also, the babies might react differently if a parent or loved one cares for the dissimilar puppet.

But in the meantime, we'll leave you with this disheartening thought: Babies are kind of evil.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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