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WATCH: The World's Smallest Movie, Starring ... Atoms

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By Harold Maass

Hollywood loves to go big with movies. IBM scientists went small — very small. The company's researchers produced a short, stop-motion film to showcase their efforts to design the next generation of data storage, and they did it by manipulating individual atoms to create images of a boy playing with a ball and bouncing on a trampoline. The clip, called A Boy and His Atom, has been certified by Guinness World Records as the "Smallest Stop-Motion Film" ever. 

The scientists used a tiny needle on the tip of a two-ton scanning tunneling microscope, manipulated remotely by computer, to move carbon monoxide molecules around on a copper plate chilled to 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The frigid temperature "makes life simpler for us," says Andreas Heinrich, IBM's principal scientist for the project. "The atoms hold still. They would move around on their own at room temperature." Each frame involves an area measuring 45 by 25 nanometers (there are 25 million nanometers per inch), but the microscope magnifies the scene over 100 million times.

"This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world," Heinrich says. "The reason we made this was not to convey a scientific message directly, but to engage with students, to prompt them to ask questions." But that's just part of the reasoning. The techniques used to make the movie are similar to those IBM is working on to make data storage smaller as the world's digital archives expand. "As data creation and consumption continue to get bigger," Heinrich says, "data storage needs to get smaller, all the way down to the atomic level."

That sounds logical for computing, but how does this clip stand up as a film? The result is "the worst animated movie I've ever seen," jokes Richi Jennings at Computerworld. "Terrible production values, laughable plot, and awful soundtrack." It's mercifully short, but — sorry, IBM — "two thumbs down." But perhaps reviewers should cut the "IBM eggheads" behind this tiny flick some slack, says Mark Hearn at Engadget. They're just using "a playful spin on microcomputing" to show off the possibilities of thinking small, and in that, they succeeded. "Now that the atom's gone Hollywood, what's next, a molecular entourage?"

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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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