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How Giraffes Helped Human Space Travel

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Should human space-travelers ever execute the long-awaited trek to Mars or another distant planet, they'll have baby giraffes to at least partially thank for their voyage.

Extraterrestrial weightlessness—the sensation of floating through space within the confines of one's craft—is both a blessing and a curse for astronauts during long missions, as Canada's Chris Hadfield says in this Youtube video. Hadfield notes that “bodies are designed to work with gravity. The blood is pushed to your feet and your heart squeezes it to your head, and if you take away gravity, your heart's gonna keep squeezing the blood up to your head ... but gravity doesn't push your blood down to your feet anymore, so your head's gonna inflate!”

Additionally, because the blood vessels in an astronaut's lower body aren't used to the same extent as they are on Earth, they gradually lose tone and start growing thinner. Upon re-entry to our planet's atmosphere, this becomes problematic, since the increased gravity rapidly fills the legs and ankles with blood, which results in fainting and dizzy spells.

Though one doesn't generally associate space travelers with fetal giraffes, the two demographics are faced with one remarkably-similar challenge: the rapid transition from a weightless environment to one of significantly greater gravitational pull.

In the 1980s, physiologist Alan Hargens and his colleagues at NASA noted that, shortly after birth, the blood vessels in young giraffes' legs quickly thicken, often enabling them to walk within their first hour of life outside of the womb.

This discovery helped improve the effectiveness of an invention known as the Lower Body Negative Pressure Device (LBNP), which works like an everyday vacuum cleaner to “apply negative pressure over the lower body.” This, in turn, simulates earth-like conditions and prevents homecoming astronauts from blacking out.

But infant giraffes don't hold a monopoly on inspiring NASA technology. As Wisconsin zoologist Neil Anderson explains below, their adult counterparts inspired several aspects of modern space suits:

For a much more technical account, check this out!

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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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