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5 Cool Things We Learned from The Incredible Bionic Man

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When Smithsonian Channel gave us an early peek at The Incredible Bionic Man, we were pretty excited. The documentary chronicles a European team’s efforts to make a fully bionic man that walks, talks, and has a working circulatory system. Spoiler alert: It’s amazing. The special is very much worth watching, which you can do online here or on Smithsonian Channel at 9ET/PT Sunday night. Here are five of our favorite takeaways.

1. There Are Some Astonishing Bionic Limbs Out There

The Incredible Bionic Man’s engineering team based its design on a living model: University of Zurich social psychologist Bertolt Meyer, who was born without a left hand and now wears a bionic prosthetic. The charming, self-effacing Meyer makes a terrific lead character for the documentary, and viewers will be amazed to watch his bionic prosthetic hand in action. The Bluetooth-enabled appendage is so beautiful that at first it’s impossible to take your eyes off of it, but it’s so incredibly lifelike that after Meyer’s first few scenes, you stop noticing it’s even there.

2. Bionic Bodies Raise Some Thorny Questions

While the documentary celebrates these advances in bionics, it also raises some interesting questions about their widespread usage. As bionics become increasingly powerful and lifelike, will we reach a point where trading our hands or legs for bionic ones is actually a smart decision? It’s fascinating to hear bioethicists and scientists raise and debate these points.

3. Professor Hugh Herr May Be MIT’s Coolest Faculty Member

One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is learning what the unexpected hurdles of creating a bionic person are. Arms and hands? These engineers are so brilliant they make that part look relatively easy. But ankles … those are trickier than you’d think. As the doc reveals, our ankles do something like 80 percent of the work when we walk, so any functional bionic leg needs finely tuned bionic ankles.

That’s where Hugh Herr comes in. The director of MIT’s Biomechatronics Research Group was a celebrated rock climber in his youth before losing his lower legs to frostbite. Rather than despairing, the brilliant Herr spent his career perfecting bionic replacements, and the results are incredible. The scenes of Herr walking on his prosthetics are jaw-dropping, but we were totally floored when he scampers up a climbing wall with his prosthetics. You’ve got to see it to believe it.

4. Lee Majors Got a Bad Deal on His Bionic Body

The Incredible Bionic Man frequently makes nods to the '70s TV smash The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors. If the show got remade today, it could slice a full five million bucks off the top of its budget. For all the incredibly sophisticated technology in today's team’s bionic man – including 200 processors and thousands of sensors – the creation was a relative bargain at around $1 million.

5. Things Are Only Getting Better

For all the amazing breakthroughs scientists and engineers have already made, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The bionic man’s functioning circulatory system is incredible, but other organs, like the liver, stomach, and intestines, are still beyond our current know-how.

Better yet, existing bionics are still improving. Bertolt Meyer’s bionic hand is a wonder to watch in action, but scenes in which he tries an even more advanced hand being developed at Johns Hopkins show just how many more advances science is on the cusp of making.

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Those are just a few of the standout moments from The Incredible Bionic Man, but it’s worth watching in full. There’s a “Holy cow!” moment almost once a minute, and you’ll walk away feeling optimistic about the future of bionics and organ replacements. Check it out online now or tune in to Smithsonian Channel at 9ET/PT Sunday night.

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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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