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Food From the Future: 3D-Printed Astro Pizzas

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In May, NASA funded mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor and his company, Systems & Materials Research Corporation, with $125,000 to build a model of a 3D food printer. The model, which will be revealed sometime later this month, is designed to create a food beloved by both Home Alone's Kevin McAllister and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: pizza.

The plan is for Contractor's machine to print pies for astronauts during missions to Mars. Why pizza? Because it's made in distinct layers—perfect for a machine that can only produce one substance at a time.

The machine will first print a layer of dough that slowly bakes on a hot plate. While the dough is baking, the printer will squeeze out a layer of tomato sauce made from tomato powder, water, and oil. Finally, the printer creates a topmost “protein layer," which could consist of various alternative food sources, including algae, duckweed, grass, lupine seeds, beet leaves, and insects. It will take the printer approximately one hour to complete a pizza, although researchers hope to decrease the cooking time for convenience.

Adding to the many challenges faced in traveling to Mars and beyond is the fact that whatever food astronauts take with them will have to last a long time. “Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf-life,” Contractor said. Since all of the pizza ingredients will be in powder form, they will have a shelf life of up to 30 years.

Contractor originally developed a printer that would create a chocolate valentine for his wife, but he soon realized that 3D printing could have a global impact.

Beyond NASA, Contractor envisions a worldwide need for a food printer, since present food sources are unlikely to sustain growing populations. Contractor hopes to create software for the printers that would allow recipes to be traded and tweaked by each user before being downloaded by the machine.

However, not everyone is looking forward to the development of 3D printers. Earlier this year, lawmakers in Congress proposed passing legislation that would track the purchases and uses of printers. Some senators believe that criminals could use the 3D printers to print untraceable guns.

Others are more optimistic. Some researchers have developed plans for 3D printers that include printing organs and prosthetics for individuals who have suffered serious injuries. Others have suggested infusing the food printer "ink" with nutrients for people with special diets.

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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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