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12 Predictions Isaac Asimov Made About 2014 in 1964

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When sci-fi author Isaac Asimov sojourned to the New York World's Fair in 1964 — according to his writings, he "enjoyed it hugely" — he regretted the Fair's lack of foresight. So, thoughts turned to the future, Asimov penned a New York Times essay he titled "Visit to the World's Fair of 2014," a glimpse 50 years ahead into the future of human history. 

1. The human race would be incurably bored

In what Asimov declared his "most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014," the writer believed society would fall into a sense of enforced leisure: "Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine."

2. Appliances would no longer have electric cords

Instead, previously-plugged in gadgets would be powered by "long-lived batteries running on isotopes." A probably expensive proposition in today's 2014, except, according to Asimov, the batteries would be cheap by-products of...

3. Fission-power plants that would energize most of the world

By 2014, Asimov surmised that fission-power plants would be "supplying well over half the power needs of humanity." But Asimov also predicted that fission-power technology would already be on the way out in favor of...

4. At least two experimental fusion-power plants 

Scientists would also have constructed models of "power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected to earth." Solar energy would be just as big a deal on Earth, too: enormous solar power stations in a number of semi-desert regions (including Arizona and Kazakhstan) would be fully operational.

5. Cars would fly — sort of

Roads and bridges would be rendered all but obsolete: "Jets of compressed air will also lift land vehicles off the highways, which, among other things, will minimize paving problems...cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets, though local ordinances will discourage the practice."

6. There would be robots

But they'd lack in quantity and quality: "Robots will be neither common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence." Asimov predicted one Jetsons-ish advancement in robotics with his idea for a General Electric "robot housemaid...large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning, and manipulation of various appliances." Another of Asimov's predictions picked up on by The Jetsons was...

7. Moving sidewalks, raised above traffic

Which Asimov determined would only be be functional for "short-range travel." The writer also envisioned that "compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials over local stretches, and the switching devices that will place specific shipments in specific destinations will be one of the city's marvels."

8. Humans would have colonized the moon

And Earth-bound citizens would be able to communicate with lunar friends by sending conversations through "modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space." Asimov freely admitted that "conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable," accounting for the 2.5 seconds it would take for a question or answer to reach the other end of the conversation — that's how long it would take the light to make the trip.

9. Some of us might start taking up residence underwater

An attractive option for "those who like water sports," Asimov foresaw 2014 as a banner year for the beginning of the colonization of the continental shelves beneath the oceans' depths. He pictured the 2014 World's Fair as boasting exhibits showing "cities in the deep sea with bathyscaphe liners."

10. The area from Boston to Washington, D.C. would become one big city

Due to the region encompassing Boston to the nation's capital being the most crowded area of its size on earth, the region would band together to form one metropolis of more than 40 million residents. That's chump change compared to Asimov's guesses of the world's population (6 and a half billion) and the population of the United States (350 million). As of January 1, 2014, the U.S.A.'s actual population was 319 million, and Asimov's prediction was a bit short of the world's 7.1 billion citizens

11. Life expectancy would hit 85 years old in some parts of the world

Which is one of the reasons Asimov concerned himself so much with the possible problems of overpopulation. Why would most humans live to such a ripe old age? Asimov chalked it up to "the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves."

12. The world would be seriously automated

Asimov imagined that "the world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders." To fit the need, all high school curricula of the future would make "binary arithmetic" and "formula translation" mandatory. 

[via Smithsonian]

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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