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Mnolf, via Wikimedia Commons: wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Strigops_habroptilus,_face.jpg

Tape, Glue, and New Kakapo

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Mnolf, via Wikimedia Commons: wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Strigops_habroptilus,_face.jpg

When I wrote about the kakapo—a chubby, flightless parrot that looks like a parakeet crossed with an owl crossed with a Muppet—last year, a group of the birds had recently arrived at their new home on New Zealand’s Little Barrier Island. The island had been cleared of accidentally-introduced rats and other predators, and conservationists hoped that Little Barrier would be a safe place to establish a population of the critically endangered birds (at the time, there were only 125 left) that wouldn’t need constant human babysitting (in some of the populations, conservation personnel have to provide the kakapo with food).

The birds didn’t breed in 2012, and no one was really expecting them to so soon after the transfer. As I finished working on my story in the fall of 2013, breeding season was still a few months off, and Deidre Vercoe Scott, who is the manager of the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Program, told me that from December through February, her team would be closely watching the birds to see “whether or not they are keen” to mate. 

Good news came early last month when the team announced that one of the island’s three female kakapo, named Heather, was found nesting with three fertile eggs, and several females from the group of birds living on Codfish Island, at the other end of the country, were also discovered nesting. It was the first time that any of the birds had laid an egg since 2011. 

A few weeks later, the first kakapo born in three years hatched from her egg, but not without incident. The egg, which belonged to a kakapo named Lisa, was found in the nest partially crushed. Fortunately, the egg’s inner membrane was still intact and senior kakapo ranger Jo Ledington was able to piece the outer shell back together with some tape and glue. The chick, dubbed Lisa One, hatched on February 28, happy and healthy. Isn’t she cute?

Four other eggs from Codfish Island also hatched, and just last week, one of Heather’s eggs hatched on Little Barrier Island. Some of the chicks are being kept in incubators and hand-fed until they can return to their groups, and two others have been fostered out to kakapo moms who didn’t lay viable eggs. It’s great news all around for the birds.

If you want to see more of these cute little guys in action, here’s one of the finest moments in nature filmmaking, wherein a kakapo attempts to mate with a zoologist’s head while Stephen Fry looks on laughing. 

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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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