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Checking in on Back to the Future II Technologies

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The future is upon us—but if you asked Marty McFly, he’d tell you we’re already behind schedule.

When Back to the Future II’s time-traveling DeLorean blasted Marty McFly and Doc Brown to the future, they arrived on October 21, 2015. While the sci-fi comedy has already predicted some things about the future correctly (playing video games without hands, for example), other elements were rather off-track (phone booths and newspapers aren’t quite as prominent today as they were in the 1989 movie).

Director-producer Robert Zemeckis and writer-producer Bob Gale knew that much of their vision of the future would not become reality by 2015—they did not believe mass-produced flying cars were just around the corner, nor did they think Jaws would get its 18th sequel. Even though comedic tone was often prioritized over plausibility, Back to the Future II’s creative team did extensive research about developing technologies for the film. Gale tells us he wanted to avoid the dark, dystopian world depicted in films like Blade Runner and make the future look like a nice place to live. “We wanted people to look forward to the future because, when we were kids," he says, "we always looked forward to the future."

Consider Zemeckis and Gale successful on that account: Hoverboards captured the imaginations of movie-goers in 1989, and they still do today. So, should we put the soaring skateboard on our Christmas list for 2015? Let's investigate the likelihood of some of Back to the Future Part II's technologies making an appearance in the near future.

1. Biometric Thumbprint Scanner

This could be the most on-schedule of Back to the Future's predictions. A year from now, you’ll be able to pay an inflated cab fee with the touch of a finger or unlock your front door without digging through a mess of keys. Important to the progress of this technology is the iPhone, no matter how glitchy the first rollout of Touch ID was. Today, just a handful of airports have biometric scanners to speed up your trip through security, but there’s a good chance this tech will be near-ubiquitous by October 2015, “especially with an organization like Apple getting momentum behind it,” says Jim Carroll, an Ontario-based futurist.

2. Hoverboard

Gale recalls that, after Back to the Future Part II’s release, “we got so many letters from kids saying, ‘Please send me a hoverboard, but don’t send me a pink one.’” Sad news, hoverboard fans: The Pitbull won’t be on the market by 2015. Anti-gravity technology isn’t there yet, no matter what a Tony Hawk-starring viral hoax says. (Magnetic levitation is the next-best thing now.)

Even if the developers at Mattel had a breakthrough and got the hoverboard ready for stores, there would be another force to overcome: lawmakers who choose what’s street-legal. Remember the Segway and how revolutionary it was supposed to be? New York-based futurist Michael Rogers says the hoverboard would probably be in for the same fate as the failed personal transporter.

3. Rejuvenation Clinic

Doc Brown's visit to a rejuvenation clinic saved the film's makeup department from doing old-age makeup on actor Christopher Lloyd throughout the production, but modern viewers can also see Doc's de-wrinkling as a reality-based nod to the growing popularity of plastic surgery—and Doc’s replacement spleen and colon could be a near-future trend, too. Rogers says that in 2015 there will be some synthetic organ replacement, but it will still be in the experimental stage. According to Seattle-based futurist Glen Hiemstra, by 2030 or 2040 we will be able to clone our own organs and grow ourselves a new spleen or liver.

4. Marty’s Clothes

Marty’s power-lacing Nike shoes and automatically adjusting jacket seemed like too good an idea not to exist. Nike has hinted at upcoming power-lacing shoes, but don’t expect electronically size-altering clothing to be all the rage a year or two from now. Futurists predict it's more likely that we see infrared body scanners that take precise measurements for clothes and Internet-connected intelligent textiles that respond to heart rate and blood pressure. Parents are already discovering the benefits of that kind of technology with the Exmobaby System: pajamas that measure an infant’s body temperature and other vital signs.

5. Holomax theater

Forget 3-D movies—in Back to the Future's 2015, holograms are the newest trend at the multiplex. When Marty steps into Hill Valley’s Clock Tower Square, he sees a Holomax Theater marquee advertising Jaws 19, directed by Max Spielberg (oldest son of Back to the Future producer Steven). Even Hollywood's rapid sequel machine wouldn't have been fast enough to get a 19th Jaws installment in theaters by October 2015. Advances in technology would have to be just as fast, if not faster, to make holographic movies a reality within the next year. Hiemstra explains that holographic projections are still “fairly crude,” but the giant holographic shark that appears to eat Marty outside of the theater is not too far off from reality: As Rogers notes, interactive digital ads already interact with pedestrians in the real world.

6. Workout bikes in Café '80s

What was once Lou’s Café has become Café ’80s in 2015. Back to the Future Part II was on-target about the current 1980s nostalgia, but the film was off when it placed workout bikes in that café. Hill Valley of the future is also notably devoid of obese people—not quite an accurate depiction of modern America—but a turnaround for Fast Food Nation may be less far-fetched than some think. The economics of obesity could be in for a change. “By the end of this decade, your insurance premiums will be very dependent on how healthy your lifestyle is,” Rogers says. Miniature wireless devices will track calorie intake and calorie output, so “the idea of working out will not just be a healthy thing, but it will save you a lot of money.”

7. Barcode License Plates

When Doc blasts back to 1985 at the end of the first Back to the Future film, the DeLorean is sporting a new license plate—one that features no easily visible numbers or letters. Instead, it bears a metallic barcode. It’s unlikely that cars will ever have license plates exactly like that one, since drivers will still need to read them, but a scannable code that police can grab from long distances is a possibility. Rogers says that kind of license plate could use the same technology as tags on cars that automatically pay for tolls. Still, a more likely change for car identification will come with vehicle connection to the Internet. “By 2020, possibly sooner, every new car will be connected to the Internet all the time. That is completely inevitable,” he says, pointing to the development of Vehicle-to-Vehicle (a.k.a. V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (a.k.a. V2I) technology. “Every new car will have an identification and be logged on all the time.”

8. Flying Cars

A long line of sci-fi movies would have you believe flying cars are just on the horizon. After watching a TV special in 1960 about what the world would look like in 1985, an 8-year-old Gale “was sure looking forward to flying cars,” he says. “I didn't think I'd ever have to get a driver’s license—I'd only have to get a pilot's license.” Alas, the real-world 2015 won’t have the prevalence of flying cars that future Hill Valley did. But futurists do have their eye on promising prototypes from companies like Moller International and Terrafugia. The biggest roadblocks now are the noise level of these prototypes and the Federal Aviation Administration. “There’s going to be a lot of lawyers between here and flying cars,” Rogers says. Hiemstra, however, is hopeful that affluent buyers will be able to purchase a self-navigating, personal flying vehicle by 2030.

So where we’re going, we will need roads ... but not for long.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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