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The King of Scotland’s Peculiar Language Experiment

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The tiny island of Inchkeith, which lies around 3 miles north of Edinburgh in middle of Scotland’s Firth of Forth, has had a long and turbulent history. In the 12th century, the island was first used as a stop-off for boats and ferries sailing from Edinburgh to Fife. Two centuries later, Inchkeith’s position made it strategically useful during the Scottish Wars of Independence, and it was repeatedly attacked by invading English troops during the lengthy Anglo-Scottish Wars. In the 15th century, it was used to quarantine the sick during an outbreak of the “contagious sickness callit the grandgor” (syphilis) in nearby Edinburgh, and again during an outbreak of the plague 100 years later. But the most unusual event in the island’s history may have taken place in 1493, when the Scottish king James IV chose to use the island as the location of a bizarre and cruel language deprivation experiment. 

Of all Scotland’s kings, James IV is remembered as a true Renaissance man: well-educated and naturally inquisitive, he was fond of history, art, poetry, and literature, and interested in medical advancement and scientific enlightenment. During his reign he became patron to a number of notable Scots writers and makars (bards), studied dentistry and surgery, licensed the first printworks in Scotland, and funded several court alchemists and apothecaries to carry out their experiments under his supervision. One of James’s best known alchemists, John Damian, is even supposed to have used the king’s funds to construct a set of man-sized chicken-feather wings, which he used to launch himself from the parapets of Stirling Castle, claiming that he would be able to fly to France; needless to say, he failed, and was reportedly left with a broken leg after plummeting into a dung heap several stories below. 

Of all the king’s intellectual interests, however, his love of language was perhaps the most significant. James is reputed to have been the last Scottish monarch to have spoken Scots Gaelic as well as English, but he was also fluent in Latin, French, German, Italian, Flemish, and Spanish, which the Spanish envoy to Great Britain, Pedro de Ayala, informed King Ferdinand of Spain that he spoke “as well as the Marquis, though he pronounces it more distinctly.”

It was James’s love of languages, combined with his natural inquisitiveness and empiricism, that apparently led him to conceive of his peculiar experiment: In 1493, the king ordered two newborn babies to be sent to live on the isolated island of Inchkeith to be raised by a deaf mute woman. His aim was to see what language (if any) the children acquired, because with no other linguistic input, he believed that this language, whatever it might be, must surely be the innate, God-given language of mankind.

Language deprivation experiments precisely like this one have a lengthy history—one of the earliest is recorded in the works of the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that, in the 7th century BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I sent two infants to live with a shepherd in one of the most isolated parts of his kingdom, on the condition that they never be spoken to. According to Herodotus, the children repeatedly babbled the word bekòs, an ancient Phrygian word meaning “bread,” leading Psamtik to believe (albeit mistakenly) that Phrygia rather than Egypt was mankind’s oldest civilization. 

Similar experiments were reportedly carried out by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (“But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments,” according to one account), and the 16th century Mughal Indian Emperor Akbar, who found that children raised in isolation remained mute even as they grew older.

But whether or not King James IV genuinely carried out his own deprivation experiment on Inchkeith is open to some speculation, and it’s certainly possible that his love of languages—alongside tales of similar experiments being carried out elsewhere—merely sparked a tall tale that has since refused to die. Nevertheless, the 16th century Scottish historian Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie included James’s experiment in his Historie and Chronicles of Scotland, compiled almost 100 years later. As he explains: 

The king also caused [to] take one deaf woman, and put her in Inchkeith, and give her two bairns with her, and furnish her in all necessary things pertaining to their nourishment, desiring hereby to know what languages they had when they came to the age of perfect speech. Some say they could speak Hebrew, but for my part I know not but from [other people’s] reports.

Did the children really learn to speak fluent Hebrew? You can make your own mind up on that one—but as the author Sir Walter Scott later commented, “It is more likely they would scream like their dumb nurse, or bleat like the goats and sheep on the island.”

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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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