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7 Visions of the Future Sculpted in Play-Doh

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Play-Doh, the wallpaper cleaning material-turned-sculpting compound, turns 60 today. To celebrate, the brand asked parents from around the world to share their kids’ predictions for what the future holds via social media. Some kids predicted dinosaurs would make a comeback; others thought we’d take a rocket to Mars; and still others thought the future would be rife with robots. The brand's official sculptor then brought those visions to life using nothing but Play-Doh, a process which took more than 40 hours to complete and required 200-plus cans of the compound. You can see the sculpts—and timelapse video of them being created—exclusively below, then share your own predictions for the future on social media using #PLAYDOH60 and #WORLDPLAYDOHDAY.

1. HUMANS AND ALIENS BECOME BEST FRIENDS

With the discovery of new Goldilocks planets—so named because they're "just right" for hosting life—happening all the time, this prediction seems likely to become a reality. As for what our future alien besties might look like, scientists have a few theories of their own (green tentacled monster sadly isn't one of them). Check out all the detail that went into creating this sculpt:

2. FASHION WILL BE FIERCER THAN EVER

Pretty much everyone—from The Strand magazine in 1893 to the British Pathé in 1939—has gotten in on the fashion prediction game. Thanks to the rise of wearables (which can track your fitness, measure your emotions like a mood ring, analyze your carbon footprint, and maybe one day even fly), it's safe to say future fashion will be more high-tech than ever before—so we'll probably be seeing something like this sculpt on tomorrow's hover-runways.

3. FOOTWEAR WILL FLY

Probably predicted by a kid wearing Heelys. (May we suggest said kid enroll in this sneaker design academy to make this a reality?) In the timelapse video of this sculpt, you can see how Play-Doh's artist painstakingly feathered layers of the compound to create those incredible wings:

4. EVERY FAMILY OWNS A PET UNICORN

Scientists recently announced that unicorns were real, and roamed the earth 29,000 years ago. Sadly, that animal was not as adorable as this sculpt—it was actually more of a furry rhino than what we typically think of as a unicorn. But we're holding out hope that scientists can make this prediction happen.

5. STOVES DO THE COOKING FOR YOU

Any talk of stoves that cook so you don't have to inevitably brings to mind Ray Bradbury. Of course, this stove is much cuter than anything Bradbury wrote about.

6. YOU CAN TRAVEL BACK IN TIME

We can only guess that this prediction was made by a kid obsessed with Back to the Future. (Ever wonder how Doc Brown and Marty got to be such good friends? We have the answer.)

7. HOUSES ARE IN THE SKY, AND CARS CAN FLY

We're constructing taller buildings every year, and we could have self-driving flying cars by 2018. What we're saying is, this vision of the future is happening sooner rather than later—and we're ready to live like the Jetsons.

All images and videos courtesy of Play-Doh and Hasbro.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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