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The Deepest Shipwreck Ever Found

by Aliya Whiteley

The oceans still hold many secrets. We're only just beginning to find ways to explore the deepest trenches, using technological advances to look at the strange creatures and landscapes that inhabit the total darkness found thousands of feet below the surface.

But though they've been difficult to access, there are also human artifacts at those depths—objects that have sunk to lie, undisturbed, for many years. Humans have been making boats since prehistoric times; who knows how many wrecks now lie in the deep?

The question of just how many wrecks lie in the deep is difficult to answer, but according to Guinness World Records, the deepest shipwreck that has been identified so far is a German blockade runner from World War II—the SS Rio Grande. In early January 1944, it was sunk by two U.S. ships in the South Atlantic Ocean. It lies at a depth of about 18,900 feet—more than 3.5 miles below the surface—and was discovered on November 28, 1996, using side-scanning sonar technology. Two days later, the company responsible for the find, Blue Water Recoveries, confirmed the wreck using a remotely operated vehicle.

It’s impossible to even guess at how many shipwrecks might yet lie in the deepest parts of the oceans (the Mariana Trench reaches a depth of about 36,000 feet). Just to give some perspective, more than 150 ships sank in January 1944 alone.

Not all sunken ships are wartime casualties, of course. One of the oldest shipwrecks found thus far was a cargo ship that was discovered off the coast of southern Turkey in 1982. The Uluburun wreck is 3300 years old. The cargo it carried has been recovered by divers, and included copper, tin, glass, ebony, weapons, food, elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, tortoise shell, and amber beads. Some personal items from the crew were also recovered, including a scarab made of gold that bears the seal of Nefertiti, wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten. It now resides in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. More recently, divers in Greece have found wrecks dating as far back as 525 BCE.

It’s staggering to imagine how many crafts, and how many people, must have been claimed by the sea over the centuries—that technology is now, finally, allowing us to find.

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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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