Transcript-TWIS.ORG Dec 16, 2008

Synopsis: Science in the White House!, Jellyfish Rule, Brain Reading, This Week in the End of the World, Penile Precautions, and This Week in World Robot Domination Interview with David Calkins

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

As many of the season are watching movie about the “Earth standing still”, the real world continues on its breakneck pace down an uncertain path. While science is working hard to make this short sidedness of human consumption a sustainable path, there is a price for if we do not choose to change, we must choose to fund.

From elementary to the cutting edge, science must be funded as if our very lives depended on it because in fact, they may and those sustaining short-sighted humans much like the following hour of our program does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors.

We can not continue to simply duck the issues of climate crisis being thrown at us by our past irresponsible actions. We must recognize before it’s too late that the heat is on.

For history records us as having put our ill-annoyed climate heats up for (unintelligible), we may find our globanatorial position on Earth getting beseeched by even greater consequences. ]

We don’t need a hospital alien invasion that tells our days are ruefully numbered, as cool as that might be, all we really need is This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! How are you today?

Justin: Cold.

Kirsten: Cold in – wait in Los Angeles? What?

Justin: It got down to like 50 degrees here.

Kirsten: Yeah. Look who’s – yeah, there is still people in other areas of the country who are in much colder temperatures.

Justin: Actually, I’m not quite in Los Angeles. I’m in the Outlaw Canyon Country. I’m kind of hiding out right now.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I’m a little bit nervous. I learn to be more realized this but I was part of this group called the Journalistas. And really all I did was ever, I never attended any real meetings or training sessions.

But I would donate money to them. And apparently, one of the activities of the Journalistas is training journalists in shoe-throwing. I didn’t thought it was, I thought it was like a recreational, like horseshoes or something.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: But after watching the news the other day, I realized I may have funded that somewhat. But I’m pretty cheap which is why the training was so insufficient.

Kirsten: Right. Exactly! Well, we have a lot on the show we had today. We’ve got science news as always, big news in science policy. There’s some exciting stuff going on.

Justin: Oh, my goodness. Kirsten, why did we have…

Kirsten: One second, one second, one second.

Justin: Michael Stebbins to talk about that.

Kirsten: I know. We don’t have Michael Stebbins today. Nope. At the half hour, we’re going to try again to discuss robots with David Calkins, founder of the RoboGames. And additionally, we’ve got brains. I love brains, brains.

Justin: I couldn’t live without one.

Kirsten: And all sorts of other fun science news. So, what do you have?

Justin: I have got this week in the invasion of planet Earth followed quickly by This Week in the End of the Earth. So it’s, This Week in the End of the World. So, like – (unintelligible) great of a loss. It’s a matter of weeks that, generations that would be losing.

What else? I’ve got all kinds of stuff. There’s other stuff too. Oh, gees. Doctors warning, I’ve got a big doctors’ warning to throw out there today too.

Kirsten: Oh, yeah?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Great.

Justin: It’s very, very important.

Kirsten: Important doctors warning. A doctor’s warning but not a Justin warning.

Justin: This is actually a little bit of – this is one of those like, I have noticed inventions turn about and my own self.

Kirsten: Interesting.

Justin: Shouldn’t I start the story?

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Are you ready?

Kirsten: No, that’s not coming up first. On last week’s show, I made a little “booboo” I was talking about malaria and I repeatedly called it a virus. And I don’t know what my brain was thinking. I know it’s not a virus. I know it’s not a virus. It’s a parasite.

Justin: It’s not, because I’ve heard that before.

Kirsten: Because I said it too many times. And maybe, that’s what other people have said. But it is not a virus. Malaria is a parasite, the plasmodium parasite. And so, I was using an incorrect term and I apologize for that.

I just want to say thanks to everybody who wrote in to let me know that I messed up. There were many of you, you sticklers for accuracy. And thanks for writing in to remind me again and again and again.

Justin: Yeah. I heard that more than three times because I believe it now.

Kirsten: Oh, dear. Don’t believe it.

Justin: Oh.

Kirsten: Malaria is a parasite.

I also said that we are going to respond to a couple of emails regarding biofuels and land use. And we previously reported on a story which found that replacing rainforests with plants for biofuels namely palm plantations will release more carbon into the atmosphere than the plantations will save for at least 75 years.

And both minion (Theresa) in cold and dark Glasgow, Scotland and (Ben) in Portland, Oregon which what the storm is probably pretty cold and dark as well brought up the fact that not all biofuels are the same.

True that, says (Theresa). “I believe biofuels can be an important part of meeting our energy needs in the near future. But the methods that we use currently are inefficient.” I agree.

“It seems to me that producing biofuels microbially is the way to go. There’s some very exciting research going on this area using genetically optimized bacteria, fungi and aquatic phototrophs. They can be fed on agricultural wastes, cellulosic sources like pere grasses or the infamous switch grass that can be grown on marginal land. Aquatic prototrophs can even be grown in agricultural run-off water that would otherwise have to be treated to remove excess nutrients.

Justin: And they’re cute.

Kirsten: And they’re cute. Exactly, yeah. So, there are – there’s the cellulosic biofuels. There are biofuels potentially from these Algal sources.

the problem is that we still though don’t have it at the point where we can really mass produce enough of those biofuels to meet our energy needs. biofuels are going to be one part of the entire solution.

And I was just thinking though, this morning as I was driving in that the biofuel issue with going to other countries and using land, clearing rainforests, in other countries to plant, plantations for various kinds of biofuels, that really in a long term is not a really good strategy for the United States.

I mean, if we’re going to be energy independent, why not try and be completely energy independent and not continue to rely on any kind of production in foreign countries even if it’s just plants.

Justin: Yeah. No.

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: The rainforest…

Kirsten: That’s one…

Justin: Your SUV doesn’t sound like a good plan for…

Kirsten: Yeah. And even if don’t care about the rainforests, that’s not the issue. If you care about, national security, (bloody-bloody-blah), let’s just keep everything within our borders, okay.

Justin: I guess.

Kirsten: We can make everybody happy here. Okay.

Justin: Yeah. There is big win/win there for people who hate foreigners and people who are concerned about the Earth. I guess, there’s a…

Kirsten: Yeah. That’s a win/win. Everybody wins.

Justin: (Almost) (unintelligible) to be made.

Kirsten: (Louis Bookbinder) wrote in response to the Supernova story from last week that if you check it out in science news, a better explanation is that astronomers were observing a light echo of the nova.

If the nova – the supernova was 400 years ago, the astronomers can see the light as it first hits dust clouds 200 light-years beyond the nova because the light from the nova takes 400 more years to travel to those clouds and then back to us.

So, in effect, those clouds are a mirror that is showing a light echo of the nova as it was shining then. No doubt many more historic novae will be examined in this way in the coming years. Of course, novae further away and farther back in time will be fainter and harder to observe.

Very true. Thank you very much, (Louis). And (Elliot) says, “Why does it always have to be a supernova? What’s wrong with a regular nova?” That’s his question. And…

Justin: I like that.

Kirsten: I mean it’s a fair enough question. But the supernova itself specifically is – it was coined as far as I’m aware by Fritz Zwicky, a Caltech astronomer and he made the distinction calling them super because the class of explosion was completely distinct from the far more frequent and far less bright stellar outburst known as a nova. And that was from Discover Magazine.

Justin: Yeah. And it’s hard for nova to even make news now.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: (No definite numbers).

Kirsten: Yeah. Exploding stars, whatever, just nova.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Really like the supernovas.

Justin: I don’t know. I still think that if the minimum wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be called the minimum. No distinctions.

Kirsten: No distinctions.

Justin: So, we have a new Secretary of Energy nominate in the United States.

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: How cool is that?

Kirsten: This is really exciting. Actually it’s – I don’t know, one more step in the incumbent president’s cabinet, their office, all of the offices that are being chosen right now, that just makes me optimistic about things.

Justin: Yeah. He escort because he’s a Nobel Prize winning professor of Physics. Professor in Physics, he’s the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Steven Chu.

Be still my sciencey political heart. Does this mean we’re going to have somebody at the – we’re going to have a physicist in charge of the organization that funds Physics more than any other organization. Right?

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: We’re actually going to have somebody in charge of the biggest research interview organization that we put together in United States. And we have somebody who’s intimately aware of what’s good research, what isn’t and how it’s supposed to be done, actually running that.

A lot of times, people think – we keep getting people in there who are more – don’t know how to say it but more oil and gas or economically driven.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Which I’ve always thought was kind of strange because is not – there’s not a whole lot of control over the price of petrol, right? There are not a whole lot of strings that are being pulled by the DOE on that level. But they’re intimately connected with research development and energy policy within the US. I don’t know. It just seems very, very strange.

So, who is this guy? How did he get his Nobel Prize, Kirsten?

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: You don’t know.

Kirsten: No. He shared the Nobel Prize in 1997 with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips. He developed a method to cool and trap atoms with laser light.

Justin: Wow! He – men, that’s pretty cool.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, slowing down atoms, cooling them down, being able to image them with lasers, being able to use light to potentially, I mean, the cooling and the slowing of atoms that starts to get down.

So, if you Google from atoms, you go on to electrons, you start being able to stop the spin of electrons, be able to figure out which way that they’re spinning at certain point some time which could lead to quantum computing. These are all sorts of neat applications that can lead from his discoveries.

Justin: That’s a pretty big brain now. That’s why I like of this call. This is yeah, definitely an optimistic move.

Kirsten: Yeah. But it’s also – I think it’s a great move not just “Oh, he’s a Nobel Prize Laureate.” He has been working in a position as the Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory which is an energy and defense research facility.

It is a governmental facility that he has to deal with governmental politics, keeping the facility on the cutting edge of research while also securing funding and also making sure that it stays in a good visible place between the private sector and government.

Justin: Because, the Berkeley one is like – not like the other one. It’s an open one, right? It’s not classified. He’s not like top secret, secret.

Kirsten: It says it has – I mean it has unclassified research but I mean there’s definite, it’s definitely a secure facility. I mean, they have – it’s unclassified but it is an energy laboratory and they also do some like defense research as well.

Justin: They’ve got more they probably do have more than like the guard by the parking lot. I mean either a punch code to get into the building or something.

Kirsten: Yeah. That’s pretty exciting. It’s very, very…

Justin: They don’t have their own lockers. Do they bring their own padlocks or they provide it? Never mind.

Kirsten: Moving on. We’re exciting. Let’s celebrate for science but moving on.

Justin: Yes. This is from the National Science Foundation, news coming in from the oceans of the world, from the Pacific Ocean, Pacific Islands to the Western Atlantic shores. My goodness, this is a little bit frightening.

From the gulf of Mexico all the way to the North Sea, from the Bering Sea to the Australian shores, from the Sea of Japan to Mediterranean, jellyfish are showing up everywhere. Numbers like they’ve never seen before.

Massive swarms, translucent, gelatinous , squishy sea creatures are showing up on shores and at times covering hundreds of miles of coastline with stinging, pulsating, blobby forms. So, you like jellyfish, right?

Kirsten: Sure. I love them.

Justin: I like jellyfish. I think they’re cool.

Kirsten: I think they’re really pretty when you look at them in an aquarium.

Justin: In an aquarium, beautiful yeah. But apparently, they’re showing in such numbers that it’s just – when you get a swarm of them, you can’t even tell which one is moving where, that’s just kind of, kind of takes away some of the unique beauty and there is like a hundreds of millions of them all at one time.

Some of them, their stings are deadly. There’s this great risk. This is on the website, on their news. They have a special report on the jellyfish, explaining what’s been going on with the last few years.

In Japan, there’s a – you can get blooms of as many as 500 million Nomura jellyfish. These are jellyfish. They’re like seven feet long or have seven ft domes (unintelligible). It can weigh as much as 450 lbs. Can you imagine 500 million of 450 lbs. of jellyfish?

And what’s happening is, they’re showing up in fishing route some places like that, taking over some of the environments otherwise, that would have had, the fishable fish in them plus getting caught in that and everything else like that.

You can imagine also, 500 million, 450 lbs. jellfyfish going out and getting in the middle of nets and getting in the hooks and things like that, a huge, huge cost to the fishing industry.

Some of this is just insane. They have sort of by the numbers a list of – all these numbers are sort of shocking really. A single sea (meadow) in Chesapeake Bay can release 45,000 eggs a day.

Kirsten: Yikes! How many of those…

Justin: 45…

Kirsten: How many of those survive though?

Justin: No, exactly. Well, that’s what’s happening though is suddenly something and they’re not sure what it is. Something is allowing the jellyfish eggs to hatch in greater and greater numbers.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I don’t know. They haven’t figured out. Is it maybe the acidity change in the sea? Is global warming involved with this? They were previously pointing to things like oil rigs. In the Gulf of Mexico, we have hundreds and hundreds of oil rigs out there.

And they were thinking maybe they know for a fact that that’s a pretty good breeding ground underneath that. But it’s showing. It’s happening all over the world. Some of these are very lethal too. There is the most venomous animal in the world is the specie of jellyfish that will kill somebody within three minutes of being stung. Yikes!

Kirsten: Yikes! It’s pretty crazy.

Justin: One third of total weight of all life in the Monterey Bay is from jellyfish?

Kirsten: That’s huge. That’s a lot.

Justin: It’s crazy.

Kirsten: One third of all life, that’s big.

Justin: That’s pretty big one, yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Some of them can have tentacles as long as a 100 ft.

Kirsten: Which you don’t want to get tangled up in.

Justin: Nope, that’s like a ten-story building.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Crazy. So, it maybe, I mean I think a while ago, we predicted that octopi and those squids were going to take over the world after global warming.

Kirsten: Octopuses.

Justin: Yeah. But I don’t know. From what I’m hearing the acidity change in the seas are going to be bad for octopi.

Kirsten: Octopuses.

Justin: …creatures and maybe jellyfish. It may be that the jellyfish will now inherit the Earth.

Kirsten: Yeah. There’s a story out that the giant squid is actually being affected by changes in carbon dioxide levels by a changes in global warming. They don’t know. Well, actually, they don’t know if it’s carbon dioxide. They might just be warmer waters but they think that the giant squid is going to be affected by climate change.

Justin: By causing acidity. If the acidity rises, they think the metabolisms are going to be ill-equipped.

Kirsten: Right, which would be related to carbon dioxide then.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yup. Researchers are trying to read the brain. They’re trying and they have succeeded. Well, kind of. Researchers at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan have published a paper in Neuron journal about the brain and neurons in the brain in which they use functional magnetic resonance imaging to take a look at changes in the blood flow in the brain’s visual cortex specifically in an area that exhibits retinotopy, which is a direct mapping of the spatial arrangement of the retina.

So, basically the way that light lands on your retina, the cells within the retina then connect to nerves that go back to the optic nerve. And from there they go to — through the pathway to the visual cortex within the brain. And in one part, there is an exact mapping of the way that light lands on the retina.

So, by looking at this particular area of the brain and knowing what images they were showing to subjects, they were actually able to, with a computer, reading the blood flow in this area of the brain be able to recreate the images that the subjects had seen on a computer screen.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Yeah. So, if they showed…

Justin: Just like from all the old sci-fi and imagine you plug-up on your little television monitor on the side, you can see what the person is dreaming.

Kirsten: Yeah. And that’s part of the idea. I mean, the question is, I don’t know and I don’t know if anybody knows really whether or not this retina topic area actually stimulated as if it has been actually stimulated by visual input from the eye when you’re dreaming.

So that’s the question. At this point in time, basically what they’ve done is because there’s a direct connection from light shining into the eyes, so a computer screen that someone is looking at is going to be shining is going to be directing light at the eyes.

So, if you’re looking at a word or a letter on a computer screen, that’s going to create an image on the back of the eye. That image is then going to be translated by neural signals into pretty much an image inside this particular area of the brain. And by reading blood flow, you can pretty much pick up what the person is looking at.

But we don’t know whether or not like what’s happening inside the brain when you’re imagining something or if you’re hallucinating or if you’re dreaming, if that has the same kind of neural stimulation in the brain, that if there is that same kind of neural activity. But it’s still really exciting.

Justin: Yeah, it is. It’s awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s really pretty neat. I mean, so what they did is at first, they had to show the subjects kind of a screen of static to make a baseline. So, it’s just fuss on a computer screen, as if you were just watching an old television where there is no channel.

And so, it’s just fuss and from there, they could get a baseline of activity and something to subtract from everything else. And then they showed the subjects these random black and white images. So, they were shapes that had either a white square with a black border or, any kind of black and white image.

And some of them, they were actually – the images were letters. And then, the FMRI and the computer program that is use to analyze the blood flow and what’s going on in that area of the brain, they actually displayed the letters that the participants were seeing and spelled out the word neuron.

Justin: No.

Kirsten: So, the subjects were viewing the word “neuron” and the FMRI was like, hey “neuron” and it pick it up directly from the brain.

Justin: That is so cool.

Kirsten: Yeah, yeah. It’s really cool.

Justin: Mind-reading. Mind-reading has arrived.

Kirsten: Well, it’s the beginning of mind-reading.

Justin: Okay. So, the science will create it.

Kirsten: Yeah. I mean, there’s still the question of what exactly — it’s blood flow that we’re measuring. It’s not actually neural activity. So, what exactly is going on in the brain? But this is one particular spot in the brain where we know pretty much what’s going on in there.

And so, it makes an easy thing to read. They didn’t read other areas of the visual cortex which could be having all sorts of other different stimulation and different activity for various reasons that are still yet unknown.

Justin: (Why don’t just) train the brain to speak slower so that the computers can understand. That’s all we need. Just slow it while brain is down a little bit.

Kirsten: Right. Slow down the clock speed. No, thanks.

Justin: So, last year – This Week in the End of the World report, last year the reported ice sheet lost in Greenland was the greatest on record with 24 sq miles of ice sheet vanishing gone.

While there’s the sound of like it might be old news for many of you and it is old news. It’s from last year. I point it out because the comparison to the old record and this year’s ice sheet lost numbers are a good thing to put side by side. Twenty-four square mile last year, this year – can you draw a drum roll? You got one keyed up there? Seventy-one miles!

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: Seventy-one sq miles. How stunning is this number? It’s 24 versus 71 sq miles. Okay. To put this in terms of other records, the world record for pole vault is slightly – it’s about 20 ft. It says if the following year, somebody came out and launched themselves 60 ft into the air.

Robert Pershing Wadlow, currently the tallest man who has ever been measured at 8’11”. It’s as if the following year, a 26’9” human was found and broke the tallest man in the world record.

It’s three times. It’s like almost three times, I mean three times the previous year. One year removed. It’s almost like that $700 billion we gave to the — bail out all those companies. It’s just the government came right back in one of like $2 trillion which I think they might have. That might have happen. They might have asked for a couple of trillion.

But yeah, this is Ohio State – this report I got here from the Ohio State, and Jason Box is an Associate Professor of Geography at Ohio State says that the entire loss since 2000 – year 2000 has been 355 sq mi or more than ten times the size of Manhattan.

Yeah. So, often they’re talking in terms of how many Manhattans these things are. We keep getting a Manhattan or a two Manhattan’s size chunk breaks off So, a ten Manhattan’s – for those of you who are not familiar with this size of Manhattan, it’s the same as saying 11 Hong Kongs, or 7 1/2 San Franciscos. So, just in case you’re in some different region of the world.

But it looks like what they’re saying here is that, we’re going to continue to see loss even if the temperature stabilized over the next couple of years. We’re going to continue to see loss until it equals out. It’s probably going to come down at some point and find some equilibrium.

But the confusion this point out also is that the snow rate – the snow fall rates have been increasing over Greenland. But it hasn’t kept up anywhere near with this gigantic ice sheet melt off. So, we’re still losing it. Even if we had double the snow rates, we would still be losing ice sheet right now.

Kirsten: Wow! Yoikes!

Justin: Yoikes!

Kirsten: Yoikes! Positive, positive, think positive.

Justin: No, no there’s nothing because science is going to save us, Kirsten.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: The guy who is now in-charge of the DOE, he’s going to figure it out, I’m sure. Let’s put it on him.

Kirsten: Yeah. Well, we are at about time to take our break. So, I don’t know.

Justin: We got to do the doctor’s warning. This is serious.

Kirsten: The doctor’s warning. All right, do your doctor’s warning.

Justin: Urologists are callling for a warning for anybody who’s got a toddler boy. Young boys are experiencing penis crush injuries during this time of the year, especially when traveling to other people’s home.

One of the thing, this – I’ve actually had this fear because I’ve seen a close call before. What happens is the toddler came out to use the toilet but they are at just the height that they are putting one of the – they’re putting their penis basically over that rim.

And they’re also being taught by their mothers to drop the toilet seat when they’re done. And they don’t always put everything away before they close that toilet seat lid.

And this usually doesn’t results in injury. Kids kind of figured it out but when traveling, some toilet seats are much heavier than others. And so, it will fall faster and quicker. And so, that’s when the injury seems to be taking place the most is when visiting a relative that’s got a heavy toilet seat lid.

Kirsten: And this isn’t a joke?

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: This isn’t a joke?

Justin: No.

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: (Unintelligible) no. No, no, no. And I’ve seen the close call. It’s like really frightening, like they stop paying attention and they go right into like remembering to close the lid.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …and nearly dropping it down on themselves because they’re right at the right height. It’s almost as if…

Kirsten: We’re at the break. We’ll be back in just one minute.

Justin: Hey, am I getting back?

Kirsten: Yeah, just a second. Hold on.


Kirsten: All right, this is This Week in Science. And I’m playing with the phones and hopefully I don’t lose the people I’ve got on hold.

Hi David, are you with us?

David: I am.

Kirsten: Great! I’m going to see if I can bring in Justin. Justin, are you there?

Justin: I’m here.

Kirsten: Awesome. The phone works.

Justin: Is that a crazy talk technology working?

Kirsten: Crazy talk. This is crazy talk.

Justin: This, what is radio station.

Kirsten: Well, David, I’m so glad we could get you to join us this morning. We love robots and you know a lot about them. So, this is a perfect meeting of the minds.

David: Great.

Kirsten: So, last week – not last week, maybe it’s a little bit more than a week ago. But there was an exciting robot competition in Vienna, can you tell us…?

David: In Vienna.

Kirsten: Yeah. Roboexotica, can you tell us a little bit about it.

David: Sure. There are actually robot competitions all over the world and I’m very fortunate that I get to go to them. There are Robot Sumo competitions and Combat Robot competitions and high school competitions. But Roboexotica is the best robot competition. Why? Well, because those robots have to make cocktails and serve your cocktails and shut you up.

Kirsten: What? Yeah. That seems like a pretty good purpose for a robot.

David: Yeah. In Vienna, I mean, what possibly could be better than robots making cocktails and giving them to you for free?

Justin: That’s a pretty hot scenario there. Yeah.

David: Yeah. So, and it’s a really low bar kind of competition where basically if you show up, it’s not so much about winning as it is, having fun and tasting the creations of the robot.

Kirsten: Do they make fairly good drinks, these robots? I mean, are they decent?

David: Robot, robot. Since, it’s an art competition some of them really go all out for looks and so much for taste. Others go for delivery. Others go for taste. Others go for all three.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: This year, I think my favorite robot there was called the “Fairy Smasher”

Kirsten: The Fairy Smasher.

David: The Fairy Smasher.

And what it was was – if you’re familiar with Absinthe, the Green Fairy, what they had was – it was a cabinet with a frosted glass front and she roller bars. And then, there was a little LED behind that – a little green LED that would flicker around and it look like a fairy and then the fairy would talk to you. It’s very, Tinker Bell, on stage kind of thing.

If you push a button, then these two roller bars would slowly close in and then the LAD would like, go from hopping all around (in there) (sugarlike) “Help, it’s getting smaller.” And you hear this as the fairy would talk to you.

“It’s getting smaller in here. It’s getting hard. No, no, no, no.”

And then the roller bars would come down together and then the green light would flicker and go out and then be a little spigot at the bottom. And then the spigot would shoot out of Absinthe.

Kirsten: That’s fantastic.

David: There’s a fairy squeezer so that all Absinthe comes from little green fairies which you have to smooch them first.

Kirsten: That’s really – that’s great. That’s great.

Justin: That’s too freaking funny.

David: So, these are the high-ends the really performance arty kind of things. Then you have “Vivi”, good looking ones that aren’t as interactive like Chessie which is really gorgeous old refrigerator which has been (repottered) coated red and it’s got a head on.

And it drives around. It actually got a beer keg inside of it. And then Chessie would drive up to you on the thermal control operated robot.

And then if you grab a beer cup out of one of its hands, it will pee beer into a cup for you. There’s a little spigot right above the couch area.

Kirsten: Wow!

David: El Espanol Borracho which it makes flaming Irish coffee. So, you push a button and it pours in some coffee. And some coffee liquor and then it puts 151 on it.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: And then this flame thrower comes out and lights the 151 on fire and I mean you have to pick up your little coffee cup of Spanish coffee and drink your fine Spanish coffee. So, these are just a couple of the examples of what goes on at Roboexotica.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, mostly – I mean, this is mostly a fun, art competition, one of the neat designs that the people can come up with and the creative ideas for serving beverages to people.

Are there any practical developments that ever come out of something like Roboexotica?

David: Well, there are actually a couple of robots to compete every year that are really magnificent piece of engineering and really boring.

Kirsten: Really boring.

David: Where they’ll have like 25 bottles under refrigerated cabinets with a little touch screen display and you push, “I want a Rum and Coke.” And it makes you a perfect rum and Coke. So, technologically speaking…

Justin: Now, that to me is the highest level of achievement. Make me an ice consistent Rum and Coke would be perfect.

David: And, I mean – so, as far as the practical applications go, that is a great practical application.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: It doesn’t make for a fun party. But what it does make for is – I wouldn’t call it replacing waiters or bartenders so much as augmenting them. Because sometimes, if a bar slammed, you just want to drink. You just want your Martini and your Rum and Coke or whatever, and wouldn’t it be nice if you just walk up to a little vendo mat, swipe your card and boom, you got a drink.

Justin: And what’s more? No need to tip.

Kirsten: No need to tip.

David: And no need to tip. And it’s perfect drink every time. So, the management of course doesn’t have to worry about the bartender is giving away drinks or making long drinks for people’s friends or making short drinks for people’s enemies, things like that.

Justin: Wait a sec. Those free drinks from robots, I didn’t think of that one. That’s a downside actually.

David: Here’s the downside…

Kirsten: Unless of course…

Justin: (Unintelligible) I tend to have some friends to be bartenders and that tends to help out once and a while.

David: Right.

Justin: No, no. So, they’re not like this all robot taking over (unintelligible).

David: Mm hmm. But, I mean, part of going to a bar is to be entertained.

Kirsten: Yeah.

David: So, that’s where the art robots come in as – isn’t it neat if instead of just having a boring bartender whether that’s a robotic bartender – sorry, there’s a truck going by – robotic bartender or a human bartender, sometimes bartenders are really boring, I mean you actually come for the bartender.

You want to sit on the bar and talk about your girlfriend and how she, always cheats on you or whatever. And you see, you want to talk to somebody.

Justin: I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m so sorry to hear this. So, painful.

Kirsten: Gosh, Justin.

David: But then, how can you have a robot that can entertain you, whether it’s a Fairy Smasher or like – I made a head and shoulders robot which is actually looks like a human. And it will make you Martinis but at the same time it will insult you.

Justin: Insult – sounds like that will be kind of fun.

David: So, there’s a really cool…

Justin: Going back into the benefit plus I just though of this, a robot bartender won’t cut you off when you had too many.

David: Exactly.

Justin: We need then the robot car to drive you home and (unintelligible).

David: And they won’t mix up your drinks so long as the human to put the right bottles in the right tubes.

Kirsten: Yup.

David: So, when you order that Captain Morgan and Coke, they don’t serve you, Makers Mark and Coke, whatever.

Kirsten: Exactly.

Justin: Nice.

Kirsten: How are the – I mean, in terms of conversation for these robots, is anybody implementing any kind of advanced conversation AI for this?

David: There’s a lot of Alyssa variance. So, for those who don’t know what Alyssa is, Alyssa is this old AI program which is a Pseudo Artificial Intelligence thing. I mean, it can manage to carry on conversation. Now, there is more and more variance coming out.

And then basically, you feed it with lots of keywords and trends and things like that. And it can have a Pseudo conversation with you. And the drunker you get, the more real the conversation sounds.

Kirsten: That’s a benefit.

David: There’s actually a 23 ft tall robot there this year called SMS bot. And you’d actually you could SMS it and it would read out loud the text to the crowd, whatever you SMS.

Justin: So, you can make like end of the world’s proclamations with this robot and have it (unintelligible)?

David: (Unintelligible).

Kirsten: That would be great. That’s kind of fun. I mean are people, they’re done with competition now or people are already starting to think about their ideas for the next year’s competition or is this, like…?

David: Oh, yeah. It’s an annual competition. It’s (supposed to be) the tenth anniversary.

Kirsten: Wow!

David: It’s always the first week in December. One of the really – few really different ends of robots winner of this year, one of them was Anthony Fudd who made a robot out of Lego mindstorms.

Kirsten: Oh, wow!

David: So, when people – I deal with a lot of people all the time who ask, “Oh, I want to build a robot but I don’t know where to get started. And I really don’t know anything. It’s like they never succeed.” And I tell people, “ anybody can build a robot. It’s really patience is the number one factor that you need.”

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: And so, here’s Tony who builds, just using mindstorms, off the shelf stuff that you could buy, builds a robot that mix cocktails, you know.

Kirsten: Huh?

David: So, anybody can do it (unintelligible). And then there’s another one which was an old stand-up piano. And if you played a tune like it had like 20 bottles of liquor to it. It would dispense a beverage based on with what you play.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: That’s fun.

Justin: I like it. I mean, take away the liquor and there would be some sort of fun in having like a trainer piano for kids.

David: Yeah.

Justin: It’s like kick them out candy as they play the certain set, right?

David: Exactly.

Justin: Pretty smart.

Kirsten: That’s pretty neat.

Now you, like you said, there are several of these competitions every year and this one really kind of fun, really fun one for the cocktail set.

Your RoboGames, can you tell us a little bit about like the idea behind RoboGames and the fun you have there.

David: Well, because I went to all different competitions, I noticed that a lot of people would be very great one, one event but not so good as another but – not really an event that like aspects of robotics.

So, I would encourage people, “Hey, if you build good sumo robot, you should go build combat robots, because your robots will be a lot stronger.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: And, the sumo robots have a good AI but the robots aren’t very strong except they’re capable to combat. And so on so forth, it’s different. And they wouldn’t normally do that. So we started what used to be called ROBOlympics and is now called RoboGames specifically so that everybody in all their different competitions could come and play under the same roof.

It’s really including the art robots and the cocktail robots. Like the cocktail guys, a lot of times are really good artists. They come with these incredible ideas that nobody would ever thought of.

But they have very little electrical skills. So hook them up with an electrical guy or a computer guy who can then implement that.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: And in fact, Chessie, the beer serving robot is exactly that. A guy by the name of (Al Hoenig) who has traditionally done very nice junk sculptures, basically takes old trash and things like that and he turns them into robot art but didn’t know anything about electronics. He met a guy named (Jonathan Foot) at (Robo Q’s) who has PhD in electrical engineering.

Kirsten: Nice.

David: So, he could all the electrical and mechanical aspects of Chessie.

Kirsten: Got it. So, it allows a bit more collaboration between people with these different strengths. It’s great.

David: Exactly. And it is there opportunity to meet other people outside of your normal field. Like the soccer robot people, most of the them dont build robot, they just buy robots and they reprogram them. So, there are really good computer scientists.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: But know very little bit about electrical engineering.

Kirsten: So, it kind of gives everyone an opportunity to find the thing that they’re good at and to be able to use that and compete and also just have a good time. I mean, I went this last year to RoboGames and had such a wonderful time watching the BattleBots and then, the AI robots. And there is – he’s like 16 now, the kid who…

David: Tony Pratkanis, yes.

Kirsten: Yeah. He’s amazing.

David: So, for your listeners, there’s this little kid who started out building robots when he was 12, competing in fire-fighting robots which is actually the hardest competitions you can do…

Justin: (Unintelligible) go and find and the robots go into the room and you have to walk around until they find the fire, this one particular spot in the room?

David: And then put out the fire, exactly.

Justin: Yeah.

David: And it’s very hard to actually identify what a fire is versus like a bright spot from a light.

Justin: Yeah.

David: And so, Tony, starting out at 12 would compete and he’d win against 40-year old professional robot engineers. And I guess he’s about 17 now. And he’s won – he didn’t compete the first year of ROBOlympics 2004 but 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, he took a gold medal every year and keeps beating up this 45-year old engineers.

Kirsten: I love that.

David: It’s the running joke nowadays of event start to turn off the fire-fighting guys and go, “So, who’s getting silver this year?”

Kirsten: Smart kids. So, the RoboGames, I mean it’s bringing all these people together and I mean, these people, not all of them are university researchers or not working in robotics as their professional career. A lot of people who are coming to these competitions are garage tinkerers, aren’t they?

David: Correct. So, that’s the other thing, much like the regular Olympics, the human Olympics. The idea was to let anybody to compete. So, a lot of robot competitions like the (Facker) events for example, the university only, they have to be a university or affiliated with university to compete in the (Facker) stuff.

Whereas with RoboGames, what we wanted was, well that’s for everybody. And, it’s a 12-year old kid who’s building fire-fighting robot, a 45-year old unemployed guy from Vienna who builds cocktail robots, a girl tinkerer from Sacramento who builds combat robots or a professional robotic engineer who builds musical robots, to put them on the same room and give everybody a chance.

Justin: And what about a robot that’s otherwise unremarkable that’s just kind of (smashing)?

David: Very good question. We actually have what’s called, “The Open”. So, basically to recognize the robots that are really cool but don’t fall into robot combat or robot bar tendering or whatever.

We have the “Open” which is just if you made a cool robot, it’s been judged on its own merits. So it’s still strictly no top three, gold, silver, bronze which can be kind of hard when you’re comparing two radically different robots. But at least it gives everybody an opportunity.

And then, we have 12 competitions just for kids so that if you are under 18, you can sort of have a level playing field.

Kirsten: Right.

David: And on some of the more popular events like Robot Sumo which is probably the most popular non-robot combat event. I noticed that we are getting about as many kid entries as we were adult entries.

But the adults who could just invest more money would pretty much always beat the kids. So, then we broke that off into the 18 and above Robot Sumo category and then the 17 and below sumo category. So now, the kids are sort of playing a little field.

Justin: Let me ask you this. Would this be in the Open or this have its own category?

David: It has its own category. So, that’s what called the junior class.

Justin: No, not the Sumo, but hookerbots.

Kirsten: Hookerbots.

David: The junior class is then broken up into just one sumo competition and then the robot open and then several mindstorms competition and things like that. And then the Open class is – there is best of show which is again that whole like Open. And then there are all sorts of other things that there is commonality.

So, it’s like a pod challenge which is if you have a six-legged or more robot, you basically have to navigate this course terrain and, step over stuff and things like that.

And so, I think there are about 12 different competitions within the Open which kind of fit into their own categories but they don’t really mix well with others, like so robot combat, we have ten different weight classes. So, there’s ten of those listed or robot soccer where we have like eight different variants of robot soccer.

David: But in the robot Open, it’s sort of a category in which – there’s competitions that didn’t really group well with anything else. So, we group them all together.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: There are no prostitution robots?

David: I’m sorry, what?

Justin: No hookerbots?

David: No hookerbots, no.

Justin: None?

David: We were trying but, the engineers who make them just can never get out of the house. I don’t know why that is.

Kirsten: Oh, you boys. Now, I’m curious to know like where we see this going?

Do you see this as something that’s a growing field? Do you see it as — do you think it’s just kind of plateau is the interest in it about the same or is this something that people are getting more and more into?

David: It’s an upward curving sine wave. So, during the entrance go up and down but across several, it’s always going up as interesting robotics goes up and you get with the way your cards go up.

Kirsten: Right.

David: I mean even five years ago, just getting your average robot in order for say a combat robot could be very expensive because there were just so many companies doing it. Now, it’s (getting) cheaper. So, the price of entry is going down.

Kirsten: Right. So, it makes it something that more people can get into.

David: Yeah.

Kirsten: I guess we’re coming to the end to the end of the show right now. My final question, I mean do you see most of the robots, I mean there’s the question between like the humanoid-type robot and just robot that has some kind of a task and so it’s designed for that task but not meant to interact with humans? Do you see any particular trend going one direction or the other?

David: I see lots of trends going in lots of different directions actually.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: So, you have the robots that are really single task-oriented like the Rumba which is a very obviously popular robot.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: And you have multi-purpose robots. There still really aren’t any on the market yet. So, things sort of in terms of Rumba versus C3PO — everybody really wants to see C3PO robot which is the robot that can do anything you tell it to do. “Hey, you go pick up my laundry. Go to the dishes,” That kind of stuff.

Kirsten: Right.

David: But those are obviously going to be much more expensive and much further down the line. So, I think the only trend I see is that in the average household, you’re going to see more and more single purpose robots.

And then you get into the whole question of what is a robot? Why do you call your Rumba a robot and you don’t call your dishwasher robot which is a whole a different conversation for TWIS.

Kirsten: Right. The “what is a robot” question? It’s almost the philosophical question at this point.

David: Pretty much.

Kirsten: Well, thank you so much for joining us this morning. This has been really fun to hear about the variety of robots. And if people are interested in checking out the RoboGames, where can they go?

David: It’s If they want to find out more about Roboexotica, it’s

Kirsten: Okay.

David: And Wikipedia and there’s this some other website that lists all of sorts different robot competitions. So, I don’t want to be overly (unintelligible) competitions, that I do. So, these are the cool ones.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David: Because competitions all over the world for all sorts of people with all different interests. Whether it’s art robots or soccer robots, where do you want to focus on the artificial intelligence or the mechanical engineering, and there are lots of different things out there.

Kirsten: Well, great.

David: We just take pride that RoboGames is the world’s largest robot competition as recognized by Guinness. So…

Kirsten: Well, there you go. Congratulations.

David: There you go.

Kirsten: Thank you so much. I’m glad we were able to get you on the show this morning.

David: Thank you.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. Have a really great rest of your day.

David: Thank you. I’m going to go blow up some fruit cakes now.

Kirsten: Oh, fun. My…

David: Bye-bye.

Kirsten: That was David Calkins of RoboGames. Oops, do I still have Justin on the line?

Justin: I think I’m still here.

Kirsten: You think you’re still there. Great!

Justin: I’m not sure.

Kirsten: And that’s about does it for this episode of TWIS.

I would like to thank all the people who wrote in this last week. We had emails from (John Sudeep), (Richard Burton), (John Carybeck), (Sam Buckhannon), (Sherman Dorn Felix), (Harold Morgner), (Jasper De Jung), (Eric Cooper), (Doug Perry), (Ed Dyer) and (Meredith Schumann).

She wanted us to have a disclaimer about these robots — that people just don’t understand the danger we’re in. And (Elliot), (Glenn), (Eric Smith), (Shannon Sanders), (Terry Pockko), and many, many, (David Morgan), many, many others. Thank you so much for writing in.

I guess, thanks for listening.

Justin: Yeah. We hope you enjoyed the show. We’re also available via the podcast at our website Click on Subscribe to the TWIS Science podcast or you can just go to your iTunes.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: If you can’t find your iTunes, you can Google it. If you can’t Google yet, well, never mind.

Kirsten: Right. Never mind. So, if you want to email us, email us at or

Justin: Put TWIS in the subject line somewhere or it will end up spam filtered into oblivion.

Kirsten: That’s right. We’ll be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. pacific time. And we’ll be on the Internet, in perpetuity as long as the internet is here.

We hope you’ll join us again for more science news. I think next week is going to be a really fun close to the end of the year show. We’ve got our top ten science news stories of 2008 to bring out to you next week.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: We’re very excited about that.

Find out what we think are the hottest stories of the last year as we go back over 2008. Thank you very much. And we will see you next week.

Justin: And if you learn anything from today’s show, remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

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