Episode 270

Weird Science: Robot Pain, Tetris & Trombones

Published on: 24th January, 2024

In this Weird Science edition, we look at the achievements of 13-year-old Willis Gibson, the first human player to complete the classic game Tetris. Technology and nature intersect as our hosts discuss the potential use of plants to create supercapacitors for energy storage, opening possibilities for organic, biodegradable power sources.

In AI news, there’s only a 5% chance it will decide to destroy humanity. Or one in twenty, if you like those odds. Plus, they touch on the ethical dilemmas surrounding posthumous digital cloning and the replication of deceased individuals' personalities using AI.

A breakthrough in robotics, where scientists have developed an artificial pain-sensing system for robots, could enable machines to differentiate between safe and harmful objects, potentially revolutionizing surgical procedures and enhancing safety in human-robot interactions.

And in the medical files, resonant frequencies in human cells could be used as both a therapeutic and diagnostic tool. Not to mention a sad trombone effect from outer space believed to originate from highly magnetized neutron stars.

We think it’s weird. 


Richard Bradbury: A pretty broad palette for a delve into the weirder side of Mattsplained today. Everything from vintage gaming achievements to AI ethics, healthcare and space exploration. Or as Matt calls it, tangential normality.

Matt Armitage:

• We like to keep things topical and current on Mattsplained.

• That’s why we moved from Friday to Thursday. To bring you just that bit closer to the beginning of the universe.

• So this week we start with a story from the cutting edge of gaming

• Tetris to be precise.

• Willis Gibson, a 13-year-old competitive Tetris player from Oklahoma, became the first ever player to beat Tetris.

• In a world where people buy intricate, beautiful, AI enhanced games that takes years to create.

• And complete them in a weekend. Tetris is a bit of a standout.

• Released in:

• Up until now, no human player ever forced the game on to it kill screen.

• AI has but It was thought to be impossible for human players.

• Were you a Tetris fan?

Richard Bradbury: replies

Matt Armitage:

• Obviously the first consoles had already come out in that era.

• But it was still the time of machines in arcades and cafes and bars.

• Where the top score would be permanently displayed along with player’s initials – usually 3 letters.

• So there was this sense of competition – being a local hero – if it was your name on the scoreboard.

• Of course, kids. Meaning the name by the top score would often be something offensive or vulgar.

• Much to the anger of the owner of the café or wherever the machine was.

• Anyway – I digress. Willis.

• Did you realise there was a Tetris scene with competitive players?

Richard Bradbury: replies

Matt Armitage:

• This dovetails back with something we talked about in last week’s episode.

• Generations moving away from cutting edge technology.

• I mentioned we’ll do something on that in the future, so I won’t go into the various subcultures, like retro gaming, here.

• Willis’ used a newly developed technique called rolling to beat the game.

• From what I understand, this involves holding the Nintendo controller upside down.

• So, your fingers are pushing up rather than down and you can roll the back of the controller with your thumb.

• Allowing for much faster control.

• Personally, I think it’s pretty cool. Tetris is my favourite game, even though it’s been a long time since I played.

• And I’m terrible at it. Apparently, some newsreader reported on the story and added:

• He should spend more time outside.

• Ok, boomer.

• When he’s living in his esports millions mansion and you’re sitting forgotten and incontinent in a care home, with nothing but an aloe vera plant for company, you might recall those words.

Richard Bradbury: Why an aloe vera plant?

Matt Armitage:

• Well, this show is all about empowerment.

Richard Bradbury: ad lib [it is, I hadn’t noticed]

Matt Armitage:

• Sorry, I mean alternative power.

• I always get those things confused.

• Aloe vera plants because in the future we may be using aloe vera plants to power health or other personal devices.

• Now I know how this sounds. Like I’ve drunk some hippy koolaid.

• I keep banging on about energy sources and battery technology.

• And one of the reasons is because people are coming up with incredible, brain-melting alternatives.

• And in this case it’s supercapacitors made from aloe vera plants.

• I found this on new scientist – of course.

• This is a research project from Beijing Institute of Technology.

• They’ve blended biology with technology to create a supercapacitor almost entirely from different parts of an aloe vera plant.

Richard Bradbury: Just for argument’s sake, can you explain what a supercapacitor is?

Matt Armitage:

• It’s like a battery in a lot of ways.

• It’s a device that stores energy and can discharge that power much faster than a battery.

• making them ideal for applications where quick bursts of power are needed.

• And it turns out that aloe vera plants – we’ve used the sap in their leaves for lots of purposes,

• Ranging from skin treatments to health food and drinks.

• The team used the outer layer of the aloe leaf which was heated to produce activated carbon for the electrodes.

• The juice inside the aloe was frozen to create an aerogel, acting as the supercapacitor's electrolyte.

• And the resulting capacitor, which measure an almost imperceptible 4 millimeters across,

• Can then be installed in living plants, was installed in living plants, including aloe itself.

Richard Bradbury: So, essentially creating e-plants?

Matt Armitage:

• The team is calling them electric plants and e-plants.

• Which I love the idea of. Imagine carry an iphone and an e-plant with you wherever you go.

• At the moment the energy storage is quite low, enough for small lights or to charge low-power devices like wearables.

• Zhao's team even envisions this technology as a power source for travelers in remote areas.

• My wife is an avid hiker. And I can see the appeal of taking an organic, biodegradable power source on a trip.

• The team is looking at the scale of the power generation.

• Making the cell larger to store more energy would mean a larger incision in the host plant, risking infection and damage.

set of possibilities to start:

• Plant power.

Richard Bradbury: But what happens when AI realizes it can bypass the humans in pods and go straight to plants for power?

Matt Armitage:

• Yean, conspiracy nuts will have to introduce a green pill alongside their blue and red ones.

• I assume you’re talking about the story about there being a 5% chance that AI will destroy humanity.

• Lots of versions of this one floating around. This one is from NS.

a survey was conducted among:

• Again – this is reported via NS.

• They were asked about their views on future AI technological milestones and the societal consequences.

• 5% is small but it’s one of those statistics that niggles away at you.

• One in twenty is something you might bet on as a long shot.

• By the way, 5% sounds a whole lot worse when you say one in 20.

• One of the survey’s authors, Katja Grace, from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute ,

• Told NS that it points to a general belief among AI researchers that there is a non-minuscule risk of advanced AI posing a threat to weaklings in meat suits.

• I mean humanity.

Richard Bradbury: So it’s not really about the percentage, so much as the perception that there is a – perhaps serious – risk there?

Matt Armitage:

• Part of it is down to that perception of uncertainty surrounding the technology.

• What is it, how does it work, how quickly will it evolve?

• And the more it evolves, the more opaque the answers seem to become.

• The greater the power – it’s not really power in human terms, it’s compute ppwer.

• So I guess it’s more correct to say the greater the ability of the technology, the more perceptually remote it becomes and the more uncertain we feel.

• And as as Émile Torres from Case Western Reserve University points out,

• AI researchers aren't necessarily the best at forecasting the future trajectory of AI.

• It's not about worrying unnecessarily but being prepared and aware.

• There are immediate concerns with AI, like deepfakes, manipulation of public opinion, and worsening economic inequality.

• These are issues we're already facing.

• So, I think we have to approach it with a mixture of caution and optimism.

• To be aware of that potential for risk and work towards some level of AI development that wider society views as safe and ethical AI.

• Rather than having that process dictated to us by the companies that profit from that rapid and unregulated development.

Richard Bradbury: Play us into the break with something weirder than weird?

Matt Armitage:

• Sticking loosely with the subject of extinction.

• I am available for party bookings and motivational speaking, by the way.

• We spoke about grief tech and services to preserve digital memories last year.

• And I think we also talked about AI that can take on elements of someone’s personality and talk to grieving friends and relatives.

• And even create limited video clones of a person.

• Psychologists seemed to be divided about its benefits..

• But one thing we weren’t sure about was people’s attitudes to these developments.

• This story is via iflscience

• A recent study by Dr. Masaki Iwasaki from Seoul National University School of Law explored the subject.

• It surveyed 222 US adults and found stark differences in opinion depending on certain factors.

• For instance, 97% of respondents felt it was inappropriate to digitally resurrect someone who was known to have disagreed with the idea,

• while 58% were okay with it if the person had given consent.

Richard Bradbury: I think that was one of the issues we raised during the previous show. The importance of consent, and the idea that there could be multiple copies of a person after death, as people create their own versions of the deceased.

Matt Armitage:

• Yes, as we mentioned at the time.

• The idea of recreating someone digitally raises ethical questions about identity and consent.

• It's not just about the technical feasibility but also about respecting individual autonomy, even after death.

• It also suggests that this is an area where people’s ideas are still forming as they open themselves to the idea of the technology.

• For example, 59% of respondents disagreed with the idea of their own digital cloning after death.

• Which is interesting. 97% feel it’s ok to clone someone else, but the idea of being clones gives the majority of people the ick.

• That’s an interesting discrepancy.

• Especially given that a new Elvis hologram show debuted at the start of the year.

• The dead are increasingly taking up space in the present.

• The idea of posthumous digital rights isn’t just going to be for famous people.

• It’s something that will increasingly occupy a space in everyone’s life and post-life if there is such a thing.

• In fact, Dr Iwasaki suggests that more people start to include clauses about digital cloning and how they are represented after death.

Richard Bradbury: Are you worried about how you might be represented after you die?

Matt Armitage:

• I’m a bit of a fundamentalist about this.

• Once I’m gone, I’m gone. I won’t care what the future decides to do with me.

• Unless I’m a futurama head in a jar.

• For me it’s always about the living. They are the ones who will be affected by any representations of me.

• Certainly, in terms of commercial exploitation – any proceeds should go to whoever I have designated.

• Third parties shouldn’t be able to take my voice, or image or words and use them commercially.

• Unless I’ve granted those rights, or my estate holders have granted those rights.

• I don’t like the idea of being turned into a tikitok dance meme after I die, but that’s living me talking.

• My dead self won’t care. So have at it.

Richard Bradbury: Are we heading to happier places after the break?

Matt Armitage:

• If you call artificial pain sensors happier, then sure.

Richard Bradbury: outro


Richard Bradbury: So far we’ve learned more about such topical subjects as Tetris and Matt’s estate planning. If those weren’t enough of a trigger, apparently we’re going to talk about pain sensors.

Matt Armitage:

• Yes. So, just to clarify. This is a story about robots. From NS again.

• And it’s linked to AI and autonomy.

• We’ve used the example of smart factories where a floor of industrial robots has to be shut down before people can safely walk around.

• Not because the machines have any homicidal intent.

• Precisely the opposite – they have no notion of the pain and harm they can inflict on us.

• Because they’re machines.

• At the same time, advances in AI are hugely increasing what robots can do.

• We can now give them much more individual autonomy.

• They can perform more delicate tasks and adapt to changing circumstances.

• We’ve also had some success in creating sensors for them that mimic sensations of touch or smell.

• But those systems are still very limited.

Richard Bradbury: Like the hands that can pick up eggs?

Matt Armitage:

• Yes. So you could program a robot hand to pick up an egg.

• But until you changed the programming, all the objects would have to be eggs.

• But if the previous object was a brick, and the programming isn’t changed,

• Then most robots would break the egg. As they would exert the same force as they did with the brick.

Richard Bradbury: I like that your examples are either a brick or an egg.

Matt Armitage:

• I hate eggs – this isn’t a joke.

• They make me nauseous.

• So I think my subconscious goes to brick when I see someone eating one.

• Back to the subject of motor control – in human beings, it isn’t just about sensory feedback.

• It’s also about the sensation of pain and the anticipation of pain.

• Knowing that a pan is of oil is hot for example and to keep fingers out of it.

• Having similar systems in machines would enable them to act with more autonomy and mitigate risks to themselves and machines and people around them.

• To that end researchers at Hunan University in China, have developed an artificial pain-sensing system for robots.

• This is basically a layer of artificial skin that can sense external forces that might be harmful.

• In humans the process relies on nociceptors – pain sensors in our skin that send electrical signals to our brain.

• What the Hainan team Tan has done is replicate this with a crystal made of zinc and gallium.

• When a strong force is applied, it releases electrons, creating an electrical signal, much like our nociceptors.

Richard Bradbury: Meaning that the robot feels pain – or at least a simulation of pain?

Matt Armitage:

• Yes. So there’s. visual component too.

• Our bodies don’t just tell us there’s pain, they tell us where the pain is.

• To give the robots that same ability, the force applied to the crystal generates light flashes, which a camera monitors.

• This dual approach – both electrical and optical – allows the robot to determine the intensity and location of the pain.

Richard Bradbury: There’s a difference between force and harm. How do they differentiate between, say, a gentle touch and something that's actually harmful?

Matt Armitage:

• That's where the AI comes in.

• The algorithm with different electrical and optical readings from various objects - like a knife, a rod, and a cotton ball.

• This training helps the AI distinguish between harmful and non-harmful stimuli.

• I guess you could think of it as machine aversion therapy.

• Teaching it what it should be “afraid of”

• So far the results have been really positive.

• A robotic hand equipped with this skin and algorithm could differentiate between safe and harmful objects with a 97.5% success rate.

• This means it knows to hold something soft, like your brain, but drop something potentially damaging, like a cactus.

Richard Bradbury: Regular listeners will know that Matt introduces unpleasant ideas slowly. He mentioned a machine squeezing my brain, which leads me to think there might be medical or even surgical uses for this technology.

Matt Armitage:

• Bah. Foiled.

• Brain and other micro-surgery are already conducted with robots.

• Because you need tools that can work at a much smaller scale than a human hand.

• Sometimes even remotely.

• Obviously, these tools are controlled by a human surgeon.

• But there’s no feedback mechanism. It relies on the surgeon to guide the machine successfully and accurately.

• The researchers have tested the machines doing test biopsies.

• And the artificial skin on the bots prevented damage to the organs.

• Opening up possibilities for surgical robots, either autonomous or guided.

• Allowing a human surgeon to guide the machine remotely and still receive sensory feedback.

• Which would be an enormous step forward – enabling hard-pressed medical services to meet supply and demand with local theatres and remote surgeons.

Richard Bradbury: You want to stick with sensory organs for the next story, is that right?

Matt Armitage:

• Nearly. Another NS story.

• For decades it’s been suspected that human cells oscillate at certain frequencies.

• The example NS uses is a tuning fork. You bang the tuning and it vibrates and emits the hum of whatever frequency it’s tuned to.

• Things vibrate different amounts at different frequencies.

• The classic example is buildings and earthquakes and those conditions where lesser quakes could be more damaging to buildings

• because they start to oscillate against the quake vibrations rather than with them.

• So, obviously, at some frequencies, objects vibrate just a tiny bit and stop quickly.

• At others, resonant frequencies they move a lot more.

Richard Bradbury: And determining these resonant frequencies in human cells could be used as a diagnostic tool?

Matt Armitage:

• That’s the supposition, which I’ll get to in a bit.

• A team at the Spanish National Research Council has figured out the resonant frequencies for breast cells.

• The researchers created a tiny cantilever made of gold and siliconwhich they used to pick up individual human breast cells from a dish.

• Because the cantilever was so small it vibrated in response to the cell’s own motion.

• By illuminating the cantilever with a laser, the researchers could then measure this subtle motion from the way the light reflected.

• And calculate the resonant frequency.

• Interestingly, the insights leading to the breakthrough came when the team was investigating other aspects of cell behaviour.

• And they noticed that the cells were vibrating.

• They hadn’t imagined that human cells would behave like a tuning fork.

• As they admit themselves, if you’d hypothesised that human cells behave like a tuning it would sound far-fetched.

• So seeing it was a surprise.

Richard Bradbury: Do the cells vibrate at an audible pitch?

Matt Armitage:

• That’s the question, isn’t it.

• It gives new meaning to that idea of listening to your own body.

• So it turns out that one of the resonant frequencies of the cells fell between 150 and 180hz, which is outside the realm of human hearing.

• However, they found it also resonated at between 10 and 30 khz,

• Which is around where the audible spectrum turns into ultrasound.

• Which I guess means whales may be able to hear our cells but we can’t.

• What does any of this mean?

Richard Bradbury: Yes, what does any of this mean?

Matt Armitage:

• I’m glad you asked me that.

• As you mentioned earlier – it opens the door to diagnostic research.

• If we can come up with values for a variety of normal cells, we can use those resonant frequencies to determine if the cells are healthy.

• Or if they have mutated or are under attack.

• Obviously, it would be some kind of targeted sound device, but I’ve got a mental picture of making someone stand on one of those vibrating exercise pads,

• The ones they tempt you to try at those places that sell massage chairs.

• Shaking you like a milkshake and then printing out the results of your full body scan.

• But there is also the possibility of using sound waves as a therapeutic tool.

• To target and destroy unhealthy cells, perhaps as an alternative to treatments like chemotherapy.

Richard Bradbury: Another quick and weird one to play us out?

Matt Armitage:

• Yes, sticking with sound waves and the idea of playing out.

• Scientists have discovered radio waves in space that demonstrate a diminishing frequency.

• Which is something that they’ve never seen – or rather heard – before.

• That they’re likening to a sad trombone effect. Everyone knows what that is right.

• Play Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQeezCdF4mk

• Can we play that again?

• Play Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQeezCdF4mk

• No reason for that second one, just a gratuitous wah wah wah.

radio burst (FRB) called FRB:

• over the course of 541 hours of observation with the Allen Telescope Array in California.

• Which consisted of 35 of these waves with a diminishing tone.

• So it’s like each of these waves is part of a really long sad trombone effect.

Richard Bradbury: Is it evidence of intergalactic vaudeville comedy?

Matt Armitage:

• If only that were true. Douglas Adams was a biographer rather than a novelist.

• The SETI team seems to think that they are most likely to come from magnetars.

• Spinning, highly magnetised neutron stars.

• Which are the likely candidate for some of these fast radio bursts.

• But, as they haven’t seen anything like, they aren’t sure which sub-category of magnetars could be responsible.

• Play Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQeezCdF4mk

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MSP takes you into the future. Every week we look at advances in science and technology and ask how they will change the world we live in. And discuss how we can use our power and influence to shape the society of tomorrow.