GOP Senator Bans Government Spending on Beerbots, Misses Entire Point of Robotics Program

It was never about beer, guys.

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30 August 2018, 8:46pm

Photos: Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images and YouTube

On August 21, the United States Senate was called to order by Orrin Hatch, and after a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mitch McConnell’s excess neck skin complaining about “the Obama Administration’s so-called Clean Power Plan,” the rest of the day’s session focused on a spending bill for the Department of Defense.

It’s several hours of sleep-inducing minutiae, with senators proposing amendments to other senators’ amendments—at least until you get to Jeff Flake’s contributions. The soon-to-retire Arizona Republican submitted an amendment that would prohibit any defense funding to be “obligated or expended for the development of a beerbot or other robot bartender.”

And Flake is serious about this. Two days later, he took to the Senate floor to passionately argue against developing any kind of robot that would or could serve a beer. “Did you hear the one about three robots that walk into a bar?” Flake asked, because we live in the absolute stupidest time in history. “No, you haven’t. It’s not a joke but rather a project paid for in part by the Department of Defense. These robots, called ‘beerbots,’ were programmed to serve cold beers to graduate students.”

That’s true...ish—but it’s also true that Flake is oversimplifying the robotics research that MIT engineers have been working on for the past three years. According to The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Spectrum, researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory used beer delivery as a scenario to demonstrate a new, complicated-sounding algorithm, and to illustrate how multiple robots were capable of working together on the same task, even if they were unable to communicate with each other.

“The problem the MIT researchers are trying to solve is how to get teams of robots working together intelligently in situations where one robot might not have a very good idea of what another robot is doing: in other words, situations where communications might be unreliable, which includes most situations outside of the nuclear-powered Wi-Fi that probably exists in your lab,” the Spectrum wrote at the time.

This project was funded, in part, by the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force, and the IEEE says that it isn’t unusual for the Department of Defense (DoD) to invest in robotics. Regardless, even though that demonstration was about beer, it wasn’t really about beer, if you know what we’re saying.

“Our research was on very general algorithms for multi-robot coordination,” Chris Amato, the lead author of the ‘beerbot’ study, told the Spectrum. “Our target application domains were logistics problems such as delivering medical supplies. As a fun substitute, we used beer in the demo. The research really doesn’t have anything to do with beer and wasn’t about beer delivery.”

An MIT spokesperson further explained that the robots could’ve served LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE, but the researchers involved just thought it would be more entertaining if the ‘bots handled beer cans. Upon completion of their research, those same students suggested that this algorithm might be used for “search-and-rescue problems” at MIT’s Lincoln Lab, or even help assess damage on the International Space Station. (“Robots collaborate to deliver meds, supplies, and even drinks,” MIT News wrote at the time. AND EVEN drinks. Not JUST drinks.)

So congratulations, Senator Flake: you basically just proposed the Fun Police Amendment. And—again, because we live in the stupidest time in history—the Senate adopted it with a unanimous decision. “With our national debt exceeding $21 trillion, taxpayers should not have to pick up the Pentagon’s tab for ‘beerbots’ and other unnecessary items which were in the bill we’re considering now,” Flake said.

What about taxpayers who consider Jeff Flake to be an unnecessary item?