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Jeff Flake tries to block Defense Department funding for beerbots

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MIT beerbot robot
MIT’s beerbot, a
cooperative beer-delivery robot.


MITCSAIL/YouTube


  • The Pentagon has been researching automation and robots
    for sometime for everything from administrative efficiency to
    performing military missions under fire.
  • As part of that effort, the Defense Department gave
    grant money to MIT researchers working on a robot that served
    beers.
  • Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake thinks that’s a poor
    use of taxpayer dollars.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake doesn’t want the Pentagon spending any
more money on robots that serve beer.

An amendment Flake and fellow
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain submitted to the 2019 Defense
Department Appropriations Act would “prohibit the use of funds
for the development of beerbots or other robot bartenders.”

Robots have appeared in bars and restaurants in recent years,
being used to shake, stir, and garnish drinks — the Makr Shakr robot developed by
engineers at MIT was said to be able to mimic a bartender’s
movements while mixing drinks to precision.

In late 2014, Royal Caribbean agreed to incorporate the Makr
Shakr into a “bionic bar” on one of its cruise ships, where they
feature a tablet for customers
to order drinks and a robotic arm to make them.

“There are beerbots in the private sector already, so why
would we devote resources for this?” Flake told Bloomberg Law.


Jeff Flake
Jeff Flake.
Drew
Angerer/Getty Images


“There’s just a lot of willy-nilly spending these days,”
Flake said. “Why in the world would you spend Department of
Defense funding for beerbots?”

Flake’s amendment comes two years after the Defense Department
and the National Science Foundation provided $2 million in grants to a
project at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab
at MIT. Those grants were only a part of the total budget.

The project used a double-armed robot to pick up and move beers
around, handing them to two other “turtle bots,” equipped with
coolers, that acted as waiters. The waiters, which could not
communicate with one another unless they were in close proximity,
traveled between rooms in an MIT lab, taking orders from people
and getting beers from the bartender bot.

The project’s goal was “to control a group of robots
interacting with an environment in order to cooperatively solve a
problem.”

While Flake’s amendment would prevent money from going to such
studies in the future, it was not clear if future
studies could swap alcohol out for something else and still
qualify for federal money. Nor is it certain the amendment will
be included in the final defense appropriation bill.

You can see the MIT beerbot and turtle bots in action below.

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