The Corner

National Security & Defense

Three Cheers for the Beerbot

In response to Millions for Defense, But Not One Cent for Beerbots!

I am probably more open to taking a meat-ax to the Pentagon’s budget than most of my friends and colleagues around here, but I think Hans has it wrong, a little bit, on the beerbot.

Military-funded research projects can sound dumb — and more than a few of them are genuinely dumb — but the beerbot project in question (which is not, I think, the one Hans linked to) comes from a joint DoD-NSF grant to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. The project wasn’t just about building a robot arm that could pour a beer: Rather, the project involved a small network of robots that would take orders, return them to the robot bartender, and then deliver the drinks. The point there is not beer-distribution per se — it is about developing a tool “to control a group of robots interacting with an environment in order to cooperatively solve a problem.” That is something the military is very much interested in.

I am guilty on this front, too. A few weeks ago, writing about the panic over plastic guns that don’t exist, I learned and mentioned that the Pentagon had, some years ago, been involved in a project to develop the very kind of ceramic gun (one that theoretically could be walked through a metal detector) that I was writing about. “Why on Earth would the Pentagon want to develop ceramic small arms?” I wondered. The answer, as it turns out, was: They didn’t. The DoD did not have much interest in ceramic-based small arms, but it did have an interest in developing lightweight materials capable of being used in weapons, especially for weapons mounted on airplanes.

For all the stupidity and abuses of position that characterize our liberal-arts programs and campus life in general, the science and engineering programs in our major universities are one of the jewels of American life. If I were making a list of all the spending items I would cut, funding for basic science and for such applied-science programs as robotics development at MIT would not make the top 1,000. The beerbot may be silly, but the underlying intellectual problem is not.

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