Government Spending

Taxpayer-Funded Science Foundation Spends $1.5 Million Building Robot That Takes 25 Minutes To Fold a Towel


Was Rosie on the robo-dole?

Your tax dollars (not) at work: ABC News reports on a stupid-government-spending investigation into the National Science Foundation produced by Sen. Tom Coburn:

You've probably heard of shrimp on the barbie, but what about shrimp on a treadmill?

The National Science Foundation has, and it spent $500,000 of taxpayer money researching it. It's not entirely clear what this research hoped to establish.

But it's one of a number of projects cited in a scathing new report from Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, exclusively obtained by ABC News.

It's not just shrimp on a treadmill. The foundation spent $1.5 million to create a robot that can fold laundry. But before you try to buy one to save some time, consider that it takes the robot 25 minutes to fold a single towel.

Among the report's other lowlights? The NSF spent money on a "study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships" and "a grant to produce songs about science including a rap called 'Money 4 Drugz,' and a misleading song titled 'Biogas is a Gas, Gas, Gas,'" both of which I would really like to hear. And not only did the investigation uncover "pervasive" porn surfing by the foundation's employees, it also found instances of "jellow wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica." Sadly, no robots were involved. 

Read Coburn's full report here

NEXT: Inside the Speed-Reading Mind of Marginal Revolutionary Tyler Cowen

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  1. “jellow wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica.”

    I support this.

    1. Pix or it didn’t happen.


        There, was that so hard?

        1. to be completely fair, it was to fund a ‘social activity’ which I suppose you need on the antarctica station to fight cabin fever.

          On the other other hand, it’s expensive as hell to send stuff to antarctica, so you’d hope that the scientists would have more decorum in their choice of entertainment.

          Of course, why we have a federally funded science station on antarctica at all is a good question too.

          1. What he said.

            Seriously, the question shouldn’t be, “Is the NSF wasting money,” but, “Should we have and NSF.”

            1. …only because the answer to the first should be obvious. Wasting money is a fundamental part of science. The process of science and fiduciary accountability and transparency are completely antithetical.

              1. Not sure whether you’re being sarcastic or not. Wasting money *is* a fundamental part of science, because the experiments most likely to be worth running are the ones where you can’t predict the results in advance, and sometimes what you couldn’t predict was that the experiment wasn’t worth running after all. But transparency is just as fundamental a part of science, and fiduciary accountability is at least not in conflict with science.

                1. no, you can’t be accountable to how you spend your money, because anyone can say ‘that’s a dumb experiment’ and criticize how you spent your money on it… but you never know.

            2. an NSF. With question marks might be nice.

          2. That’s about what I was thinking. The people stationed in Antartica live in NSF facilities. And I see no reason why they shouldn’t have some time to screw around (and from what I hear, there is plenty of screwing in Antarctica).

            1. How else could you survive months of living in Antarctica?

      2. Page 16 of the report

    2. “jellow wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica.”

      THAT sounds like it came from the Onion. Antarctica ? Really ?

      1. The skinny-dipping is a long-standing tradition. They actually get in the water (after cutting a hole through the ice) for about 5 seconds. It’s similiar to the New Year’s Day plunges idiots take all over the world. No big deal.

        Jello wrestling, on the other hand, is a new one to me, and the best use of taxpayer dollars the government has come up with in a very long time. And it’s not wasteful if they eat the jello afterward.

        1. If the pictures linked above are actually of the scientists involved, I volunteer to eat it during. Purely in the interest of hygiene and conservation, mind you.

    3. jellow wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica.

      I remember flying them in their beer. Believe it.

    4. The jello wrestling did not use any government funds – it was done off duty hours and with materials provided by an employee. In fact, the real scandal is that the NSF fired the employee and tries to squash recreational activities it does not approve of.

      The skinny-dipping is actually the “polar plunge” done at Scott Base, a *New Zealand* facility two miles away from McMurdo Station. It is also very brief – more than a few seconds would kill the swimmer. I know that this is the only skinny-dipping occurring because the NSF does not have any swimming pools in Antarctica. For that matter, most participants wear swimsuits.

      Now, the 300 club is another matter – but although it does involve nudity it is once again not done on the job. Just because the NSF owns all the American facilities in Antarctica should not imply that it owns all the employees in Antarctica.

  2. Classic ignorant posturing. Getting robots to the point where they can do tasks that seem simple for a human is quite difficult. Training robots to climb stairs is hard enough.

    You don’t get to Asimovian robots without going through laundry folders.

    1. The NSF: Funding Tomorrow’s Robot Uprising, Today!

    2. Very true… this one: “An analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names.”… needs an explanation. I guess there’s a consensus about the necessity of that one.

    3. This makes a lot of sense to me. Folding a towel takes a large number of steps.

      Steps that elude me entirely.

      The government shouldn’t be funding that kind of stuff anyway, but of government spending this makes me the least upset.

    4. Do the three laws include fucking off for 24.5 minutes before folding the towel….because this seems like pretty human behavior to me!

      1. In fairness, early stages in the development of many technologies tend to do a job less efficiently than human beings. With development, efficiencies tend to increase far beyond what human beings could accomplish. In this case, the argument to be made is that the government has to fund this early research precisely *because* it is not economically viable at this stage – but that it *will* be economically advantageous at a later stage, when private companies can take over the research and development because they can expect a profit.

        Consider the early research into self-driving automobiles. About 1988 NOVA did a documentary on the state-of-the-art research: A large truck was required to hold all the computer equipment, and it was able to autonomously steer itself along a path at the whopping rate of 1.5 mph.

        10 years later NOVA did a follow-up show, and showed a Ford Taurus with a small computer in the trunk steering the car in traffic at 60 mph. The car could stay in its lane and maintain a safe distance behind the car in front of it, but it could not change lanes or turn.

        Last year Google announced that it had funded a car that could drive itself, and this year it is lobbying the State of Nevada to change the law to allow self-driving automobiles on Nevada roads.

    5. What are you talking about, Commodore? We already have Brent Spiner. We’re already there, dude! And he even had sex with a human, just like in The Robots of Dawn!

      1. If they’re going to buy pleasure bots, they should look like Sherry Jackson in her prime, not Data.

        1. I won’t judge Tulpa’s Data fetish. But I do agree with you.

          1. Small words from a small being, trying to attack what it doesn’t understand.

        2. some of us prefer homely brunettes… Lal?

          1. Lore was better looking than Data.

            1. Lore could blow his lubricants all over my face.

          2. Personally I preferred B’Etor to Lursa, but with either one I’d be worried about the teeth.

            1. Grilka. Rrraaawwwrrr,

              1. I was always partial to K’Ehleyr.

                1. She was hotter playing Q’s wife.

                  1. And that Andorian military chick in “Cease Fire”.

                    1. Who? (“There was another series after Voyager? No, I’m pretty sure I would’ve heard about that.”)

        3. Majel Barrett played robot brothel madam in Westworld

      2. Was there anyone Tasha wasn’t slutting herself out to at some point? “If you weren’t captain…”

        1. I blame the rampant patriarchy on Turkana IV.

      3. I appreciate what you guys did here. Asimov references, Star Trek references, anything to prevent a thread on technology from devolving into a canonical treatment of the words and wisdom of Ayn Rand; however, if you read further down, it was all for naught.

    6. I think the beef is that the gov’t is funding this at all, not that they built a shitty robot that someday may lead to an awesome robot.



    8. Depends on the starting point. If the robot is starting from a towel laid out flat on a table, then that’s not so impressive. If it’s getting them out of the dryer, then that is awesome.

      1. The particular results mentioned in the report started with a pile of towels in arbitrary configurations. Current research is extending this to arbitrary clothing items; and yes, it can take things out of a dryer.

    9. Bravo, Tulpa. (SLD)

    10. The awesome and mighty Towel Folder 3000 simply puts all private efforts to shame in both development and execution. Honda should just toss ASIMO straight to the recycling bin.

      1. You are aware that ASIMO gets huge amounts of financing from the Japanese government. ASIMO is no more a private effort than the stealth bomber is.

    11. Government once wasted money on trying to build computing machines — but the machines were slow and took up whole rooms. Those fools.

  3. And not only did the investigation uncover “pervasive” porn surfing by the foundation’s employees, it also found instances of “jellow wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica.”

    Anyone know if these guys are hiring?


      Yes. From the webpage: “NSF offers its employees a very attractive salary and benefits package, as well as a rich working environment.” I’ll say!

    2. The jello wrestling was paid for with private funds. Naturally it occurred at NSF facilities, because only the NSF has facilities in Antarctica. There is, however, no skinny-dipping at NSF facilities in Antarctica, because the NSF does not have any facilities in Antarctica that could be used that way. Perhaps they are talking about the Polar Plunge at Scott Base, which is (1) a New Zealand base, and (2) the plunge itself takes place in the OCEAN, which does NOT belong to the NSF.

      In any case, as puritanical as these guys are, you’d think they’d be aware that there isn’t likely to be any hanky-panky going on while swimmers are plunging into -2C water.

  4. I would gladly tolerate this level of waste in exchange for aggressive, relentless prosecution of the cops who murdered Jose Guerena and Jason Kemp.

    1. We should let robot towel folding machines practice on them.

  5. Color me unenthused. This right here is a GOPer producing a report showing 0.0000001% of the federal budget being wasted. Now, he can parade it around to his elderly constituents and say: “look, I foundz teh wastez, fraudz, and abuze!!1!1!!!! We saved teh precious… we will uze teh money to increaze medicarez!!!1!!1!!!!!!”

    1. True, let the scientists waste our money on robots. I got my eye set on defense and entitlements…KILL THEM ALL!

    2. You have a point but if he only investigated 0.0000002% of the budget and found a 50% waste rate well then it could be a significant finding. My experience working with NASA suggests that we could probably cut the budget of most federal agencies in half without actually having to cancel anything. Just do across the board budget cuts and let them all find the waste themselves.

      1. Yay. We can all keep our pet agencies, and balance the budget.

        Free market solves these problems, though. Corruption doesn’t compete very well.

    3. it’s because they hate science! Because it will contradict the BIIIIIIIBLE!

      1. Secular humanism. Gotta love it.

    4. ^This^… what a waste of fucking time. How much money did Coburn waste doing the research? How much money did Congress waste last year(cocktail parties, private planes, cocaine, etc..)?

      The elephant is right in front of you, Senator Jackass. Stop looking for a flea circus.

      1. It would have taken the robots three times as long to do the research though.

    5. As this insurance commercial makes clear, the robots can help with entitlement problems too.

    6. Exactly. Fuck this guy. All he’s doing is coming up with excuses not to defend Paul Ryan budget proposals.

    1. Yesterday’s news.

      1. I know and no hat tip!

  6. But before you try to buy one to save some time, consider that it takes the robot 25 minutes to fold a single towel.

    And during that 25 minutes, you can be doing something other than folding towels. So it does in fact save you time.

    1. You priced a robot lately? We use ABB and Fanuc mostly where I work, and they’re ‘spensive!

      Illegal immigrants are WAY cheaper, plus you can bang the cute ones. MUCH better use of time, energy and money.


  7. We could have built something like that in school for less than a thousand.

    1. Subsidize a high school or college robotics team and they could probably do better.

      1. Too much like self-directed learning, so obviously it’s bad for the students education. Or something.

    2. Sure you could.

      1. Well, high school robotics teams are actually pretty advanced. Make towel folding the challenge, and it might actually be solved. Less interesting, but still valuable.

  8. I dont understand why more libertarians in general dont support Tom Coburn. Yes, he does some stupid SoCon shit, but he appears to at least have *some* principles (some that you may even agree with)

    1. Ever since he was caught strangling little boys as he pleasured himself onto their faces as they expired, I’ve lost some enthusiasm for him.

      See how easy it is to make up internet rumors? Now I’m going to spread that via facebook.

      1. good to see you havent lost your enthusiasm for being a pedantic asshole. I applaud you!

        1. Oh sheesh, relax, I was making a joke because I think Coburn is actually better than people let on.

          1. Thats actually an interesting comment. If you had to pick one of the present senators to take in a lifeboat to start a new government (other than Rand Paul) who would it be?

            I personally would pick Coburn, but then again I probably assign to much weight to his semi-adherence to principles.

            1. I can think of plenty of things I’d rather use my remaining rowboat capacity for. I’m sick and tired of the gov’t mandating what I carry in the extra space on my rowboat.

            2. If you had to pick one of the present senators to take in a lifeboat to start a new government (other than Rand Paul) who would it be?

              It depends on how long I would be at sea and how hungry the tiger is.

            3. I suppose I should put the disclaimer out that his socon shit really turns me off, but he’s very good on some other issues, and as you said, seems to hold to some shred of principal more than many others.

              I meant that unlike most of congress, he isn’t complete scum to me, and I’ve supported some of his decisions.

              As for the lifeboat scenerio, I really don’t know. Aside from Rand, there’s none of them I’m really crazy about, just ones I dislike much less than others (as in Coburn v. say, Reid).

            4. If you had to pick one of the present senators to take in a lifeboat to start a new government (other than Rand Paul) who would it be?

              Can we change the question to If you had to pick one of the present senators to kick off the lifeboat, who would it be?

              I’m torn between Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham. I’m 90% sure Graham is a pedophile, so he gets the boot.

              1. If we also get to take their wife, I’m going with Kucinich. Once I throw him overboard by his ears and get out the ball-gag, I could enjoy the rest of the trip

      2. “One person likes this.”

    2. Phrygian, where is your is your hot, slutty, goth sister Locrian?

  9. Do twitter users “tweet” in regional slang? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University received an NSF grant to perform a study of tens of thousands of tweets.

    You gotta love that they gave a bunch of yinzers a grant to see if people tweet in regional slang.

    1. More like sophomoric transplants who are baffled by the local dialect. Jackasses.

      1. I believe jagoffs is the word you were looking for.

        1. I’m not a yinzer.

          1. Yinzer haters are jagoffs.

    2. That’s actually kind of a cool project. So is the farmville one.

      I’d like to know if the internet has virtual geography and if people tweet in virtual regional slang.

      As in: do people who hang out on reddit and 4chan talk funny compared to normal people. That would be interesting.

      1. I started playing WoW with some Aussies a few years ago, and now I say things like “bugger”. Not sure how that fits into the study.

        1. I hung out with some irish and scottish people one summer and now I say “shite” and “wrecked”.

  10. OK, I’m a long-time libertarian (since 1967–not a typo–to be exact). Standard disclaimer etc.
    But making fun of scientific research is easy if you’re an ignorant hick. Or behave like one.
    I don’t know about the folding laundry research but I do know about the shrimp (and fruitflies) on a treadmill. They are hooked up to a brain scanning device (I forget which kind) that resolves down to the level of individual neurons. The researchers are studying learning at the cellular level. Now, of course, the government shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars on this. But I’d sure like to know more about how organisms learn. In fact that’s part of my research area, at a much higher level.
    Making fun of NSF projects (including looking at dialect differentiation in Twitter) is a cheap shot that makes libertarians look like conservatives, because it makes us look like anti-intellectual yahoos. It doesn’t do us any good at all.

    1. Well, we could try something along these lines: The NSF funds should go towards supporting privately done research, rather than going towards government-done research. It might make us look a little less ridiculous. Maybe.

      1. It does do that- NSF funds private companies and research at universities (including private ones).

        1. It could do a better job, then. I’m no NSF expert, by any means.

          Or we could get rid of it.

          1. Just get rid of it.

            Seriously how hard would it be to start a funddrive for some kickass science? Hell, people contribute to Reason and they don’t produce ANY robots or flying cars.

            Or, rather than “donations”, make people’s contributions an investment they will see a return on (discounted price on the product of the research, or a more traditional monetary return.)

            1. I’m working on it. I’m thinking about starting a hedge fund whose recurring profits go into funding science on the order of $5M/year. Start small.

              My initial target topics are basic forward evolution biology, small-scale (hot) nuclear fusion and low energy plasma physics, algebraic topology and differential geometry. I also think it would be neat to launch a micro-satellite that tests low-cost interplanetary propulsion, for example an ion-drive made from off-the-shelf parts.

              1. Awesome.

                an ion-drive made from off-the-shelf parts.

                Even more awesome. (suggestion: re-purposed TIG welders.)

                1. I was thinking spark plugs or pulse plugs, even cheaper.

                  1. also has to fit in this form factor:

                  2. I think the gap in sparkplugs is too short for efficient glow-discharge. Never heard of a pulse-plug (off to learn about em).

                    Plus the sparkplugs don’t already have gas plumbing installed.

                  3. Also, I don’t understand the CubeSat. You’re really supposed to cram some propulsion into that box? Or is the cube mounted in some standardized frame that holds the propulsion and solar-panel rig? I didn’t see anything in the article that clarified that for me.

                    1. The CubeSat isn’t intended to house an interplanetary propulsion system, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

                      I’m not interested in having a glow discharge, just a really cheap way of reliably ionizing argon atoms! Who says that ion drive has to be continuous? Why not make it a pulsed propulsion system?

                    2. If I had a million dollars….


                    3. hmmmm, pulsed ion propulsion. interesting. i thought glow was preferable to spark/arc discharges. easier on the electrodes, and the extra energy-density in an arc just results in more heating (ie random movement) instead of purposeful acceleration.


                    4. probably all true. The spark plug is designed to take one hell of a beating though.

                    5. I think the plan is to use a CubeSat as an experimental ion drive.


                      The engine on Deep Space 1 was pretty powerful, but weighed almost nothing. The problem (like with all engines except maybe solar sails) is the fuel weight.

                      I love being an aerospace nerd.

                    6. if the cubesat el cheapo ion drive works, then the next thing to do is to make a 3U cubesat with the central unit being an ion drive to get it past the earth’s magnetopause and then ride the solar wind with an M2P2 drive. It’s like a solar sail, except the sail is generated by charged particles harvested from the solar wind, trapped in a magnetic field.

              2. Send me the URL. Please!

                1. Seriously, Doktor K, drop me a line.


          2. Or we could get rid of it.


      2. How exactly is that any better?

    2. So which of the research items called out by Coburn is an area you feel should be funded by tax money? I am sure there is a constitutional basis for funding scientific research, right?

      Hint1: You aren’t focusing on the real issue.

      Hint2: Libertarian may not mean what you think it means.

      1. Since when is “libertarian” coterminous with “constitutional?” Are you a fan of income tax and eminent domain?

      2. Since when is “libertarian” coterminous with “constitutional?” Are you a fan of income tax and eminent domain?

    3. Nice takedown, Geoff.

    4. So…. What we need to do is start up a privately-funded research institution that kicks the shit out of government research. To PROVE that it can be done, and shut up the people who say that ‘only government will do basic science research’.

      Aside from the fact that the chemiosmotic theory (no small effort) was proposed, validated, and won the nobel prize using 100% private funding…. I’m working on it.

    5. Whereas responding to the questioning the validity of any scientific research (particularly when its publicly funded) with “you brainless hillbillies don’t understand how science works, so why don’t you just let the grownups do the thinking?” Makes us look like arrogant pricks.

      So I guess it’s a wash.

      1. I think the point is that libertarians can quite adequately criticize public funding of science without resorting to sill sensational and ignorant criticism of the science itself.

        1. It doesn’t matter whether the science being done is sill or wasteful or brilliant. What matters is whether taxpayers should be forced to fund it.

    6. This study was actually to determine whether exposure to bacteria affected the shrimp’s movement. Read the report in question before you start assuming that people are ignorant.

  11. Coburn is trying to channel Proxmire and uses the same tactics- misrepresenting the nature, background, methods, and goals of the research.

    Mandatory Disclosure: NSF funds my research, which unfortunately doesn’t involve Jello wrestling (“They’re giving millions to a guy who wants to prevent boys from growing moobs.”). That said, I’d abolish the agency tomorrow. The quality of the research they fund is by and large quite good. But I have a problem with the government funding any basic research in the first place. Hypocritical? Maybe. But if someone starts flinging $100 bills around, I may think he shouldn’t do that, but I’m happy to pick them up.

    1. I see Geoff made my point even better while I was typing.

      1. OMWC, Geoff – if you can read this (and my post immediately above) you may want to email me, my handle at yahoo dot com.

        1. Because why? Moobs?

    2. Damn it, the Jello Wrestling was privately funded! (And worse, I missed it by about a month!)

  12. WTF, Suderman? A thoroughly debunked meme from 2008? Shilling for that know-nothing grandstanding windbag Tom fricking Coburn???/?

    Standard libertarian disclaimers that government ought not to be funding this, of course, but ultimately this is in the same league as any other type of fisheries research (emphasis mine):

    Scientists discovered the shrimp’s need for speed after it was placed on a home-made exercise machine in a tank of water to see how far it would travel for food.

    Yep, a total waste of money and completely irrelevant to the US Shrimp industry. Why do you hate Scampi, Suderman?

    He said the project involved putting a sick shrimp on the treadmill first because they wanted to probe how diseases impact their performance.

    A fast shrimp is a healthy shrimp.

    1. Uh, if it’s important to the shrimp industry, why aren’t they funding the research?

      1. Hey, my health care is important to me too, but I sure as hell ain’t gonna fund it myself. Now, where’s my free skrimps.

          1. Fuck you server squirrels. I was trying to tell wylie that his comment made me laugh until I cried.

      2. Because the US government is already doing this? There is a lot of coercively funded research that benefits US industry. Some is directly funded by the taxpayers, ie NSF. Other is more subtle like the Dairy Council of California (govt agency funded by mandatory assesments on dairy producers).

        1. So government-funded research is important because it benefits US industries. And US industries don’t need to fund research that benefits them because the government is already doing it.

          The great thing about circular reasoning is no loose ends.

          1. Uh, no Hugh, I didn’t say that. I described the reality as it is; this does not imply that I approve.

            Suggest that you slowly (for comprehension) re-read the second paragraph of my 3:26 PM post above, especially the part where I state that government ought not to be funding this, of course.

            What fricking part of that are you having trouble understanding?

            1. What fricking part of that are you having trouble understanding?

              I’m having trouble with the “fricking” part. Is that some kind of Nordic ice fishing or something?

              1. As I understand it, fricking is the process that needs to be done before fracking can take place.

                1. At my house, we have a whole drawer full of frickafrack.

      3. Also, the free-rider principle.

  13. Since Coburn is on the record for staying in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘as long as it takes’, I’m going to call this one “missing the plank in your own eye.”

  14. I prefer the prize money approach to innovation. The government or a private group puts up $X for inventing/doing something they want. The first person to do it (while obeying any other qualifications) wins.

    That way, the government only has to spend money if someone actually creates or does something useful. Presumable the prize would be equal what the activity was worth.

  15. Recall when the site’s favorite sock puppet proposed banning private medical research for, I don’t know, the shits and giggles of it all? This kind of puts it all in perspective doesn’t it? For every Tang there are ten Ass Burn Orange Mixes soaking up the public dollahs.

    1. You know, Tang wasn’t actually invented by the government. Kraft Foods, 1957. NASA just popularized it.

      1. I watched Hong Kong Fooey. I saw the commercials. Stop trying to destroy my childhood!

        1. Read it in “Packing for Mars.” Blame Mary Roach.

  16. Remind me — Tang makes a decent spare rib rub when mixed with roasted ground chillies.

  17. Ok, can we all agree that the science is probably worthwhile, but that the gov’t has no business funding it via tax dollars?

    And I don’t buy the argument that if it ever produces anything of value, then that justified the entire organization. Liberals use this all the time; “well after a massive expenditure, some tiny dent was made in poverty, so it works! More money into the pit!”

    Even if the science is solid and worthwhile, that point is invalidated by the fact that it’s gov’t funded science. By which I mean, if it’s truly worthwhile, then somebody, somewhere, will be willing to sink the resources into researching it in the private sector.

    1. There’s more to it than that. While I think it is abundantly clear that the Constitution does not authorize the Federal government to spend money on basic scientific research (as currently written), there are types of research that are clearly in the public interest and that would not likely be funded absent some public funding mechanism.

      Who would fund interplanetary probes? What private entity is going to build TOKAMAK or the LHC? Nobody has anything close to that amount of cash other than governments.

      So those kind of projects need some larger mechanism for providing funds. But if you are going to use government for that purpose, you should at least go through the process of amending the constitution to allow that function to the feds. And no, I don’t think “it is a really important public policy” is a constitutional argument, all due respect to our current court.

      1. Then I suppose the counterargument would be, why are interplanetary probes important to us right now enough to pay for them via forced taxation? What insights have they yielded which are crucial to our development, at this point in time?

        1. “at this point in time” are the key words here. In 30 years, they could mean billion of dollars and months of exploration saved.

          I still don’t see why farsighted aerospace companies shouldn’t be doing it instead of NASA, but they’ll be more beneficial than crop subsidies.

      2. Well, if governments didn’t take away so much, then more people would have funds that they migth choose to donate towards private scientific research.

        Regulation and whimsical laws are also to be blamed. People don’t invest long term when they don’t know what new shenanigans Congress will get up to next session.

  18. This gimmick was dumb when it was Proxmire’s schtick. If you want to attack the notion of public funding of basic scientific research, do it straight ahead from basic principal. Claiming that there’s waste because of “example that sounds silly taken out of context” is intellectually dishonest and counterproductive.

    Unfortunately, this populist junk does seem to work. And it keeps the sheep distracted from the big issues.

    1. I’ll grant you that. I think it’s stupid there’s taxpayer funded science at all, regardless of how awesome v. stupid the individual experiments sound.

    2. Didn’t I already say this?

  19. Sudden hit the nail on the head. Is half a million dollars for a shrimp tread mill a stupid waste of taxpayer money, regardless of how adorable it is? Certainly. But $500k is less than a drop in the bucket. It’s not even condensation on the side of the bucket. By back of the napkin math, it costs less than a penny per taxpayer per year. I realize that, in aggregate, stuff like this adds up fast. But we have things like the WoD and vast swathes of our defense budget that, in addition to being useless, cost more and are just plain wrong (and not in the fun way like the Jello wrestling). I’m sure Senator Coburn costs the American people more per annum than the towel folding robot, and the robot has never (at tax payer expense) tried to block a prime time airing of Schindler’s List. Stuff like this is like security theater for the deficit.

    1. just plain wrong (and not in the oh-so-right way like the Jello wrestling).


    2. yep…perfect the enemy of good an all that….cheerio guv’nah…carry on..nothing to see here

  20. Before we throw out the NSF and shut down most of the academic research in this country, why don’t we realize that it’s entire budget is $7 billion. To put that in perspective, the TSA’s budget is $8 billion.

    1. Department of Education got $32 billion in ’09 (the figure is rising fast), and the schools still aren’t very good.

  21. I agree with Amash’s criticism that yeah, some of this stuff is probably waste. But the Republicans are being facetious. This stuff allows them to look like their fighting waste, even though it’s a drop in the budget. Same with NPR and Planned Parenthood. In an ideal libertarian society these wouldn’t be taxpayer funded, but really? Don’t you have more important things to do besides fighting with towel-folding robots and evil radio hosts? This is a show, or worse, a conscious distraction.

    Also, I agree with the people who said criticizing a robot for folding a towel is a pretty low blow. As any engineer will tell you, steps like these are possibly huge. You can’t just build C-3PO tomorrow.

    1. You can’t just build C-3PO tomorrow.

      Question: are gay robots more or less advanced that straight robots?

      Alternately, what percentage of emergent robot consciousnesses will turn out gay?

      1. That would be interesting, but I suppose it’s our fault for programming male and female robots at all. It seems odd that almost all visions of intelligent robots have similar character traits as humans. “In his own image,” I guess.

        The more pressing question is, when will SoCons come out against robo-human marriage?

        God hates Androids.

        1. I think some of them already have. There’s been some serious literature on the subject, and it’s probably sparked a few fiery sermons/arguments.

      2. Sounds like someone should be applying for an NSF grant.

    2. Excellent. Max Stirner finally shows up.

      We need someone to be an advocate of raging egoism around here.

      Now, please explain your position on property rights.

      1. I suppose Stirner himself didn’t think property rights could be justified on the basis of law, since he didn’t really believe in law. It’s sort of a classier “might takes right” position. I personally think anarcho-capitalism’s defense of property rights in general is compatible with egoism. Then you get individualist anarchists, but they’re on the left,. That seems contradictory to me, but oh well. I don’t see how you can read The Ego and Its Own and get any meaningful socialist ideology, as I thought Stirner’s idea of “abolishing society” was perfectly compatible with individualist capitalism. I suppose that separates me from some people here, as I don’t think normal social values like communities or morality matter.

        I suppose in general it’s difficult to extrapolate concrete political or economic theories from some philosophers. This is how you get really weird positions, like combining Nietzsche with Marxism.

        1. “combining Nietzsche with Marxism.”

          My brain hurts. Let me go check if the universe exploded.

        2. The read I got was that property wouldn’t exist, since an egoist should simply take what he wants and fuck everyoen else, but that if you had only egoists around they would deal with eachother on terms of respect for their “ownness” and thus respect their property.

  22. This shit is just a stupid distraction from actually solving budget problems. Yes, waste is waste and unconstitutional agencies are bad, but there are currently very pressing budget issues and eliminating the entire NSF wouldn’t put even put a dent in those problems. Anyone talking about anything other than military and entitlements is not remotely serious about solving spending problems.

    1. Well, Krafft Ehricke once said something to the effects of, “Trying to balance the budget by cancelling NASA is like trying to pay off your mortgage by cancelling your newspaper description.” This was back when NASA was getting the big bucks, too.

      1. Went back and checked (Wikipedia, what else?) and NASA’s highest budget was 4.41% of the federal budget. 1993 was the last year it topped 1%, but knock out entitlements and it’s something like 6 or 7%.

  23. “Taxpayer-Funded Science Foundation Spends $1.5 Million Building Robot That Takes 25 Minutes To Fold a Towel”

    Still cheaper than a government employee. Just sayin.

  24. “Taxpayer-Funded Science Foundation Spends $1.5 Million Building Robot That Takes 25 Minutes To Fold a Towel”

    Still cheaper than a government employee. Just sayin.

  25. Put me the “this is a stupid snark” camp.

    As others have pointed out, teaching robots to do what humans do is an extremely difficult problem.

    Yes, the government shouldn’t be funding research, but this is probably far less wasteful than maintaining the roof of the Senate chamber.

    This post is on a level with the “Golden Fleece” awards of the late unlamented, may-his-soul-be-ensnared-in-the-event-horizon-of-a-black-hole Senator William Proxmire.

    1. I suppose I have a hierarchy of offensiveness. Near the bottom is scientific and technological research, provided that it isn’t chock-full of political payola.

      1. Exactly, though the bigger the project, the more there are political entanglements.

        If they ever do get around to funding the 30 meter telescope, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wound up being built in Maine* to satisfy some pork-barrel pol.

        *Not to pick on Maine, but IIRC it has the highest average annual cloud cover of any state.

        1. Just like we stuck two solid rocket boosters on the side of the space shuttle to make some idiots in Utah happy.

          1. more info pls. intrigued.

            1. Thx Dok. I guess I was hoping more for links about an alternative that would’ve been a better tech to use, but wasn’t due to the pork-based decision. Ya know, Sexy Rocket links. Rawr.


                Not perfect, but here’s some stuff.

                There was also talk of putting a shuttle on a Saturn V. That would have been cool.

                1. Rock. That’s what I was looking for.

                  I think the only launch that could be cooler than SaturnV’s would be something involving nukes. “Today we’re going to launch a payload into space using a 500MT fusion bomb. No, it’s not very efficient, next question. Preferably a question about the supreme coolness of the project, anyone? Bastards.”


                    One more way to cheaply use up our nuclear arsenal in peaceful ways. I really think the peacetime uses of nuclear bombs has been underestimated.

                    1. Stupid link messed up. Click on the first one.

                    2. Brian Wang and others have worked out the engineering for a possible future Orion project – that with a single nuclear device (with over 99% of the radiation contained) could launch a huge amount of material into space, as a way to kickstart the industrialization of space. However, with an acceleration of 1000G, it would be inadvisable to have any human passengers on that launch – unless you really don’t like them.

                    3. Or there’s the daedalus concept. That’s fusion, though.

        2. Maine, really. Fail.

          New Mexico is where they already have a lot, and for good reason.

  26. Among the report’s other lowlights? The NSF spent money on a “study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships”

    But if they stopped these studies, what would NPR talk about during their little human interest segments?

    1. You know, this could help reduce divorce rates. That might make socons a little happier (depending on the school, of course).

  27. Until they STOP giving Billions per year to Israel ($2B+), Egypt, Waki-Paki, etc., I support EVERY SILLY STUDY.

    They want to cut HEAD-START program for kids by $2,000,000,000 and give Israel $2,000,000,000.

    So let’s here Libertarians? I know you’d prefer to give money to neither, but, which would you prefer, poor-american kids? or Israel?

    1. Can we send the poor American kids to Isreal? It’s a twofer!

    2. I’d prefer no money be given to either, and that you hit yourself in the head with a hammer repeatedly. Wouldn’t that be great all around?

      1. Yeah, but who is paying for the hammer?

        1. Hammer, 2×4, rock, whatever Alice has lying around that’ll work. BOOTSTRAPS PEOPLE.

          1. I want to know who is funding whatever object is used. Follow the money.

            1. Who funds rocks? oh, probably some sort of campaign contributions from the geologists union, nevermind.

              1. I dunno, the feds always say we can’t take rocks from the national parks, so maybe they own them all.

                1. As an avid random-rock-picker-upper, I’m appalled to learn of this prohibition.

                2. (I mean, it’s not like the parks are going to run out of rocks, or will be less parklike with fewer rocks. Worst-comes-to-worst, just blow up a mountain. And sell tickets to that. Goddamn, I should run our national parks.)

                  1. (ok, on 2nd thought, blowing up mountains might have a significant impact on the parklike-ness of certain parks. so, instead, we’ll buy rocks that farmers have cleared out of their fields, to replenish the rock supply at the parks. like the tourists will know the difference, pfft.)

                    1. Or like they’ll care. I would definitely go to a mountain-blowing up. Plus, you’d probably have to use a nuke to do it.

                      I think I just solved out nuclear weapons deconstruction problem. Way cheaper, too.

                  2. I’ve a better idea: you should own the national parks.

                    1. If I win the election for Supreme Overlord Of National Parks, there will definitely be nukes involved as part of my Parks Improvement Initiative. It’s part of my “Nuclear Disarmament Through Entertaining Asplosions” platform.

                    2. Petition websites follow. I recommend starting one.



        2. I’m sure many of us would chip in, especially if it’s a sledgehammer.

          1. A purely voluntary collaboration, eh? Well, I suppose that passes the litmus test.

        3. I have an extra, she can use one of mine.

          1. He, you cultural illiterate.

  28. I approve.

  29. This is stupid.

    Look, NSF grants fund all sorts of research. I agree that it would be better for private financing to do the job, but unless you’re really willing to advocate killing the NSF, then cherry picking some random Master’s student’s thesis project to make fun of, out of context, is stupid political grandstanding.

    And by the way a robot that can do household chorse has been the dream of roboticists since the 60s. Heinlein even wrote a book about it.

    What is killing us is entitlements, not science projects.

    Shit like this? guys like Tom Coburn? This only helps distract people from the real problems. It only allows people to pretend that it’s possible to cut enough discretionary spending to AVOID dealing with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, farm subsidies, and the rest of it.

    1. Chorse. Is that a robot horse that does tasks around the home? Because I like that idea.

      I have to say that one of the reasons I’m a little (only a little) less opposed to some science/technology funding, is that it may lead to some serious improvements in our way of life. Unlike virtually anything else the government funds or does. I’m a techno-optimist.

      1. Well, Ayn Rand said that the space program would be at the bottom of the list of things to cut.

        That’s probably because she was a romantic though. Not that she’s ever admit it.

        1. I remember reading Apollo and Dionysus, and she referenced a few of her pro-space articles. I thought it was a little contradictory, but admittedly, NASA is better than a lot of government agencies (at least when it has congress’s boot on it’s neck).

          1. Ayn Rand believed that the U.S. missile program was a legitimate function of government, e.g. defense. She would have preferred a private space exploration program but she recognized that the enormous outlay of private capital necessary to achieve it would have made it prohibitive at the time. Only a government, with its massive taxing authority, could afford such an undertaking. Having said that, she preferred that the expropriated monies, if they were going to be expropriated, went to scientific research rather than dumped down the black hole of the various “war on” social programs.

            1. Wow. I agree with just about all of that. Not that suprising, but cool.

              1. From “Apollo 11” (The Objectivist, Sept. 1969):

                “Is it proper for the government to engage in space projects? No, it is not–except insofar as space projects involve military aspects, in which case, and to that extent, it is not merely proper, but mandatory. Scientific research as such, however, is not the proper province of the government.

                But this is a political issue; it pertains to the money behind the lunar mission or to the method of obtaining that money, and to the project’s administration; it does not effect the nature of the mission as such, it does not alter the fact that this was a superlative technological achievement.

                If the government deserves any credit for the space program, it is only to the extent that it did not act as a government, i.e., did not use coercion in regard to its participants (which it used in regard to its backers, i.e. the taxpayers). And what is relevant in this context (but not to be taken as a justification or endorsement of a mixed economy) is the fact that of all our government programs, the space program is the cleanest and best: it, at least, has brought the American citizens a return on their forced investment, it has worked for its money, it has earned its keep; which cannot be said about any other program of the government.”

        2. I was more for the space program when it was less political bullshit. Unfortunately, that became its primary purpose decades ago. What was the total cost of the ISS–$150 billion? Really? That was necessary for any reason other than political?

          Let’s see what it costs for SpaceX (most likely) and Bigelow to build some space hotels. Bet it’s WAAAAAAAAAY south of $150 billion.

          1. Space program has pretty much always been political bullshit. Hence the vaginaless woman on the Voyager plaque and the unjustifiable continued use of astronauts when unmanned missions are much cheaper and able to go many more places.

            1. No, no, there’s a reason she has no vagina. We don’t want aliens breeding with our women.

              1. The reason she has no vagina is because she was drawn by engineers. They’re only going off of vague descriptions of what the guy at the Cape Canaveral filling station says a woman looks like.

                1. The reason she has no vagina is because she was drawn by engineers.

                  *80s Movie Slow Clap*

          2. Having worked in the industry, as a government contractor on ISS, my guess is a factor of 10. At least.

            Iridium cost Motorola $5 billion.
            Now, granted there’s no life support system, but that’s still multiple launches, which is the largest fixed cost of any space structure. And 70 some satellites.

            IMO, you could build that space hotel for $15 billion, easily. It really shouldn’t cost all that much to build ONE large cylinder, outfit it with some life support equipment and shove it up there on a heavy booster. You mgiht even be able to get away without space suits. Maybe have some basic thing for emergencies, but nobody seriously thinks that a space suit is going to save anyone in case of an accident. Any pressure leaks that aren’t catestrophic will be slow enough to allow people to work with oxygen masks. Instead of a space suit, develop some sort of sealing gel that will get sucked into leak holes and clog them.

            1. develop some sort of sealing gel that will get sucked into leak holes and clog them.

              Well, we’ve got that figured out for tires, how hard could it be to do it on a space station?

              1. Zero-g and vacuum are the issues.

                ISS pricetag is guessimated at up to $160 billion, but that’s probably lowballed. Accordign to Wikipedia, it was completed today.

                1. Accordign to Wikipedia, it was completed today.

                  *laughing so hard I’m gonna cry*

            2. Bigelow is talking inflatables, too, which should allow for larger stations with lower mass.

              1. Falcon Heavy for the launcher = even more mass to be lifted.

                Plus, it’s cheaper than what NASA and the DoD use now. Saves taxpayer dollars and helps out the private spaceflight industry at the same time.

                1. The great thing about SpaceX is they are vertically integrated. Which means they are redeisgning all the bullshit job-multiplying goverment-makework generating bad technology that NASA has produced over the years.

                  Seriously, everything is going to have to be resdeigned from first principles to get that factor of 10, but they will get it.

              2. Rather than inflatables filled with gas, how about using that spray-insulation? Won’t need to maintain pressure that way. Weighs more though. Fucking trade-offs.

                1. We need to get our materials from space, not from the bottom of the Earth’s gravity well.

                  1. One you’re out of the gravity well, everything is easier.

                    We could get most everything off the Moon, except nitrates. Otherwise, a space colony could be built of pure lunarian materials (not an expert, though). Build a mass driver, powered by a nuclear power plant (or helium-3 fusion, or solar during the bright two weeks), and you could move some serious mass to Earth orbit.

        3. she [Rand] was a romantic though. Not that she’s ever admit it.

          Huh? Have you ever read her anthology, The Romantic Manifesto? Or taken into consideration that her fiction is firmly grounded in the Romantic school of literature? Perhaps you meant to say that Rand would never “admit to” having emotions? But that’s silly. From the Playboy interview, March 1964:

          “An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man’s value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man’s reason and his emotions?provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows?or makes it a point to discover?the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow?then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction?his own and that of others.”

          1. “Just as your body has two fundamental sensations, pleasure and pain, as signs of its welfare or injury, as a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death, so your consciousness has two fundamental emotions, joy and suffering, in answer to the same alternative. Your emotions are estimates of that which furthers your life or threatens it, lightning calculators giving you a sum of your profit or loss. You have no choice about your capacity to feel that something is good for you or evil, but what you will consider good or evil, what will give you joy or pain, what you will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on your standard of value. Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it. If you choose a mix of contradictions, it will clog your motor, corrode your transmission and wreck you on your first attempt to move with a machine which you, the driver, have corrupted.”

            From John Galt’s speech.

      2. She meant to say household horse: the street-level heroin any hausfrau can get her hands on. Once we have a robot capable of doing low-quality heroin, we’ll be living in the future.

        1. Robotic drug dealers. They’ve got subs, why not robots?

          1. Pretty high quality subs, too.


    2. I always wondered: is your tag a Heinlein tribute?

      1. Yes. 🙂

  30. It’s JELLO wrestling – not “jellow wrestling”

    1. I thought that, too.

  31. Hmm…Although I can see the outrage about porn surfing and the farmville research. Don’t you think the robotic report is a little bit biased? It takes 25 minutes now, because they are just learning how to teach machines about fine movements. This is the first generation of robots that can do this, making it the main focus seems kind of dumb.

  32. Hmm…Although I can see the outrage about porn surfing and the farmville research. Don’t you think the robotic report is a little bit biased? It takes 25 minutes now, because they are just learning how to teach machines about fine movements. This is the first generation of robots that can do this, making it the main focus seems kind of dumb.

    1. The problem isn’t that the robot is currently a bit slow at folding towels. First you figure out how to create a proof of concept prototype and make it do something useful, no matter how slow it does it, then figure out how to make it do that much faster, then how to make it profitable enough to displace human labor.

      The problem is that the government is funding this, and so it’ll cost a buttload more to get to a marketable product than if you left it up to a more or less free marketplace seeking to turn a buck.

      1. Then all the snickering about folding a towel in 25 minutes is completely ignorant and besides the point, yes?

        And government granted monopoly in ideas through patent law is at least as questionable in terms of free and efficient markets as direct government funding of research.

    2. BTW, the Jello wrestling was privately funded – but Farmville? It seemed that just about everyone with an office job was playing Farmville all day. Certainly, when my boss wasn’t yelling at me for not working fast enough, he was playing Farmville on his work computer.

      But I don’t think it helped him with his socializing or whatnot. Pretty much everybody thought he was a first-class jerk. Looks like the NSF will have to go back to the drawing-board. (Do they even have drawing-boards these days?)

  33. sorry for double post.

  34. Dr. Robert Stadler would approve of such spending.

  35. One of the most ignorant articles ever on Reason.

    The key milestone for any technology is to be able to complete a complex task *at all*. Now we can fold a towel in 25 minutes. That’s about a zillion years sooner than our previous mechanical record. Improving on the speed, accuracy, cost, etc., is just a matter of time.

    1. I suspect that it’s less about how quickly Rosie the Robot folds a towel and more about whether the government should be fronting this kind of investment with our money.

      Oh, wait, they spent our money early in the fiscal year. Now they’re borrowing money for shit like this.

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