Flake Amendment Would Ban Funds for Robot Bartenders

Arizona Republican wants to prevent tax dollars from subsidizing technology viable in the private sector

Sen. Jeff Flake
Sen. Jeff Flake / Getty Images
August 22, 2018

Republican senator Jeff Flake (Ariz.) is seeking to prevent the federal government from spending tax dollars on the development of robotic bartenders.

Flake proposed an amendment on Tuesday to the 2019 Department of Defense Appropriations Act to prohibit research and development funds from being used to advance technology related to "beerbots" or "other robot bartenders."

The amendment was offered in an effort to limit taxpayer dollars from further subsidizing technology that has proved viable in the private sector.

"With the national debt now exceeding $21.4 trillion, the Department of Defense should not be making taxpayers pick up the bar tab for beerbots," Flake told the Washington Free Beacon.

The technology behind robot bartenders first stirred attention in 2013 at Google's annual developer conference in San Francisco, when Italian architect Carlo Ratti and a team of engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Senseable City Lab unveiled Makr Shakr, a three-armed robot capable of mimicking the actions of a human bartender.

Makr Shakr's Three-Armed Robotic Bartender | Makr Shakr

Makr Shakr, which allows customers to communicate directly with the machine by sending their drink recipes via a smartphone app, can mix over 10,000 different combinations. The machine has the capacity to replicate every maneuver possible by a human bartender, from shaking and pouring cocktails to slicing limes.

Makr Shakr's engineers spent an intense amount of time choreographing the machine's movements to cut down on "aggressively sharp" motions found in other "industrial robots" that might "intimidate customers and causes drinks to spill," according to Wired Magazine.

Since its initial unveiling, the company has been able to tap into a desire by employers, large and small, to offset the growing costs of human labor through automation.

In 2014, Makr Shakr announced it had entered a partnership with Royal Caribbean International to launch the world's first "bionic bar" on one of the cruise line's largest and most technologically advanced ships.

Royal Caribbean International's Bionic Bar | Makr Shakr

The company's ascendancy, buoyed in 2017 when Makr Shakr disclosed it was designing a portable bartending unit for sale on the mass market, is measured through the number of competitors spawned and the increasing prevalence of robotic bartenders in drinking establishments across Europe and the metropolitan United States.

Despite the commercial success experienced by Makr Shakr and its competitors, the federal government has continued to fund research and development into the viability of beerbots.

In 2016, the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation provided $2 million in grants to a "cooperative beer delivery robots project" being conducted at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) at MIT. The grants—only a portion of the project's total budget—were used to transform a lab on campus into a pub "with three rooms of students, another room with [a] bar, and three beerbots."

The CSAIL study was conducted with a double-armed robot, programmed to serve as a bartender, whose main function was to pick up cans of beer and hand them to two other robots serving as waiters. Upon taking possession of the beer, the waiters were tasked with traversing the three rooms in order to deliver the beverages to the waiting students.

CSAIL Beerbot | MIT

The study's goal was to see how well robots could interact together as a team to "cooperatively solve a problem."

Flake's amendment would prevent taxpayer funds from subsidizing such studies. It remains unclear, however, what would prevent research in the future from replacing alcohol with other beverages and still qualifying for federal grants, without impacting their results to any degree.

It is also uncertain if Flake's amendment will be included in the final defense appropriation being considered this week.

Flake, who is retiring from Congress this year, told Bloomberg Law on Tuesday the federal government had better ways to spend tax dollars than on robotic bartenders, especially since there was expressed interest in the subject by the private sector.

"There's just a lot of willy-nilly spending these days," the senator said. "There are beerbots in the private sector already, so why would we devote resources for this?"