AI News, U.S. Senator Calls Robot Projects Wasteful. Robots Call Senator Wasteful

U.S. Senator Calls Robot Projects Wasteful. Robots Call Senator Wasteful

Berkeley computer science professor Pieter Abbeel, one of the researchers behind the project, told me that the towel folding experiment was just a small part of a much broader effort aimed at creating robots that can handle the complexities of real environments.

Towel folding is just a first, small step towards a new generation of robotic devices that could, for example, significantly increase the independence of elderly and sick people, protect our soldiers during combat, and a host of other applications that would revolutionize our day-to-day lives.'

The goal of the project, which received a $300,000 NSFaward, is to understand the design parameters that could lead to bikes that are safer and easier to control by different groups of people and for different tasks.

The researchers are using a bike equipped with sensors [photo above] and also building a robotic bicycle to identify the parameters that their models need to take into account.

The organizers, Jennifer Kay, a computer scientist at Rowan University, and Tom Lauwers, a robotics entrepreneur, say the goal of the event was to 'introduce robot programming to the nearly 1200 educators attending the conference, and to raise awareness amongst participants of how robots could be used in their classrooms.'

They say that despite evidence that robots can be used as educational tools to excite and motivate students, only a tiny fraction of educators have ever programmed a robot or tried them in their classrooms.

(Just for reference, that's one-fifth of what the Senate Hair Care Revolving Fund spent last year.) And yes, Kay and Lauwers say, the event was designed to be fun: 'Perhaps the Robot Hoedown and Rodeo was singled out because it has an intentionally eye-catching name, and because on the surface it appears 'fun.' Indeed in his report Senator Coburn states, 'Videos of the event posted to YouTube suggest the effort was a source of enjoyment for observers.' It is precisely this 'fun' which our program aims to associate with Computer Science education, so that our current students will choose to become the future researchers that make the kinds of transformative discoveries that improve our society and our economy.'

Among other things, he calls for the NSF to defund its social and behavioral sciences division and sharpen its focus on 'truly transformative sciences with practical uses outside of academic circles and clear benefits to mankind and the world.'

(Full disclosure:IEEESpectrum has collaborated with the Directorate for Engineering of the National Science Foundation to coproduce 'Robots for Real,' an award-winning special report with clear benefits to mankind and the world.) But picking 'winners'is a challenge even for experienced NSF program managers and the scientists who help the agency review its grant applications.

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn Report Shows Taxpayer Money Spent on Robots That Fold Laundry, Shrimp on Treadmills

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

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

Lots of people love to use FarmVille on Facebook, but lots of people probably don't love the government's spending $300,000 in taxpayer money to study whether it helps build personal relationships.

The National Science Foundation has its headquarters in Arlington, Va., just across the river from Washington, D.C., a building it pays $19 million a year to rent.

'We have 12 different agencies doing pure research, and we're duplicating and we're not sharing the information across and it's siloed,' he said.

Agency officials said they 'have advanced the frontiers of science and engineering, improved Americans' lives, and provided the foundations for countless new industries and jobs.'

Senate Report Finds Billions in Waste on Science Foundation Studies

Scientific studies conducted in the public interest appear to have veered off course, according to a new report that documents government-sponsored research gems such as having shrimp walk on tiny treadmills to measure the impact of sickness on crustaceans.

Among them, $2 million to analyze 38 million photos on Flickr and cross-reference them against the site's social networking service.

and a $1.5 million grant for scientists to design a robot that can fold laundry -- at a rate of one towel every 25 minutes.

Coburn said he's concerned the 50-year-old NSF -- the independent government agency tasked with managing research grants for America's higher education institutions -- may have strayed from its core scientific mission.

said Public Affairs Director Dana Topousis, and its discoveries have "advanced the frontiers of science and engineering, improved Americans' lives, and provided the foundations for countless new industries and jobs."

"While no agency is without flaws, NSF has been diligent about addressing concerns from members of Congress about workforce and grant management issues, and NSF's excellent record of tracking down waste and prosecuting wrongdoing is apparent from Sen. Coburn's report.

At the same time as Coburn's report, another report released by the Government Accountability Office documented costly duplication of services occurring across the federal government.

Congress says your work is wasteful. Now what?

Psychologist Anne McLaughlin can’t remember exactly how she found out that her work on improving older adults’ cognitive function with video games had been featured in Summertime Blues, a 2010 report by senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ) about projects that “give taxpayers the blues.” Maybe it was a colleague who came to her office to tell her, or an email from a reporter asking for comment—she’s not sure.

“If it’s a funny looking marine animal moving around, or anything on a treadmill, people are familiar with that,” and therefore feel qualified to decide whether it’s valuable, he says.

(Other animals-on-treadmill studies that have been mentioned in Wastebooks include research on mountain lions, monkeys, and fish.) Likewise, McLaughlin suspects that Wastebook compilers were drawn to two unconventional words in her National Science Foundation (NSF) grant abstract: video games.

But if using an opaque phrase like “complex electronic tasks” would throw off Wastebook compilers, it would also be inscrutable to others outside the research realm, says McLaughlin, who strives to communicate her science to a variety of audiences.

Impenetrable academic writing—which is sometimes unavoidable in grant applications and journal articles—can also contribute to Wastebook compilers misinterpreting a research project’s question, outcomes, and funding sources.

She is also considering using more precise language to describe her funding after her second appearance in the Wastebook, in 2012, cited work that was funded by a small grant from her institution, not the federal government.

Of the many media outlets that covered her paper detailing her discovery of the oldest known vocal organ specimen found in an ancient bird fossil, several took liberties in their interpretations of its results.

“I’ll always remember the first thing he said to me: ‘If you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re probably not doing anything important.’” She also received letters of support from her dean and provost reiterating their commitment to supporting faculty members and their research.

The manager said NSF was “used to this kind of attack” and told her that they’d already written a white paper clarifying the goals and cost of Clarke’s grant, but Clarke has not yet seen this document.

Clarke says she recommends reaching out to the funding agency because it’s a good way to make sure that “the relevant people have a rebuttal of the statements in hand, that they have an actual description of science to refute the [Wastebook’s] representations,” she says.

Learning to deal with and respond to the media attention that a Wastebook mention can generate is valuable in and of itself, notes Tommy Blanchard, a data scientist at Fresenius Medical Care in Waltham, Massachusetts, whose graduate work studyingrhesus macaques’ decision-making made the cover of the 2014 Wastebook.

But the experience taught him what to expect from media interviews, and his university’s memos to the media about the Wastebook mention gave him a behind-the-scenes look at how university communications offices handle media requests and public statements.

They’d tell me, ‘Oh yeah, I see you’re wasting all the money in science.’” Blanchard says the Wastebook made for an easy conversational touch point and gave him an in to talk with professors he may not have otherwise connected with.

Scholnick’s lab’s relationship with local fishermen is just one example of how science and basic research can touch people’s everyday lives, a message Scholnick wishes to convey beyond the scientific community.

“People want to know, ‘What are you using my money for?’ Scientists need to get better at communicating that with the public.” Correction, 19 June, 3:30 p.m.: The original version of this article stated that Tommy Blanchard studied capuchin monkeys.

Citizens Against Government Waste America's #1 Taxpayer Watchdog

Among other findings, Sen. Coburn’s report revealed $65 million in taxpayer money wasted on “silly” and “dumb” projects such as $1.5 million to build a laundry-folding robot with the ability to fold a towel in 25 minutes, $500,000 to study shrimp running on a treadmill, and $300,000 to study personal relationships built through FarmVille on Facebook.

The report found that members of Congress also benefit from NSF research, including studies on “what motivates individuals to make political donations, how politicians can benefit from Internet town halls, the impact of YouTube on the 2008 U.S. elections, and how politicians use the Internet.” NSF is not lacking funds.

Some problems at NSF stem from a lack of oversight, which has resulted in questions regarding whether research conducted at the foundation truly contributes to its stated goals of furthering science, advancing medicine, and safeguarding the national defense.

NSF has an impressive history of producing valuable research with the development of the internet, barcodes and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but the Coburn report found that billions in current funds are being channeled away from innovative projects.

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