Jewish World Review April 5, 2011 1 Nissan, 5771
Robots in Congress? Yes, we replicant!
By Dana Milbank
Now she is taking her affection for things robotic to Capitol Hill. "ROBOTS INVADE CAPITOL!" proclaimed the headline of a news release from her office dated April 1.
It was no joke: On Monday afternoon in a Senate hearing room, she and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) stood watching four robots, each about 12 feet tall from the tips of their wheels to the tops of their claws.
The four creatures made an awful racket, crashing into one another and spinning in circles whining as they moved and releasing gas with pneumatic pops. It was, in other words, very much like the floor of the Senate. Only with one obvious difference: "There's a purpose here," Shaheen explained.
The purpose was to highlight a national high school competition, founded by the inventor Dean Kamen, in which kids build and operate robots to see whose can hang the most inner tubes on a pole. The robots are sponsored by corporations such as Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Exxon Mobil just like members of Congress.
But the robots, at least, performed their task well, so much so that voters might consider sending more of them to Washington in place of flesh-and-blood lawmakers. "What's nice about robots," Kamen said, "is they are rational."
Certainly robots could do no worse at governing than their human counterparts. While human lawmakers spend most of their time at home raising money, robots would not complain about being in Washington to do the people's business.
Many legislative activities could be handled better by robots. The Republicans' reflexive and contradictory criticism of President Obama's Libya policy Too fast! Too slow! Too weak! Too aggressive! Not enough consultation! Too much consultation! Too limited! A quagmire! could just as easily be generated mechanically. Menial tasks such as filibusters, or applauding at the State of the Union address, also could be handled by robots, with less showboating. Robots could develop algorithms to reach compromise on the budget and if not, they could fight it out the way they did on the old TV show "Robot Wars."
The robots may have already reached further into government than people realize. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has some striking similarities to Linguo, the know-it-all robot from "The Simpsons" who corrects grammar. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has much in common with Rosie, the Jetsons' robotic housekeeper: She's obsolete but still beloved.
Henry Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House commerce committee, might see himself in WALL-E, a diminutive movie robot who tries to save the world but is befriended only by a cockroach. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is as menacing to Democrats as fembots were to Austin Powers.
Other humanoids on Capitol Hill are plagued by chronic malfunction. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) takes a long time to warm up. The Senate president, Joe Biden, won't respond to operator commands. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) requires excessive maintenance, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) frequently overheats and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has spambot tendencies.
On the other side of the dome, CantorBot is constantly trying to jam the electronics of BoehnerBot, which is rusty from overexposure to the elements. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who wrote the House Republicans' budget plan, is well-oiled but prone to dangerous maneuvers that endanger his colleagues.
Americans might find it efficient to scrap such problematic models and replace them with specimens such as those on display at Shaheen's robot festival in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
These machines, created by high school kids, have names such as "Junkyard Warrior," and they performed their tasks without protest and without ceremony. Robot 768 quietly racked up inner tubes until it was called to the sidelines for a battery change. Robot 2377, whose parts include a mousetrap, put forth full effort even after dropping three inner tubes and crashing into a pole. Robot 888 did not complain even when its "minibot" malfunctioned.
"Are we really going to get to drive?" Shaheen asked.
The kids handed the senator the controls. Under her guidance, Robot 2377 swung suddenly to the left. Kamen ducked to get out of the way of its claws.
It was more evidence that lawmakers should step aside and let the robots handle things. Shaheen was asked whether she and her colleagues run the Congress better than robots would. "I doubt it," she admitted.
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