A robot that folds laundry is the latest lightening rod for wasteful government spending. But many science projects funded by tax dollars that seemed frivolous have led to life-saving technology. So before writing off a towel folding robot, consider these other scientific discovers that came from weird science backed by government money.
CAT Scans and MRI Digital Imaging
CAT Scans and MRIs are used to diagnose deadly diseases and cancer. The imaging technology that turns raw data into readable pictures was born from the Apollo moon program that was funded by NASA. The multi-million dollar space race spawned a lot of useful technology. Digital imaging is just one example, although at the time it seemed wasteful and not-necessary.
Smoke detectors are credited with saving countless lives. This $19 device was born from Skylab, a 1970’s space station built using millions of American tax dollars. NASA developed a smoke and fire detector technology for Skylab that some considered overkill. But it became the heart of this life-saving household gadget.
Wright Brother were Right
The government often missed the boat and denied funding for projects that would become big technology with huge social impact. But in this case, they missed the flight.
We glamorize the discoveries of the Wright brothers and their flying machines. But the skies were not always friendly for the pioneers of flight. They were refused government funding and even the US military turned a deaf ear to the brothers.
After their Kitty Hawk success, the Wrights flew their machines in open fields for almost a year in Dayton, Ohio. But American authorities refused to come to the demos and Scientific American Magazine published stories about “The Lying Brothers.” Eventually the Wrights relocated to Europe where they became an overnight sensation and sold aircraft contracts to France, Germany, and Britain.
The video of this Rosie-the-robot doing the domestic chore of folding laundry is sped up by 50 times. The actually pace is almost glacial taking about 8 minutes to fold a single hand towel. But this technology could represent advances in artificial intelligence that could greatly benefit other areas such as medical diagnosis and security systems.
There has always been a strong temptation to laugh at science. We poke fun at the high school geek, but he (or she) is most likely the one who grows up and makes a technological breakthrough. The former class nerds could use government funding for science that might not get the attention of investors. But their discoveries could lead to techniques that save lives and improve our standard of living.
Start in the 1980’s our mentality shifted toward profit based. Everything, including human life, was seen in terms of cost. And success was measured by the bottom-line. If a project produced profit it was good. But if profits could not be tabulated on a spreadsheet then it was deemed of little value. But short-term profit thinking can have big costs in terms of long-tern vision. And cutting costs is not the same is increasing efficiency.
It is important as citizens that we hold out government accountable for how they spend our money. But it is just a critical that we keep those in check who try to squelch “big picture” progress to advance their short-sighted political agendas.