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game changer

Maarten Steinbuch on the future of robotics

‘A robot to re-attach your finger to your hand’.

This month, Deloitte calculated that in the Netherlands alone 2 to 3 million jobs could be lost to robots, and even Dutch Vice Prime Minister Asscher warned about job losses due to robots. Maarten Steinbuch (54) is professor of Control Systems Technology at the Technical University in Eindhoven (TU/e). His incredible track record puts him at the top of his field. He and his group at the TU/e are famous for, amongst other things, their work on robotics for healthcare. Not only that, they are currently World Champions in robotic soccer. Steinbuch isn’t that worried about robots taking our jobs.

‘I think that the introduction of the computer and the Internet have had a greater impact than robots will have. Take the Internet for example. What you see is that some jobs are disappearing. Bookstores are closing, and people buy at Amazon. On the other hand a lot of other jobs are being created; for example websites and apps need to be developed. Every transition in society causes a shift. This causes pain in some sectors of the economy, but we as a society are always able to see new opportunities. We are always able to change the threat into opportunities.’

In the future our society will be inseparable from robots, because, according to Steinbuch, it already is. ‘These days we cannot buy a car that wasn’t made by a robot. If robots didn’t make cars, nobody could afford them. That goes for a lot of things we buy, such as food. Robots are already an essential part of the economy. When people think about robots they are often thinking about robots with human characteristics, but there already are a lot of industrial robots. In the near future they will slowly find their way into our homes. Your car will become a robot. Your vacuum cleaner will become a robot. In the next ten years we will see a mobile version of a robot in our homes. At first it will just give information. After that, it will be able to pick up and bring us stuff. Robots are already smarter than us at simple tasks. Take processing and searching through data. Google is a great enrichment to our lives. The latest chess robot is smarter than the best human chess player. Cars already have a lot of supporting systems that make driving safer. Systems that will correct human failure.’

The robotics projects of Steinbuch’s group show us a glimpse of what may be possible in the future. ‘We are now working on robotics for different kinds of purposes. Surgical robotics for example. We are working on a robot for eye surgery and a robot for reconstructive surgery that can re-attach a finger to a hand. We are also working on a robot for deep brain stimulation. A robot that can very accurately place electrodes in somebody’s head for the treatment of Parkinson’s or Epilepsy. Further, we are also working on a tomato picking robot and a robot that can cut meat.’

For Maarten Steinbuch, the Holy Grail in robotics is in another field. ‘I think robotics will play a big part in taking care of the elderly. What would be groundbreaking is an affordable community care robot that is robust and that can do a lot of tasks. Tasks we can now only dream of. For example, washing a human being is extremely complex. To realize something like that we need to develop robots that can truly handle multiple sensors and can handle the touch between humans and robots. To make the robots affordable and robust we need a lot of development in the fields of mechatronics and artificial intelligence. We will continue to develop the strengths we used to design our soccer robots and use them for the development of a community care robot. Of course people will object and say the elderly need human contact, but in the future we simply won’t have enough people to take care of our elderly. Besides, I think for somebody sitting alone in a room, a television that talks back is better than one that doesn’t. I think it will be enriching for these people. I think it is weird to say that a robot can’t be your friend when a recent study showed that 25% of all grown ups still sleep with a stuffed animal.’

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