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Social robots on the rise in the Netherlands


Dutch futurologist Mike van Rijswijk of The Innovation Playground was one of the first to see the opportunities and possibilities of robots in the Netherlands, and while he believes strides have been made in the acceptance of robots by humans, he said it is just the beginning of a new era. 

Van Rijswijk loves robots, ever since he had them as toys in his childhood and saw them on television in shows like The Jetsons“I don’t care much for cars, but I can get very excited by robots,” he laughed. “At a certain point, you actually see robotic systems being developed and all kinds of startups springing up in this area. I realised that if robots could become self-learning, they have great potential.” 

Van Rijswijk brought the humanoid robot NAO – developed by France’s Aldebaran Robotics – to the Netherlands in 2015 to investigate the opportunities and possibilities for robots in the country.  “Few people were open to the use of robots, especially in healthcare. I think there were only two or three administrators with whom you could discuss the subject at all.”

One of those directors was Greet Prins, then chairman of the board of directors of the Philadelphia Zorg Foundation, which provides care for the disabled in the Netherlands. “I was already fascinated by the robot, Alice, that had been developed by the Free University of Amsterdam in 2015, to support, among other things, the care of the elderly,” she wrote in the preface of the book People become robots, robots become people, which Mike van Rijswijk recently published.

After a demonstration of NAO by Van Rijswijk, Prins decided to purchase a robot for the care organisation. “Especially in that initial period, we had to break through a lot of resistance from people,” he said. “That was a real struggle, because many people saw robots as a piece of plastic with a printed circuit board. And people still tend to look at robots in that way, although fortunately this has been diminishing in recent years.”

There is now a great deal of knowledge about robots in the Netherlands, but it is not always shared openly, said Van Rijswijk. “Much of the knowledge is held by university institutions, little is published about it, so the ordinary Dutch people don’t get it.”

The TU in Delft, for example, has already gone a long way in developing robotic hands with incorporated tendons. This is important for fine motor skills and will ensure an even broader applicability of robots in the future, he predicted. “Robotisation is of course very broad, because it has been used in logistics for years, and think of the industrial robots that assemble cars, for example, or cooking robots.” Van Rijswijk hopes that these kinds of robots will help in the acceptance of the more humanoid robots such as those used in healthcare, for example.  

Social robot platform 

“We are at an important crossroads,” he said. “In the Netherlands, we like to look to countries such as Japan, Taiwan and Singapore when it comes to developing and building humanoid robots. But in fact, that is mainly the hardware and we notice that we have to do a lot of expectation management.

“When people order a robot and unpack it, they expect it to be able to do all sorts of things and communicate right away. But the crux of the matter is that there are very few applications and software for robots.”

It is remarkable that the Netherlands leads the market in this area and that Japan, Taiwan and Singapore are looking at how organisations in the Netherlands are developing platforms for robotics. The Innovation Platform has also developed a social robot platform.

“We deliberately chose to build a closed ecosystem in which robots communicate one-on-one with access points in their environment,” said Van Rijswijk. “After all, security is a major and complex issue when it comes to controlling robots, especially when they are deployed in vulnerable environments such as healthcare.” 

Raindrops coming together 

He expects the acceptance of robots by the Dutch to accelerate as they become more affordable and more capable.

“New technology is often associated with change and people naturally look at this with suspicion,” said Van Rijswijk. “But as soon as people realise the advantages that new technology and developments can offer them, these suspicious eyes are quickly closed. Once innovations start to deliver convenience, they are quickly accepted by society.”

In his book, he clearly sets out various technological developments that will come together at some point in the future and thus bring about major changes.

“I compare it to raindrops on a window,” said Van Rijswijk. “You see one slide down and join another one. This larger drop then slides to a third. At a certain point, the drop becomes so heavy that it slides down in an orbit, taking everything in its path with it.”  

He predicted that robots will also be part of this principle. “I think there will soon be multiple forms of life with which we can build a relationship. I can already see this in my own children. Whereas adults still often see a robot as a piece of plastic, the social robot that my son grew up with really is his very best friend.”

Van Rijswijk also said that in time we will even marry people in the digital world.

“We often make assumptions, especially when it comes to social robots with clients, but in practice we see time and time again that people get a feeling with social robots,” he said.

Van Rijswijk added that new employees of the social robot team at The Innovation Playground are given the robot to take home for a week.

“Everyone, really everyone, says ‘Good morning’ to the robot after two or three days,” he said. “Even the biggest sceptic. That is what such a robot does to you, and I think that is a huge eye-opener and something we should not underestimate.”

Dangers of robots 

When these raindrops come together, Van Rijswijk expects digital people to emerge. “You can already see that with Meta Human from Unreal Engine,” he said. “They offer a 3D software platform that edits a lifelike human in no time. When we add the calculating power of quantum computers and data sets of clients, for example, Unreal Engine will be able to create digital people who are needed in healthcare and who meet the wishes and needs of the client.

“Although for many people this still seems like a distant future, the futurologist predicts that the Netherlands will be at this stage in the about five years.

“That also brings with it dangers and other challenges,” said Van Rijswijk. “Think of the ethical question of whether you can give a patient in care a robot buddy, but when the budget runs out, you can just as easily take that buddy away again.

“What does that do to people? It has implications for purchase and maintenance. But we also need to take steps in the area of safety. A robot dog is especially cute, but when robots are deployed that are just as big as we are and whose control can be taken over by malicious persons, what then? We need to discuss this with our society.”

Mike van Rijswijk wrote the book ‘People become robots, robots become people’, in which he provides insight into technological developments that will transform the world as we know it. The book is not yet available in English, but can be ordered in Dutch. 

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