Faculty intro: Maarten Steinbuch

29 September 2016

Now that all the faculty members are back from their training and accreditation it is only right to give them a proper introduction. Because of this we post several interviews, each with one of the faculty members introducing us to their subject matter and the research area that they are so passionate about. This time we sat down with Maarten Steinbuch, specialist in Robotics.


So tell us, who’s Maarten?

I’m a full professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. I think it’s very relevant that we contribute to the ideas of SingularityU and to the summits and all the workshops that are being organized. It is relevant to explain why we do what we do, via communication media like this YouTube video.

My role in SingularityU is to help set up the summits and give presentations at these summits. My field is robotics and I really like to talk about the work I do with my group. I also think that robotics will be a very important development in many aspects of our society. As such I think it is important that we contribute by explaining what is to come in the coming years.

Robotics is developing very fast at the moment. Just think about all the robots that can enhance the performance of a human being:

  • A good example of this is the robot we made, it is a surgical robot which improves the performance of a surgeon by a factor of ten. With the accuracy of this robot, the surgeon can do operations that are not possible otherwise. Now it will be possible to help women with breast amputations, we can restore their breast and connect the veins in a very reproducible way.
  • On the other hand we have robots in the care sector. When we become old we will need care. Care from people, but also from robots. Technology can greatly enhance the capacities of caretakers.
  • In a totally different field, we have autonomous cars. The autonomous car will be a robot in a way. We see rapid developments in smart cars that can sense more, and much faster, than humans can. If you buy a new car you already have cruise control and cameras. The automotive sector will see many more of these developments in the next 5 to 10 years.
  • With regards to industrial robots, millions of robots are already working to make our cars. This is a field that is obviously more mature than many other fields.
  • Robot vacuum cleaners didn’t work that well until now. Nowadays you see that customers are more and more satisfied with these robots. This is just the beginning; we will see many more applications of robots helping us in our daily lives.

Robots for Global Challenges

The hope is that robots can help us overcome many of the challenges that we are facing on this world. In two decades we will have to feed 9 billion people(!) I think robots in the food industry can help by making food production processes much more efficient.

With regards to energy, just think of the applications for manufacturing solar cells or wind turbines. Talking about health, the example of the surgical robot is important, but don’t forget the robots that the elderly will have at home in the coming years. I expect these robots to be economically feasible within ten years from now. In many areas, robots will help us overcome the global grand challenges.

Sounds very cool, are there also ethical questions regarding the use of robots?

If robots become smarter, we will see that we communicate with robots as if they are human. Especially the development of a robot brain gives the question “What do we expect from a robot?” Can a robot have an emotion? Do we accept a robot if he emotionally expresses himself towards us? We will have to think about these questions because these issues will certainly pop up. In this line of reasoning we’ll have to think about the use of robots in warfare. To what extend to we think it’s allowable to use autonomous robots to help us fight things that we don’t like? All these questions are very relevant; we should discuss them in our society.

In the end, our objective is to solve the Global Grand Challenges. However, with every technological development there will be new questions that pop up. Questions to which we might not like the answers. The issue of jobs is a good example of this. I believe that we will have less need for human labor in the future because machines can do many things for us. This means that we will have more spare time. We have to think about the ways that we can use that time in a useful and fulfilling way, solving the grand challenges that we face. Technological developments always have two sides, we will have to discuss both sides to make sure that we really solve the challenges that we face.

We are living in a very interesting time. The exponential development of technology is in a phase that it is just taking off. I expect that many things will change in the next 5 years, probably a lot faster than what we expect. Perhaps even faster than we can accept. Just think of what exponential development really means; 50 years ago there was no smartphone. Today everybody is looking at their smartphone. The changes that we’ll see in the coming 7,5 years will be of a similar magnitude. As will be the changes in the 3.5 years after that. These developments will go faster and faster and faster. As humans we tend to think in a linear way. This is not bad as such, but maybe we should think ahead about the things that are in development and how we can use them to solve the global challenges. We should be more open in our thinking. To keep an eye on the exponential growth of technology.

Are there any questions that you struggle with when it comes to this whirlwind of technological development?

Personally I still have many questions. Both as a researcher in robotics as in the automotive sector. I’m very interested to dig into these things with my group. One of the questions that I cannot answer is whether an artificial intelligence can have a conscience, or an emotion? Many children to whom I talk ask me: “Can a robot fall in love with me?” I usually tell them that I believe that “You can fall in love with a robot. A robot can act as if he is in love with you. But I don’t think that a robot can really feel what we as humans feel.” In reality I’m not really sure about that. That’s one of the bigger questions that I have.

The interesting thing about SingularityU, both globally as here in The Netherlands, is that we make the story clear. We start with the Global Grand Challenges, and show how technology can be used to solve these grand challenges. I think that the creation of awareness of the speed of change, awareness of the questions we need to ask, and awareness of the emerging domains, are SingularityU’s greatest assets. As SingularityU The Netherlands we can bring new perspectives on the way we should think about the challenges we’re about to face. This can help to make it more apparent how we should be prepared, as humanity, for the coming decades.

Do you see large cultural differences between the Dutch faculty and the U.S.?

If you look at culture, there are many differences between countries. The Dutch like to keep both feet on the ground. There is a large awareness of social issues in this country. We are worried about people in desperate circumstances, without food, or without money. The combination of the social focus, and keeping both feet on the ground, is a very interesting combination if you link it to SingularityU. Why? Because SingularityU started in California, a place with a huge focus on startups. We will pay more attention to ways to make the benefits of all the new technologies available. The question is not what we can do in 10 years but what can we do tomorrow. What you could do in your company for example: Ask yourself the question “How can I disrupt my own company?” These thought exercises enable you to see ways to use the possibilities of ICT and software for new business models. It will help you get a more creative mindset and inspire younger people in your company to get involved.

In the Netherlands we see a decentralization of many organizations and companies. In healthcare for example. This new way of thinking will help people see opportunities for new, more sustainable, local initiatives. It is this kind of thinking that we, at SingularityU, bring to the table when it comes to the Grand Global Challenges.

To whom are these developments most relevant?

The exponential developments are especially relevant for people working in technological areas. We see many opportunities for the Dutch manufacturing industry and the Dutch High Tech industry. That’s also the industry that I come from myself. The added value of these industries is very important for the prosperity of The Netherlands in the future. Also if you think of the services, banking, holidays, you name it; a lot of things are going the change. Ten years from now we will have much more free time. This means that we will need people that can find ways for us to spend our free time and do useful things with our time. There will be new industries capitalizing on this. In short, exponential developments will influence many layers of society. My focus is on the high tech industry and the manufacturing industry in The Netherlands. I see huge potential to use these technologies to make steps to increase profitability in these sectors.

The role of ICT in healthcare is an important change where we as patients, but also as caregivers, will experience the rapid development of personalized healthcare and wearables. Also robotics, in surgical hospitals we will see robots on a regular basis that help perform operations that are not possible yet. We could cure certain types of blindness with our eye-surgical robots.

To what extent will we see these technologies in our daily lives?

If you look at domestic situations. Those who have a vacuum cleaner at home already know how technology can help us. Personally I don’t have a house with an automatic curtain opener. In due time however, all new houses will be energy neutral, with a lot of technologies supporting you in your daily life. Thinking about the longer run, 20 or 30 years from now, we might connect our brains directly just like we connect through our phones right now. I don’t know how that will feel. Neither do I know whether we should want it. But I believe that it will happen at some point. It’s an interesting thing to think about: Extending our brains with the power of technology. What will we be capable of doing if we connect our brains to “the cloud” and to other people?

What would you recommend business leaders to do?

What I often tell companies where I speak is to try and pick 5 people from your company. Put them in an office for two hours with the assignment to be creative and try to disrupt your own company. Also find your local network, your colleagues/competitors, sit down and think about the things that you can change. Perhaps you can form a link with knowledge institutions close by, universities for example. It is important that you dare to iterate. Dare to try something out. You don’t necessarily need a huge plan for your company or invest a lot of money. Make incremental steps: try, iterate and learn. That’s the new way of developing things. We need to learn more from the things we try.

Do you have an example of this?

Suppose you have a manufacturing company and you think about the ways that robots can help you in your processes. Up to know people thought they needed to make a huge investment that would take a lot of time. Those with experience with ICT programs are already familiar with the budget overruns that come with this. So how about renting a robot instead of buying one? That’s possible! There are companies that bring a robot to your company, and you pay the service instead of paying for the robot.