26-10-2017

Innovation happens in the cross field between research and practice

Niche products and public-private partnerships must drive the development of robot technology, artificial intelligence, and automation. That is the opinion of the two leading professors from the Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute at University of Southern Denmark, who present their take on the Danish and European work with robots, AI, and automation in this article.

Three men met at a bar in Japan to talk about robots. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke but in this case, it’s the opposite.

In the end of the 1990’s three researchers in robot technology and automation came to talk over a beer on a trip to Japan. The three agreed upon that Europe was in many ways just as good as the Japanese, when it came to research and innovation in robot technology – there was just not really anyone who knew about the knowledge and competences that Europe possessed.

Common solution through euRobotics
John Hallam is a professor in artificial intelligence at the Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute at University of Southern Denmark. The research centre is internationally acknowledged for application-oriented research – work that is an important part of the development which has made Odense one of the few global points of references for robot technology, automation, and artificial intelligence.

- The conversation in Japan became the starting point of what today is euRobotics, tells John Hallam and continues:

- There was a consensus that we were missing a common organisation in European research and the industry’s use of robots, AI (artificial intelligence ed.), and automation. Therefore, EUROP and EURON became constituted in Europe, the two networks are now merged together to euRobotics, and University of Southern Denmark took part in founding it, he tells.

euRobotics is a non-profit organisation, which unites all European organisations and businesses that work with robot technology. One of the most important functions for the organisation is to bring recommendations to the European Commission’s work with the framework programme Horizon2020 and the funds that the Commission prioritizes to the area of robot technology.

The problem is time and flexibility
The European Commission allocates in the years to come over 700 million euros to support projects with focus on robots and automation. Supplemented with private investments of billions of euros, Europe stands strong in the field, John Hallam tells. However, he sees the current two-year time frame the Commission’s calls cover, as a practical challenge.

- The problem is that we have no idea, where we stand in two years. The development in AI, robots, and automation is so fast that it is simply impossible to see the horizon. So, even though we in Europe and Odense are ahead compared to the rest of the world, the problem is time and flexibility, John Hallam explains.

Research and practice
The current agenda for euRobotics is according to John about making the research even more application-oriented.

- It is clear that innovation happens in field between research and practice. Roughly speaking, research is about converting money to knowledge – and innovation then occurs when knowledge becomes money in the businesses. And it is fantastic to be part of the world-class robot universe that has been created in Odense, he tells.

Article (in Danish): Robot-boom i Odense

Cross-cutting partnerships are vital
The collaboration between the business community, the public authorities, and the research community is also something that professor Henrik Gordon Petersen from the Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute sees as a crucial innovation factor.

- Many of our current projects are bound to collaborations with the business community, he tells.

- We work closely with multiple businesses in Odense and organisations such as Danfoss and Danish Crown. One of our current research projects is about the handling of meat in slaughter houses – and to implement our knowledge in a specific industry is something that we and the businesses learn a lot from, Henrik Gordon Petersen tells.

The public-private partnerships – and partnerships across Europe – are essential for keeping Europe in the top of the global work with robots and automation. This states Eric Björklund, who works as EU-consultant at the South Denmark European Office. He represents  The University of Southern Denmark in Brussels.

- According to the European Commission 25 percent of all the world’s industry robots are produced in Europe. When we are speaking about professional service robots the number is 50 percent. This market position is to great extend based on the background of a common European effort that must be maintained to keep Odense and the rest of Europe in the top globally, says Eric Björklund.

Long views to the robot butler
Developing niches are according to John Hallam a significant factor, if there should continue to be research, jobs and growth in the European work with robot technology and automation.

- We often speak about AI and robots as a potential danger. They steal our jobs and become smarter than us. Here we must remember that intelligence is many different things. The fact is that robots are machines that so far only have done, what humans have ordered them to. The robot vacuum cleaner – the most sold robot in the world – is a fantastic example of this. It is designed to a specific task, a niche, which it solves perfectly. It does not work as a multifunctional robot butler, but is created to a definite task, he explains and continues:

- A good robot is only functional, when it is adapted to the environment it is part of. And therefore, it does not only take capable programmers and engineers in the phase of development and implementation. We also need experiences and competences from the end-users, skilled constructors and other professional competences, when we develop new robot technological products and services to the industry, the health sector, people’s home, and much more. And we stand very strong here, when we collaborate in and outside Denmark, he ends.