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Old ideas and new robots

Higher Education Minister Morten Østergaard's speech at "European Robotics Forum" in Odense 5 March 2012.

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Thank you for the opportunity to open the European Robotics Forum. It is a great honour for Denmark to host this conference and impressive that the elite of European robotics are gathered here in Odense.

Robots represent the past, present and future. The idea of machines doing the work of people is quite old. Far back in history, people fantasised about making robots, even if they were not called robots back then.

The word robot comes from the Czech robota, meaning slave labour, and was first used in 1921. But that translation doesn't hold for today's robots. The function of robots nowadays is varied and very complex.

They are advanced instruments used everywhere and are far removed from the idea of mechanical slaves. Advanced robots are used today in traditional industry, in the service industry and in the health sector.

  • There are robots used to manufacturer and produce cars, ships and aircraft.
  • There are robots that explore volcanic gasses, dive to ocean depths and endure the freezing polar temperatures to better our knowledge of climate change.
  • There are robots in hospital operating rooms that can make smaller and more precise incisions than a scalpel, meaning that patients can recover quicker after surgery.

Robotics is rapidly developing. And it is creating new solutions that meet the needs of industry and society every day. The future of robotics has only just begun.

Europe's challenges and robotics

But allow me to focus on the present. It is no secret; Europe is faced with great challenges. Debt is high and growth is low. That is the prevailing challenge of the day. And there will be more challenges ahead.

We must solve cross-border challenges related to climate, energy, environment and security. And we are challenged by increasing global competition – from Asia and from new emerging markets.

The response to Europe's challenges is not business as usual. And that is central to the EU's proposal for its new research programme, Horizon 2020, which will be the world's largest programme with a proposed budget of 80 billion euro.

The plans for Horizon 2020 will be drawn up during the Danish Presidency. And we've already made good headway. Horizon 2020 differs from previous framework programmes in that all EU research programmes will be gathered under one large and powerful programme marked by more simplicity and flexibility.

Horizon 2020 is designed to help to bridge the gap between research and the market. And the programme is based on a challenge-driven approach and identifies the grand societal challenges in Europe. Such as climate change, energy resources, changing demographics and more intense global competition.

While Horizon 2020 differs from previous programmes, robotics still plays a key role. In the Commission's proposal for Horizon 2020, it's possible to apply for robotics funding primarily in the ICT part of the 'industrial leadership' pillar.

It is also possible to seek funding in the space part of the 'leadership in enabling and industrial technologies' section of the programme. And likewise for the section covering health as a societal challenge.

Robotics is explicitly mentioned in these three programmes. But it is likely that robotics funding can be sought within other industrial technologies and societal challenges, as robotics can be used for many different purposes.

Fundamentally, robotics fit in well with the ambitions of Horizon 2020. Robotics is a key enabling technology, which can help improve industrial competitiveness. It is also a field that can create new breakthroughs in research and can help result in new products and services. If Europe is to improve its competitiveness and retain jobs in Europe, it is crucial that we create innovative products.

Welfare technology

Robotics can also help solve grand societal challenges. Which is crucial, considering the rapidly increasing expenses, for example, in the health sector. Allow me to present a Danish example.

There is a running debate in Denmark about new technology and robots in the home care sector. Technology can help us on many levels, but of course it cannot replace everything, such as the exchange of views and communication between people.

Technology is a tool that can make things easier for us, and give us more time for communication and face-to-face interaction. By using welfare technology solutions such as a robot vacuum cleaner, we are utilising the technology to work for us – freeing up time and hands for personal care.

So robot vacuum cleaners can not only improve our daily life – they can also improve our welfare and our quality of life.

Supplementing home care with robot vacuum cleaners is not significant news. No – what is significant is that we are moving towards a larger scale, and that more people will be affected by technology's entry to the welfare sector. The robots are coming. And it's not about resisting, but utilising the technology.

The relationship between researchers and business

Denmark gives priority to research. And Danish universities, research institutions and businesses are on the European front line with robotic innovation.

Danish research institutions work closely with private businesses. It is one of our strengths. And it is also the crucial point of today's conference: that researchers and business leaders are meeting each other.

The collaboration between researchers and companies is central to robotics research. There is a tendency for researchers to focus on basic research about cognition, while industry, simply put, would rather have improved grip technology.

This type of conference is therefore a good starting point to improve collaboration. Partnerships between business and researchers are crucial for transferring research knowledge and translating it to improved business competitiveness, while meeting society's needs.

The future of robotics has only just begun. The robots are coming. And we should welcome it. I wish you all a successful and productive conference.

Thank you.

last modified Jan 11, 2022