Pictures: (Top) Edwin Dertien – robotics with a smile. (Bottom) Edwin and Ravi (credit: Rikkert Harink) 

If you were among the 30 or so lucky people in room 209 at the Odeon, Odense on the Thursday morning of ERF this year, you already know that Edwin Dertien brings fun and humour into robotics like very few others. Inspired by his presentation (we were there that day!) we interviewed Edwin for the newsletter. See what he has to say.  

Edwin is assistant professor at the Robotics and Mechatronics group of University of Twente, Netherlands where he mainly lectures in the Creative Technology BSc programme and Interaction Technology MSc programme. He has contributed to various projects such as PIRATE (pipe inspection robotics for gas distribution mains) TISCALI (sewer inspection) ROBOCONNECT (robotic cable splicing for power distribution) and more recently to HRI-related research such as WEAFING (EU H2020 project on EAP powered haptic wearables) and HELPER (development of a Hospital Environment Linked Pain Evaluation Robot). Outside of the university, Edwin directs a care facility for people with autism, using a FabLab inspired workshop as daily occupation and he builds robotics for stage and television, recently combining his efforts in the newly-founded Robot Theatre Lab. 

He has given two TEDx lectures, participated in numerous television shows for science education, as well as being one of the makers in the Dutch version of ‘The Big Life Fix’ in 2021, designing assistive technology for people with very specific disabilities. 

Thinking about your personal perspectives on robotics in art, culture and in education – what are the opportunities, in your opinion? What more can be done with robotics in these fields? What would you like to see and what do you imagine we are likely to see in the next ten years? 

I like the topic of robotics for STEM education – since robots only work if you combine mechanical engineering, electronics, software – usually inspired by a dose of biology or even psychology. In the past years I have been developing many robotics workshops, tutorials and lessons for primary and secondary school (or children in that age bracket) which is always fun and rewarding to do. From the technology point of view there is not always that much renewal. The last decades the topics are usually in the realm of follow-a-line, solve a maze or push each other out of the circle. Which is not a bad thing. Tech becomes cheaper and more available, sensors smarter with more integrated functionality, programming environments friendlier, etc. So it is good and necessary we persevere and continue to offer these things. Competitions like FIRST and companies like LEGO or Makeblock are doing an important job here. In every schoolchild’s curriculum there should be a robot competition, alongside with pressing flowers, dissecting owls’ pellets and reading a good book.   

Among the new 21st century skills I’m looking now at how to bring ‘prompt engineering’ and ‘critical thinking’ into the curricula – insofar as the latter can be taught. With current advancements in generative AI it becomes even more important to understand AI’s possibilities and limitations and getting the ability to ask what you need in order to get what you need. Which is a pretty academic skill at that. Even Asimov already remarked in his stories (in the 1940s and 1950s) on the skill that set ‘Spacers’ apart from earthlings: their capacity to instruct robots so that orders would be fulfilled satisfactorily. Also critically assessing and reviewing outcomes, generated materials, code, applications, awareness and avoidance of biases.  
What projects and programmes are currently working on or are in the pipeline for the future? Which past projects have given you most satisfaction? 

One of the most relevant projects currently is called ‘RoboConnect’, a project aimed at automating the process of making junctions in the electric power distribution grid. Currently this is one of the bottlenecks for energy-transition, at least in the Netherlands. Although I really like these engineering and research projects at university, their pace is usually a bit slow and steady. Which by all means is a good thing, their purpose being primarily academic research.  Sometimes however, I like to cut some corners and ‘just build’ something, which is usually more in line with time pressure in the world of theatre or film. I like the project with the design and puppeteering of robot Ravi of last year best. Ravi was designed for a children’s play, performed by a professional group of actors and musicians. The tour (with more than 50 performances) was scheduled tightly after the rehearsal and development period. At some point during that time we (I) needed to decide on the implemented control strategy, whether it was going to be good enough – and whether the lack in precision could be improved by 200 hours of training. For the control we ended up with a challenging mix of control mappings (such as valence/arousal scale for controlling the facial expressions), mapping of all gaze-related motions unto one control input, and mapping two 4-DOF robot arms using motion-track ‘scrubbing’, inspired by the single actuator driving a 1998-style Furby. Last month I had to make a simpler type of robot for a film – it was great to be able to fall back on the earlier acquired puppeteering skills while on set.  
To finish, tell us more about robotics and theatre… 

Recently I started a project called ‘The Robot Theatre Lab’ in order to combine efforts, skills and materials to develop more (and more versatile and interesting) robotics for theatre, but also the other way around: to see how theatre and the theatre environment can be used to develop (better) robots. I am developing a format where we use Improv theatre actors as a kind of ‘Simulation Engine’ for HRI scenarios. A kind of pre-flight check before a scenario-based design project heads off in the ‘funnel’. Theatre is also an excellent tool for communication and education, especially for introducing (or debating the introduction) of social robotics into application fields such as healthcare or education. It is very entertaining (and challenging) to face preconceived ideas and user expectations when interacting with robots. The Wizard-of-Oz approach in theatre (and much HRI research) might eventually bite our own tail: will artificial intelligence ever live up to the expectations we raise with the context-aware creativity a human operator can put in a device?  

And with that question left for us to ponder, it seems like a good place to stop. Thank you, Edwin Dertien.