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3 October 2023

DIREC Interview: Professor Henrik Christensen on developments in robot technology  

Professor and director of the Contextual Robotics Institute, Henrik Christensen from UC San Diego, recently visited Denmark. We met the world-renowned robotics expert for a discussion on Danish tech research compared to American and Swedish research and on the next major advancements in robotics technology.

He began his career as a researcher at Aalborg University and later moved to Stockholm as head of the Center for Autonomous Systems at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

His career led him to the United States, where Henrik Christensen has held several prominent roles at world-leading universities. Today, he is a researcher and head of the Contextual Robotics Institute at the University of California San Diego. Additionally, he is an entrepreneur and investor.

Recently, he visited Aarhus for the Robot Festival ‘Wild Robots,’ where he was invited as a keynote speaker. We caught up with him to discuss the development of robotics technology and the prospects of using robot technology in areas such as healthcare, the green transition, and more.

First, we asked him about the differences that characterize research environments in Denmark, Sweden, and the USA and how Denmark can strengthen its position on the international research scene.

What is the biggest difference between conducting tech research in Denmark and abroad, and what can we learn from the USA and Sweden?

“In the USA, all research is extremely results-focused. You have to be sharp on the impact of your research project and ensure that you publish the results in the most reputable journals to maximize its impact. Focus is constantly on how your project can make a difference and where your research can have the most significant impact. Mainstream research is uninteresting in the USA.”

In Sweden, there is a long tradition of academic research environments, and it is largely one university that sets the agenda for tech research, he explains.

“The Royal Academy of Science dominates tech research in Sweden. In Denmark, we have a tradition where each university individually defines its priorities, with less focus on the big picture. In Denmark, we are good at ensuring that we conduct research relevant to the industry in the long term, but we are less focused on the long-term strategic impact of tech research.”

Is it about thinking bigger when you have a large budget and is, for example, a university like Berkeley? Does it matter for research whether you have a large or small research budget?

“Of course. I am co-director of a large AI and automation institute with a budget of $25 million. There are not many places in Denmark with a budget of that size, and that is just one of 25 centers in the USA, so we are talking about a lot of money, and the research budget is even larger if we include the defense industry.”

“My impression is that in Denmark, the overall research strategy is less clear. In Sweden, you have companies like Saab, Volvo, Ericsson, and all the pharmaceutical companies that handle industrial research, and then you leave the long-term strategic research to the universities. Companies support universities financially, but the requirement is that universities think big and long-term. My sense is that Denmark does not have the same strategic focus as the USA and Sweden. We have Novo Nordisk and LEGO and a few other heavyweight companies, but compared to the USA, there are not many. Therefore, there is not the same pressure from the industry to influence the overall research strategy or to be involved in deciding who does what.”

As a professor and head of the Contextual Robotics Institute, Henrik Christensen is at the forefront of robotics research, including the development of autonomous robots that integrate advanced artificial intelligence and sensors, used in industries, healthcare, and society as a whole.

From your perspective, what are robot researchers currently most focused on, and what major breakthroughs have propelled research forward?

“We are seeing significant advancements in materials research and nanotechnology. Now it is possible to create a hand that can feel using sensors, and we can integrate 3D printing and materials. This has enabled us to create much more embodied robots than we ever imagined we could.”
“We have made great progress in sensors. If you need to integrate five cameras on a robot, it is not a problem, and at the same time, we have enormous computing power. Sensors, computing power, AI, deep learning, and language-based models have completely revolutionized tech research. We are working with datasets of a size we never imagined.”

What knowledge are we lacking for robots to truly make a difference, for example, in healthcare and eldercare?

“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we have so far solved the ‘easy problems.’ We can create better pattern algorithms, behavior analysis, and we can predict where people will be in 50 seconds, so if they are seen in the hall, the robot can navigate around them. But the truly constructive, usable user interfaces are more challenging, and we typically leave them to a computer science professor.”

“Computer scientists are good at certain things, but we have weaknesses and blind spots when it comes to the world and people. That is a limitation. We need help to build much more usable models, and that requires involving other disciplines if robots are to become a more common part of everyday life, such as in healthcare and elderly care. We need to involve individuals who have a more practical approach to research and understand cognitive behavior, interaction patterns, and so on.”

We have discussed specific technologies that are advancing rapidly, especially AI and robotics technology. Which trends would you point out as particularly interesting for today’s tech entrepreneurs?

“As a tech entrepreneur, you need to be aware that it takes much longer to work with and secure investments for robotics technology companies compared to companies based on AI. Robotics technology involves hardware and typically takes a long time to develop. If I were to point out particularly interesting areas in robotics technology, it would be robotically controlled limbs and cyber-physical systems – that is, complex systems that integrate computers, networks, and physical components to monitor and control physical processes.”

“Geographically, it is more challenging to secure venture capital in Europe than in the USA. In the USA, there are hundreds of venture firms ready with risk capital, while the approach in Europe is more cautious. Initiatives are underway to ensure better venture capital in Europe, and within a few years, we will see more multinational investment firms turning their attention to Europe because there are untapped opportunities here.”

You can watch the entire interview with Henrik Christensen here.