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For four decades, Susanne has been shaping the digital everyday life of Danes

4 October 2023

For four decades, Susanne has been shaping the digital everyday life of Danes

Susanne Bødker’s research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has had a profound influence for decades on how we interact with technology in our daily lives and work. In September, she celebrated her 40th anniversary at Aarhus University.

Photo: Morten Koldby

IT solutions should be designed by humans for humans; digital tools should make a difference in everyday life and function like an extended arm, seamlessly integrated without us having to consciously think about it.

The research field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) plays a central role in the technology that surrounds us daily, and in the way the job market is evolving, ensuring that new IT solutions effectively support human use.

One of Denmark’s leading researchers in the HCI field is Susanne Bødker, a computer science professor at Aarhus University, honored multiple times for her research results in human-machine interaction.

Since the 1980s, this researcher from Aarhus has been involved in designing the  digital everyday life and work of the Danes, ensuring that technology develops in a constructive way and critically addresses challenges and opportunities.

Currently, she is particularly focused on how hybrid work challenges companies and employees, and how it fundamentally alters the interaction and relationship between people in a workplace, for better or worse.

– Hybrid work is only becoming more prevalent, so we need to critically consider the possibilities and limitations of technology, as well as the way we organise and lead. When a workplace with several hundred employees, for example, decides that all activities should be hybrid going forward, it imposes new demands on personnel management. It changes the very nature of work and meetings when employees must always be able to participate remotely. This affects what can be shared, when and how – it essentially changes everything participants see, hear, and experience because on the screen, we are still only ‘flat people,’ says Susanne Bødker.

Examine your organisation critically and inquisitively

When advising organisations on how to adapt to being a modern hybrid workplace, this entails considering technology, physical environments, and the managerial aspects of hybrid work.

– Companies face vastly different challenges, and the technology must be integrated into the specific context. Are you a software company with employees all over the world, struggling with the issue that people are reluctant to move to Aarhus? Are you a bank looking to replace physical customer meetings with online ones? Do you simply want people to have the freedom to work from home and only physically come into the office a few days a week? In that case, it is necessary to organise differently so people come into the office on the same days. Every company needs to address its own reality and current challenges.

Her extensive research in user interfaces and user experiences has led to new methods and theories that have gained international attention. In 2017, she received an ERC Advanced Grant of over 2 million euros from the European Research Council for research in user interfaces for complex human use of computers and the research project “Common Interactive Objects.” The goal was to explore the possibility of building open and shareable platforms and communities based on the user’s – not the computer systems’ – terms.

Most recently, she is participating in the REWORK project, funded by the Digital Research Centre Denmark. REWORK is a multidisciplinary research project where researchers, various companies, and three recognised artists explore the future of the hybrid workplace particularly focusing on new technologies that support aspects such as human needs, relational and articulation work, as well as embodiment and presence.


DIREC Interview: Professor Henrik Christensen on developments in robot technology

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.


Exhibition gave a twisted glimpse into the future workplace

3 October 2023

Exhibition gave a twisted glimpse into the future workplace

The interdisciplinary research project, REWORK, explores the future of hybrid work technologies and experiences. Three Copenhagen-based artists presented their interpretation of how technology in the near future could transform our work lives – directly and indirectly.

Photo: Thinkalike

It was a thought-provoking glimpse into the future when three Copenhagen-based artists recently presented their visions of what our work lives could look like in the future.


Read more (in Danish)


Researchers and artists are designing the future hybrid workplace

3 October 2023

Researchers and artists are designing the future hybrid workplace  

The research project called ‘REWORK’ aims at developing the digital meeting room to make human interaction feel more authentic and personal, much like in a physical meeting.

Photo: Kulturværftet/Thinkalike

The digital meeting room has quickly become a common part of everyday life in many workplaces – a fast, easy, and convenient way to meet, regardless of one’s location.

However, the hybrid workplace has its limitations, and therefore DIREC has decided to fund a research project involving researchers from Aarhus University, University of Copenhagen, IT University of Copenhagen, and Roskilde University to work on developing the future of digital meeting solutions.

Participating in the project are also several large and small companies, and, as something new, three artists have been invited to contribute ideas and visions for the future hybrid workplace. These artists come from the Copenhagen art scene and each offer their perspective on how the digital meeting space can support the relationships and interactions between people, which are limited in today’s meeting solutions.

Seeing the world differently

Kellie Dunn is a PhD in Computer Science at Copenhagen University and has a background in the theater environment. Last autumn, she moved from the USA to Denmark, where she works full time on the DIREC project, titled ‘REWORK – The Future of Hybrid Work.’

“The artists selected for the project already work with the virtual space and, for example, virtual reality. They bring different perspectives on the challenges. How can the future hybrid workplace, for example, account for all the invisible things that happen between people – body language, shared imagery – all the unspoken elements that are part of the physical meeting between people. That is one of the themes that concern the artists,” explains Kellie Dunn.

When more people work remotely, it challenges traditional working methods in companies. For example, nuances are easily lost when we are not physically present together and cannot read each other.

“It’s a significant thing missing in hybrid work compared to the physical workplace, where it is easier for us to read each other’s body language, feel empathy, and see a situation from others’ perspectives,” says Kellie Dunn.

The project illustrates why it is essential to incorporate different perspectives in the development of digital solutions. Typically, developers design solutions that will be widely used, and often developers are men. To ensure that future solutions fit a broad majority of users, it is necessary to challenge the design process, according to Kellie Dunn.

“Collaborating with artists is not very common in research within computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), whereas within human-computer interaction, similar collaborations have been successful in the past. It is still not common in work-related research, and that’s a shame because it provides entirely new perspectives on the world.

Artists come without a lot of preconceived rules about how things should be, and they are exceptionally good at imagining the future, whereas if you, for example, ask employees in a workplace – they will typically be limited by a practical focus on how their everyday life looks right now.”

The goal is to establish more collaborations across the (tech) industry and the art world to create better products and more productive work systems, she says.

Now we have the opportunity to create the future we want, instead of passively watching as we continue to do things the way we always have.
Kellie Dunn, PhD in Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen

About the REWORK project

Home and hybrid work is here to stay, but what should these work methods look like in the future? Should we simply try to improve what we already have, or can we take a bolder approach and design a different kind of future in the workplace? In collaboration with several companies, this project seeks a future vision that integrates experiences around hybrid work.

The project includes:

Aarhus University
University of Copenhagen
IT University of Copenhagen
Alexandra Institute
Culture Yard

Read more about the project


A PhD project was the launch pad – now the research team is heading toward an international breakthrough

9 August 2023

A PhD project was the launch pad – now the research team is heading toward an international breakthrough  

“This can go far” a team of researchers from Aarhus University realized when a PhD project turned out to have great application potential. The project became the launch pad for the company Coana, which is now heading toward an international breakthrough in JavaScript and open source technology.

It all began as a research project when Martin Torp and Benjamin Barslev, both PhD graduates from the Department of Computer Science at Aarhus University, laid the foundation for the software company Coana.

Soon, the team realized they were onto something significant, says Anders Møller, professor at Aarhus University and co-founder of the Aarhus-based startup.

Anders Møller is one of the world’s leading experts in program analysis for JavaScript/TypeScript and has worked closely with the two PhD students for several years.

Research team had the ‘key’

Coana’s program analysis reveals how companies are affected by changes and security vulnerabilities in open-source technologies, identifies vulnerabilities in JavaScript code, and filters out false warnings. This means that IT departments can focus on critical security issues, saving time and resources by sorting out unnecessary noise and false warnings, he explains.

As Benjamin and Martin approached the end of the PhD project, we realized that it had the potential for something even bigger, and that we actually had the key to solving some of the most challenging issues in open source and dependency management that companies worldwide struggle with.
– Anders Møller, Professor, Aarhus University

Recently, the trio expanded their team by hiring a strong strategic profile, Anders Søndergaard as CEO.

Søndergaard is responsible for an ambitious sales strategy and ensuring close contact with customers, while the developers continue working on a prototype and maintain close contact with software developers from companies worldwide.

– We already have an early prototype ready and are aiming for a launch in the fall. Our ambition is for the technology we are building to become the standard in dependency management.

The company is still in the early stages of market analysis and further product development, but Coana has a unique prototype, and no one in the world does the same as Coana’s program analysis for open-source troubleshooting, he elaborates.

It’s one thing to have a promising product and a solid research background – another to create a business. What did you know in advance about running a business?

– Very little. This is the first time for me, and it’s a new world for several of us. There is a lot of business knowledge that you don’t have when coming from the university and research world – what to pay attention to when establishing a company, how to develop a market strategy, etc. It’s time-consuming and simultaneously super exciting. My own primary focus remains on the research part, while the rest of the team is fully engaged in Coana.

How can it be an advantage that you have roots in the research world, and that you are both involved in research and now also in a business?

– There is a lot of synergy between the research at the university and what is happening here. What we arrived at with this research project turned out to have far more practical potential than the research I have otherwise worked on.

– There is a lot of research from universities that gets published, and people read it, and then it stays in the academic world but doesn’t go further. Now we have this special combination of a solid foundation in the form of many years of research – and real-world problems that need to be solved in companies.

Do you have any good advice to pass on to other university researchers considering starting a business?

– Aarhus University has a strong entrepreneurial environment, including around The Kitchen and the university’s Technology Transfer Office, which can help with networking and advice on funding and business development. They have been a fantastic help to us in the initial phase, so I can only recommend others to take advantage of the opportunities they provide.

– It can require a massive effort to achieve “product-market fit.” It is necessary that your initial conception of what can have commercial value is tested and adjusted through in-depth market analysis. You can advantageously – in good academic style – formulate hypotheses and conduct experiments to investigate how best to address customers’ most significant “pain points.”

– Make sure to establish the right team from the beginning, especially to cover the skills you lack if you do not have previous experience in building a business, says Anders Møller.


The software company Coana was founded in 2022 by Professor Anders Møller from the Department of Computer Science at Aarhus University along with Martin Torp and Benjamin Barslev, both PhD graduates from the Department of Computer Science, Aarhus University, and Anders Søndergaard. Martin and Benjamin’s PhD work has formed the foundation for Coana. With the appointment of Anders Søndergaard as CEO, the startup has been strengthened in strategy and market analysis, and Anders Søndergaard has a strong international network. The company currently has six employees.

With grants from the Innovation Fund Denmark, Aarhus University’s entrepreneurial environment ‘The Kitchen,’ and the European ERC scheme, which grants EU funds for proof-of-concept projects, Coana has proven its growth potential.


An interdisciplinary workshop on AI attracts international top researchers to Denmark – do you want to join?

9 August 2023

An interdisciplinary workshop on AI attracts international top researchers to Denmark - do you want to join?

DIREC invites to a high calibre research meeting with the workshop ‘Verifiable and Robust AI’ in November.

At the workshop, which takes place at Sandbjerg Gods in Sønderborg on 6-10 November, Danish and international top researchers in the fields of AI, machine learning and formal methods will gather – and we can guarantee plenty of interesting discussions and exchange of experience across disciplines.

So says Associate Professor Manfred Jaeger from the Department of Computer Science at Aalborg University, who is one of the organizers behind the workshop.

– With the workshop ‘Verifiable and robust AI’ we would like to bring two groups of researchers closer together – on the one hand some of Denmark’s strongest experts in machine learning and AI – and on the other hand experts in the formal analysis processes, correctness and security in programming.

– These are two relatively different types of researchers who do not usually meet at shared events – one group is particularly interested in formal methods and with a highly theoretical and mathematical focus, while the AI/machine learning experts also have a mathematical focus, but they use other techniques, Manfred Jaeger explains. The aim is to create new professional networks and hopefully to initiate more collaborations across the universities.

– There are possibly people in Copenhagen who can benefit from a collaboration with researchers from Aalborg or Aarhus University and vice versa. We want to help establish new relations, says Manfred Jaeger, who is looking forward to welcoming a series of interesting keynotes from foreign top universities – Moshe Vardi from Rice University, Jan Krêtínský from the Technical University of Munich and Bernhard Steffen from TU Dortmund University to name just three of the main names.

– The workshop addresses researchers from all universities in Denmark – we hope for a strong participation from the Danish research communities, so that people who do normally not participate in the same workshops and conferences will have the opportunity to meet each other.

Boris Düdder from the University of Copenhagen (KU), Thomas Hildebrandt, KU, Jaco van de Pol, Aarhus University (AU), Kim Guldstrand Larsen, Aalborg University (AAU), Manfred Jaeger (AAU) are the organizers of the workshop, which is sponsored by DIREC.

Read more and sign up here


Hacker attacks are accelerating considerably – researchers work to close security threats in IoT systems

6 July 2023

Hacker attacks are accelerating considerably

– researchers work to close security threats in IoT systems

The increase of IoT devices has exposed vulnerabilities in physical devices connected to the Internet. Even defibrillators known from the street life can be the target of hacker attacks. An ongoing DIREC project aims to strengthen security and protect data.

With the Internet of Things (IoT), more and more physical objects are connected to the Internet so that they can communicate with each other and with people.

Read more (in Danish)


Explainable AI will disrupt the grain industry and give farmers confidence

4 July 2023

Explainable AI will disrupt the grain industry and give farmers confidence  

There is a huge potential for AI in the agricultural sector as a large part of food quality assurance is still handled manually. The aim of a research project is to strengthen understanding of and trust in AI and image analysis, which can improve quality assurance, food quality and optimize production.

One of the major critical barriers to using AI and image analysis in the agriculture and food industry is the trust in its effectiveness.

Today, manual visual inspection of grains remains one of the crucial quality assurance procedures throughout the value chain, ensuring the journey of grains from the field to the table and guaranteeing that farmers receive the right price for their crops.

At the Danish-owned family company FOSS, high-tech analytical instruments are developed for the agriculture and food industry, as well as the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Since its founding in 1956 by engineer Nils Foss, development and innovation have been high priorities. As a global producer of niche products, staying ahead of competitors is essential.

Hence, collaboration with researchers from the country’s universities is a crucial part of the company’s digital journey. In a project at the National Research Centre for Digital Technologies (DIREC), the company, along with researchers from Technical University of Denmark and University of Copenhagen, aims to map how AI and image analysis can replace the subjective manual inspection of grains with an automated solution based on image processing. The goal is to develop a method using deep learning neural networks to monitor the quality of seeds and grains using multispectral image data. This method has the potential to provide the grain industry with a disruptive tool to ensure quality and optimize the value of agricultural commodities.

The agricultural and food industry is generally a very conservative industry, and building trust in digital technologies is necessary, explains senior researcher Erik Schou Dreier from FOSS. The development of AI, therefore, cannot stand alone. To encourage farmers to adopt the technology, it is crucial to instill confidence in how it works. In this process, researchers use explainable AI to elucidate how the algorithms function.

Today, grain is assessed manually in many places, and replacing manual work with a machine requires trust. Because the work is performed by humans, it is a fairly subjective reference method used today. Humans may not necessarily perform the work the same way every time and can arrive at different results. Therefore, there will be some uncertainty about the outcome.

Mapping and explaining algorithms

– The result is more precise when using AI and image analysis in the process. However, for these new technologies to gain widespread acceptance globally, a model is needed to explain how AI works and arrives at a given result, says Erik Schou Dreier.

Many people have inherent skepticism toward self-driving cars. Self-driving cars need to be even better and safer at driving than us humans before we trust them. Similarly, the AI analysis models we work with must be significantly better than the manual processes they replace for people to trust them. To build that trust, we must first be able to explain how AI analyzes an image and arrives at a given result. That is the goal of the project—to interpret the way AI works, so people can understand how it reads an image.

We typically accept a higher error rate among humans than machines. For us humans to trust the algorithms, they need to be explainable.
Erik Schou Dreier, senior researcher

PhD student Lenka Tetková from Technical University of Denmark is part of the project and spends some days at FOSS’ office. Here, she works with images of grains in two different ways, partly to improve image qualification and partly to better understand how classifications work so they can be enhanced.

– I sometimes use the example of a zebra and a deer to explain how image classification works. Imagine you have a classification that can recognize zebras and deer. Now, you get a new image of an animal with a body like a deer, but the legs resemble those of a zebra. A standard model will not be able to recognize this animal if it hasn’t seen the animal during training. But if you provide it with additional information (metadata) – in this case, a description of all kinds of animals – it will be able to infer that the image corresponds to an okapi, based on its knowledge of zebras, deer, and the description of an okapi. That is, the model will be able to use information not present in the images to achieve better results, explains Lenka Tetková and continues:

– In this project, we want to use metadata about the grains, such as information about the place of origin, weather conditions, pesticide use, and storage conditions, to improve the classification of grains.

Can you find ‘Okapi’ in these pictures? Ph.D. student Lenka Tetková from DTU uses this example to explain how image classification works.

An important competitive advantage

As a global producer of niche products, FOSS must always stay two steps ahead of competitors.

– To ensure there is a market for us in the future, it is crucial to be the first with new solutions. It is challenging to make a profit if there is already a player doing it better, which is why we constantly introduce new digital technologies to improve our analysis tools. And here, collaboration with researchers from the country’s universities is very valuable to us, as we gain new insights and proposed solutions for the further development of our tools, says Erik Schou Dreier and continues:

– In this project, we hope that collaboration with researchers will lead to the development of AI methods and tools that enable us to create new solutions for automated image-based quality assessment and, secondly, that we can increase trust in our product with explainable AI. It is one of the critical themes for us—to create a product that is trusted.

Facts about FOSS

FOSS’ measuring instruments are used everywhere in the agriculture and food industry to quality assure a wide range of raw materials and finished food products.

Traditionally, light wavelengths are measured, and the measurements are used to obtain chemical information about a product. This can include knowledge about protein and moisture content in grains or fat and protein in milk, etc.

FOSS’ customers are large global companies that use FOSS’ products to quality assure and optimize their production—and to ensure the right pricing, so, for example, the farmer gets the right price for their grain.

Deep Learning and Automation of Imaging-based Quality of Seeds and Grains

Project Period: 2020-2024
Budget: DKK 3.91 million

Project participants:

Lenka Tetková
Lars Kai Hansen, Professor DTU
Kim Steenstrup Pedersen, Professor, KU
Thomas Nikolajsen, Head of Front-end Innovation, FOSS
Toke Lund-Hansen, Head of Spectroscopy Team, FOSS
Erik Schou Dreier, Senior Scientist, FOSS

What is a Deep Learning Neural Network?

Deep learning neural networks are computer systems inspired by how our brains function. It consists of artificial neurons called nodes organized in layers. Each node takes in information, processes it, and passes it on to the next layer. This helps the network understand data and make predictions. By training the network with examples and adjusting the connections between nodes, it learns to make accurate predictions on new data. Deep learning neural networks are used for tasks such as image recognition, language understanding, and problem-solving.


Maja conducts research into green algorithms: All projects count

15 June 2023

Maja conducts research into green algorithms: All projects matter  

Maja Hanne Kirkeby is Associate Professor at Roskilde University (RUC) and works closely with companies and other researchers to develop more energy efficient software solutions.

A DIREC project on green algorithms last year was the starting point for a number of new research projects and subsequently a close collaboration with the IT company Nine A/S.

Read more in Danish


Cyber systems collaboration could help bring “lab on a chip” into the real world

13 June 2023

Cyber systems collaboration could help bring "lab on a chip" into the real world  

By Søren Bjørn-Hansen

Getting a complex piece of hardware to work with all the variables of the real world is difficult. But through a DIREC-project collaboration, Luca Pezzarossa got much closer to having a working prototype.

Photo: Bax Lindhardt

For most people the term digital microfluidics doesn’t mean a whole lot. But it’s a technology which could revolutionise lab work completely.

“The idea is that whatever a biochemist normally spends a lot of time doing with pipettes, can be done by a chip instead,” Luca Pezzarossa explains and plays a short video of the technology at work.

The lab on a chip is basically a biochemical lab scaled down to the size of a small portable device. The idea is to make tiny droplets of fluid move around on a chip by activating a sequence of electrodes. Luca Pezzarossa’s job is to make the hardware and software work together to move the microfluidic droplets the right way.

“But one thing that is very common in this field is that the people who do this research are not biochemists, ” he says.

The problem with this is that there are real-world constraints, which makes moving the droplets much harder.

“Two droplets cannot go as close as they do in a simulation, because they would touch and merge. Or from a biological point of view, some droplets might leave behind a contaminating residue. Blood that leaves a trail for example, and so other droplets cannot move where this has moved earlier,” Luca Pezzarossa explains.

This represents a difficult problem. To translate from a high-level protocol that is user-friendly – something which is useful for a biochemist – down to a controlling sequence is very difficult. Especially when the constraints are complex real-world issues, like a droplet leaving a contaminating trail of blood on the chip.

“When I presented these challenges at a DIREC seminar, two algorithm-oriented scientists said: ‘This is very cool from a theoretical point of view. We should apply for a DIREC Explore project.’ And we did,” Luca Pezzarossa says.

Digital Research Centre Denmark (DIREC) supports multidisciplinary research – often with external partners – with the so called Explore projects, which are small agile research projects with the purpose of screening new ideas.

So for most of 2022 he worked with two fellow assistant professors, Eva Rotenberg from DTU Compute and Lene Monrad Favrholdt from University of Southern Denmark, on developing algorithms that could do this scheduling and routing on applied cyber-physical systems – while DTU research assistant Kasper Skov Johansen, who is now a PhD student at DTU, did most of the practical work.

Photo: Bax Lindhardt

“We ended up building a mathematical framework to describe the constraints. What are the different boundaries and rules these droplets need to respect?”, he explains.

They have laid out the ideas and know where they want to take the project next. Now they are looking for funding. Long term their goal is to make the lab on a chip better so it works well in the real world instead of in a simulation.

Luca Pezzarossa believes a prototype is a couple of years away. But it all depends on how the users of the lab on a chip react.

“When people start using something they will tell you ‘this shouldn’t behave like that’. But that is the point. To try to do something useful and not just move coloured droplets around. Some issues you only discover when you bring things into the real world,” he says.

Through their collaboration, the team discovered that developing the right algorithms was much more complex than they thought. They only partially succeeded in creating the right algorithms. And that is okay, he thinks:

“It’s a difficult problem to solve. And that is also the purpose of DIREC Explore. You explore an idea, and you see if there is more that you can do. And in this case, there was more. Which is why we are looking for more funding.”

According to Luca Pezzarossa the DIREC Explore project was essential because it got them thinking differently.

“We tried to bring two worlds together that are very different. I’m from the embedded systems world, which is very noisy and real. We build things inside rockets and cars. But the world of algorithms is very formal and abstract at the same time. And this, I think, was one of the aims of the explore project, to bring people together from different fields,” he says and continues:

“I learned a lot about communication and the need to explain things in a common language. It is sometimes difficult, but so worth it. Otherwise, you are in your perfect box with all the things you know. Which is also good research, in principle. But the real world isn’t really made out of clean boxes.”

Luca Pezzarossa is an assistant professor at DTU Compute. He first arrived at DTU from his native Italy on an Erasmus Exchange Program in 2012. He did his master thesis at DTU two years later and has been at DTU ever since.