Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Netherlands will profit more from robotics if they can get easy, accessible help with implementing new technologies in their production process. These kind of measures will drive innovation and create new jobs, MEP Cora van Nieuwenhuizen says in an interview with RoboValley about robotics and innovation.
“I am an advocate of what I call SME-vouchers for robotics. They are meant for entrepreneurs with an idea to improve their production process, but without the means to fully implement it themselves”, Van Nieuwenhuizen says. “They should be able to get advice from researchers or students. It doesn’t have to be expensive or really scientific. It can be done by master students doing an internship, or a group of students as part of a minor.”
They don’t have to be ground-breaking technologies, she emphasises. “A lot of innovation is achieved by simply improving your production process in a more efficient and sustainable way.”
No wonder, Van Nieuwenhuizen enthusiastically supports the RoboHouse project that RoboValley is working on with partners from the industry and government. From January on, this ‘smart fieldlab’ will exactly offer these kind of services to SMEs.
In the European Parliament, Van Nieuwenhuizen is a member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy. As a EU-politician, Van Nieuwenhuizen has a broad view and looks at the combined interests of the 28 member states. But she is keen to point out the strengths of her home-country. Of course there are some of the best universities. But it is the combination of the right infrastructural conditions (high-speed internet for example) and a willingness of government, industry and academia to work together that will propel the Netherlands in the direction of a smart nation.
“The exciting thing about our time is that all technologies come together: robotics, 3D printing, photonics, 5G and the internet-of-things. If you have the right products and the right infrastructure, that combination will make you super strong. And if we will get a breakthrough with QuTech, then we really will be ahead of the rest.”
EU programmes for robotics
The EU supports robotics in the Netherlands and other member states with several programmes: Horizon2020, the Digital Single Market and the Digital Innovation Hubs, to name a few. The policy is aimed at stimulating already strong innovative regions to grow harder. “We have to focus on creating the best innovation hubs. It is the only way to stay competitive on a larger scale, with Silicon Valley, India and China.” In the process, the ‘weaker’ regions get stronger as well.
Thanks to EU-regulations Dutch start-ups can grow. “It is great when you have developed a cool product in the Netherlands, but if you can only sell it over here, the question is if you can compete with companies operating on much larger markets, such as the US or China”, she says. Because of European standards, those start-ups get direct access to 500 million consumers and companies.
At the same time, the situation is far from perfect for scale-ups. There remains a lot to be improved, for example uniform VAT-regulations.
It is not only about a single market. EU puts a lot of effort in privacy as well. Sometimes criticised by large nations as India and China that these debates slow down innovation, Van Nieuwenhuizen disagrees. “Privacy by design, security by design will put the EU ahead of other countries, because the opinion on privacy will change.”
“The 500 million EU consumers, but surely the people in the US as well, will want to know what kind of algorithms are being set free on them”, she predicts. “It is fun that you will get a discount on your healthcare insurance if you make a certain amount of steps a day, but the downside is that if you don’t make them, you will have to pay extra.” In the end, consumers will want to have control over what happens with their data. Cybersecurity is one of the things in which the Netherlands excels as well, Van Nieuwenhuizen says.
Overall, Van Nieuwenhuizen is optimistic about the opportunities robotics offer. “Of course, jobs will be lost, and we don’t know yet which jobs will be created. But I am convinced that it will create new jobs. Take the new car factory in Born where the Mini is made. Because of the robots the plant didn’t have to be located in a low-wage country and now 800 people have a job.”
The advantages of robotics are huge. Not just for the dirty, dangerous and dull jobs robots will perform. But think about software applications as well: ‘robo advice’ for a new mortgage, for example. “You always hear that people want advice from a real person, of flesh and blood. But the truth is, consumers don’t always dare to confess to them that they don’t understand it. Sitting behind a screen and talking to a robo adviser, people feel more at ease to keep asking. And in the future, with facial recognition, the robo adviser has already detected that you don’t understand anything of it. So in the end it protects consumers.”
Of course, a lot of ethical dilemmas have to be settled. “That’s why it’s important that robotics researchers team up with scientists from social and behavioural sciences to settle these questions.” But the main point Van Nieuwenhuizen wants to make is this: all those new technologies will enter our daily lives. “If things can be made faster, cheaper and easier, then people and companies will want to have it. It is inevitable and we have to make sure that it will be used for a good cause.”
Van Nieuwenhuizen also has some advice for students with a brilliant idea that they want to bring to the markets. Think about a good exit strategy. “I’ve seen it: start-ups with a fantastic product during a pitch for venture capitalists. Asked about their exit-strategy, they don’t have an answer”, she says. “VCs don’t stay with you for the rest of your live. You must have a good strategy and you must be compliant with all laws and regulations.” Like cybersecurity and privacy. “It is often forgotten. But it is just as important. To start a company is more than setting up a fun business case.”
Her own view of the future is one of a ‘tailor-made society’. “Everything around you will be intelligent and every product is personalised. We will move from a one-size-fits-all society to a tailor-made world. In the old days you had disabled people with wooden legs. In the future, those will be a prosthesis that is hard to discern from the rest of the body. That is the ultimate example, I think.”
Update: on 26 October 2017, Cora van Nieuwenhuizen left the European Parliament to become minister of Infrastructure, Public Works and Water Management.