Ravi de Robot
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Gone are the days when hightech robots could only be admired in scifi movies. We increasingly see them in everyday life. Now also in theater performances, where they perform as comedians or dance buddies. Those robots and their builders were on stage last week during the Dutch Innovation Days. “Robots make us think about the human species,” says robot builder Edwin Dertien, assistant professor at the University of Twente.

A robotic acrobat

It is a remarkable sight. The four unique robots that were set up in theater De Kleine Willem in Enschede. They act as props for art projects and performances.

A handstand or a complicated yoga pose: nothing is too much for the theater robot of artist and robot builder Daniel Simu. “As a performer, I am often on the road, and a ‘flyer’ cannot always come with me to Berlin or the UK, for example. A robotic acrobat is the ideal solution for me. So I decided to build one. He’s always there, doesn’t get a sore back and he doesn’t complain,” Simu says with a laugh.

Ravi the star

Dertien builds dancing humanoids for various art projects. He also makes robot arms for sci-fi films and other moving installations for festivals and exhibitions. Among other things, he built the expressive Ravi the Robot, which looks a bit like Wall-E and is controlled by a mix of live control input, pre-recorded sequences and autonomous behavior. “Kids love it. The other day at a festival, a couple of girls kept coming back to interact with Ravi.”

The uncanny valley

The four robots are intriguing, but none of them resemble humans. Maybe that’s for the best, because of the uncanny valley effect. This is an uneasy feeling people experience when human-like robots closely resemble humans in many ways, yet are not quite convincingly realistic. “We robot builders know that people have a fear of robots and have to deal with that as best we can. At least Ravi looks very friendly,” Dertien said.

Take over the world

Theater robots once again prove the usefulness of robots to society. They have great potential and are becoming more and more advanced. Should we slowly become afraid that they will take over the world? And will we soon go through life with a hyper-intelligent robot buddy by our side? Dertien: “A future in which robots have intelligent and emotional properties comparable to humans is still very far away, regardless of the promises made here and there. Parties like Boston Dynamics are currently making great strides. But the robots being developed there are still incredibly dangerous and you can’t just deploy them for everyday use. You don’t even want to go near them without complete equipment.”

We will, however, encounter more and more robots performing targeted tasks in healthcare and education, he expects. “And I hope we’ll also increasingly enter the conversation about civil rights and robots.” Because it’s time for that.