Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands visited MIT on Friday, taking an innovation-oriented campus tour with a focus on computing and robotics.
Rutte’s visit was centered in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), where he watched robotics demonstrations and spoke with faculty and students about a variety of topics concerning innovation.
Rutte was also accompanied by a larger delegation of Dutch government and business leaders, who are on a four-day visit to the Boston area, examining research in AI, robots, biotechnology, and health care. The group included Bruno Bruins, the Netherlands’ minister of medical care, as well as about 40 Dutch innovators in the areas of AI and robotics.
On the MIT tour, Rutte was principally hosted by Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL and the Andrew and Erna Viterba Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Rutte was also greeted by Frans Kashooek, the Charles Piper Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who is also a CSAIL member; Kashooek is a native of the Netherlands.
Rus told Rutte she was “delighted to welcome you to CSAIL and to MIT,” and, along with several CSAIL graduate students and researchers, guided him through a series of demonstrations highlighting different aspects of robotics research and development.
The projects Rutte observed included a muscle-controlled robotic system CSAIL researchers call “RoboRaise,” in which sensors on human muscles relay signals to a robot, showing it how much to, for instance, help lift objects. The system could have applications in construction or manufacturing.
“In the future, the machines will be always adapting to us,” Rus noted.
Rutte was also given demonstrations about inexpensive 3-D printed robots; the incorporation of new, soft materials in robots; a robotic fish; and “M-Blocks,” a set of square blocks that reconfigure themselves and could be the basis for self-assembling forms of robots.
Rutte was highly engaged in the demonstations and asked a series of questions about them — querying about the exact mechanisms that, for instance, allow the M-Blocks to both move and stay attached to each other.
“You make it look so easy,” Rutte marveled to the robotics researchers, at one point during his CSAIL tour.
Rutte also had a sit-down conversation with CSAIL professors Peter Szolovits and David Sontag, whose work is at the junction of computing and health care research. Szolovits is, among other things, the principal investigator in the MIT-Philips alliance, a five-year research agreement formalized in 2015 between MIT and Royal Philips N.V., the giant Dutch technology firm which has a major division in health care innovation. Philips North America moved its headquarters to Cambridge, Massachusetts, last year.
“Everything is here,” Rutte noted when talking to Sontag about the advantages of doing research in the Boston area — a reference to the ecosystem of universities, technology firms, hospitals, and capital available in the region.
Rutte also remarked on the informal layout of the Stata Center, where CSAIL is housed, and asked Szolovits and Sontag about the “overall atmosphere” at the Institute.
“It is a wonderful atmosphere,” Szolovits replied. “But for me, the best thing is the students. If I don’t know something, I ask my students.”
Rutte has been prime minister of the Netherlands since 2010 and is currently serving his third term. He studied history at Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands, and worked in a managerial role at Unilever before first being elected as a member of parliament in 2003.
Rus also presented Rutte with gifts from MIT, including a hand-crafted glass sculpture made at the MIT Glass Lab, and an MIT cap which, she noted, could be worn by Rutte when he is cycling to work. Rutte is known, in part, for bicycling to the office, and the Netherlands has the densest set of bike paths in the world.