The public, visitors to MetaForum on a summer's day in May to see the robots of Tech United in action on the fan day ('fàn dey' in Lieven's soft Flemish tones), chuckles at his joke that ‘it's asking a lot of a Belgian to wear an orange scarf’. After his playful opener, this supreme fan, who has owned the scarf printed with ‘Tech United world champion 2012’ since 2013, continues on a more serious note as, clearly genuinely interested, he puts questions to Tech United team member Loy van Beek about the technical aspects of the care robots displayed outside.
The passions and strengths of this amiable and articulate Belgian are revealed to perfection by his performance: making jokes about and communicating about science. Scheire has ‘always been fascinated by science’. “My dad was an engineer and if I had a question, he gave the scientific explanation. And later at school I quickly realized that my head is wired for mathematics and physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics came as revelations to me - just as other people might experience when first hearing Bach. At the time, I was really knocked for six.”
This made the decision to study physics an obvious one. But he would not go on to complete his studies because success with his comedy group Neveneffecten (Side Effects) came quickly. Standup comedy is, he believes, ‘the most exhaustive training you can have if you want to be a public speaker’. “It is a 'high-octane internship' in learning to read and keep hold of an audience. You have nowhere to hide. The rules are clear: if they laugh, it's good. If they don't, it isn't.” With Neveneffecten he performed in theaters and was later on television, making many a Flemish viewer, and Dutch ones too, laugh.
Since then the comedy has been put on the back burner because “the urgency and importance I now feel about science and popularizing technology are greater. As a society, it is important that we derive huge benefits from our improved technology. On the other hand, I think we're going to have to take an uncompromising look at some of our responsibilities. We'll be capable of so much in future that we'd do well to start thinking about what we do and don't want.”
He has already produced and appeared in various science programs and in his monthly podcast, the Nerdland monthly summary, he and his ‘fellow enthusiasts’ review the month's science news. Genetics, space travel and robotics are regular topics. “These really are where a lot is happening right now. Robotics is very clearly lying just below the surface and will break through in a couple of years' time. Now is already the ideal time to focus on it.”
“I expect that we'll first come across mobile and multifunctional robots in companies as promotional objects of sorts. This is already happening; in Japan you'll find Pepper showing you round a store. Then things will become functional and they'll work in stores and in our homes. The big question is what form will that take. You can already talk to your house, “Alexa switch off the light”. We'll see more hardware in the home, a mobile unit that brings coffee and a remote control device.” Half-seriously: “Honestly, there is no greater misfortune than sitting down and realizing that you have to get up again. Dire.” Lieven dreams of ‘soccer robots beating the human world champions in 2050’. “I would bet money on it. Have you seen what the Boston Dynamics robots can do these days? Thirty years is an eternity in technology. The smartphone is ten years old, and you've got three times as long to work on these robots.”
It was his interest in robots that brought him to Tech United in 2013. “All thanks to the algorithms used by YouTube,” he suspects. “That was back when I used to watch space shuttle launches live. I was offered short films about the RoboCup that was due to take place in Eindhoven and I was immediately sold. I thought ‘this is my chance to go there’. I wrote to Tech United: I want to be there, and I'm a presenter. They gave me a warm reception.” It was the start of a collaboration in which Lieven and Guy Vermeulen reported live from the Tech United matches during the RoboCup and then reviewed them afterwards in a talk show format. On the Tech United fan days, too, 37-year-old Scheire would appear regularly.
According to this Dutch-speaking Belgian, Eindhoven has ‘far and away the best media team of all the teams’. Enthusiastically, and the longer he talks the more passionate he becomes, he holds forth on the media opportunities there for the taking worldwide but neglected. “If you said to someone ‘I'm going to the soccer world championship for robots’, few people would be unmoved. It has gigantic appeal and huge potential for communicating about science with a broad public.”
“Aside from Tech United, no one is doing outreach - it is a very academic affair. During the RoboCup in Brazil a player on the national team wanted to play against the robots and was prevented, ‘because the robots might get damaged’. I find this incomprehensible! Even if you have to take out insurance costing ten thousand euros - you'd earn that back many times over in outreach and research. It's a technology-popularizing goldmine. The newspaper headline ‘Arjen Robben beats robot soccer team’ would be picked up by everyone. You'd be plastered all over the media.” These opportunities were first seized, he believes, during the Eindhoven RoboCup. “Before that it was difficult to find more information about the RoboCup online. Occasionally a half-hearted film would be put out three days later. Such a shame. But in Eindhoven you could watch the final live online, broadcast from a sold-out sports hall complete with yelling, shouting, chanting in unison - the same excitement as at a soccer match between people.”
He admits that something needs to be done to appeal to the wider public. “The software bugs, the unplanned waiting - that can be annoying. But when everything works, it really is something to see. For me, a RoboCup final has absolutely the same excitement as a World Cup match involving Belgium.”
The likelihood of a Belgian university team taking part in the RoboCup is, says the science communicator, small. “I am seriously jealous of the universities of technology in the Netherlands; all our university programs are hugely theoretical. Most students need their full attention to get through them. You can't afford to take on any project work, I think that's a huge shortcoming.”
Scheire wasn't slow in dipping his scientific and cabaret toes in the waters across the Belgian border in the Netherlands, where his work included being a panelist on the program Proefkonijnen (Guinea Pigs) and he recently demonstrated his knowledge and expertise in episodes of the Big Escape. “I'm past the phase of getting used to being among Dutch people. But I certainly did experience that; every Flemish person gets a culture shock in the Netherlands. And vice versa. As a Belgian you are left open-mouthed by the efficiency and direct approach of the Dutch, but that directness is a little bit 'in your face'. In Flanders everything is veiled and there is a lot of non-verbal communication. As a Dutch-speaking Belgian, you have to get past that directness. Once you understand it, you start communicating differently.” A short anecdote: “It actually happened one time that I had to translate between a Dutch guy and a Flemish guy, two friends of mine. The Dutch guy invited us to eat out and from all the signs I could see that my Flemish friend didn't want to make it too late. He thought it too rude to say 'no' outright. I had to speak up for him and say that it would be fine to go home right away.”
With his theater lecture on science and genetics he will be touring in both Belgium and the Netherlands as of January. “Genetics is my new darling in science. It has a major wow factor; lots of people fall off their chair when they hear what is possible. I make it interactive, put it to the audience: should this be allowed or not. We know for sure that within a couple of years our family physician will hold our DNA profile. So then I start to ask questions and challenge. Can the police have your DNA? Your insurer? I catch people off guard with these ideas, it's an attempt to upset the apple cart.”
Lieven has also lent his cooperation to a TU/e podcast, which will be broadcast shortly. His interviews with various researchers and students at our university will soon be available to listen to via iTunes and various TU/e channels.
More distant future
In detail, Scheire talks about his plans for the more distant future, but they can be summarized in one sentence: “My dream is to appear on stage and television in the Netherlands, Flanders and England doing science programs.” But first of all he is off to the RoboCup in Canada, where he will report from the roof of a conference center. Wearing his orange scarf.