AI for the common good: international research project SOPHIA uses robotics to make workplaces healthier

Across Europe, 40 million workers suffer from muscle, joint and nerve pain caused by physically demanding tasks. Moreover, such musculoskeletal disorders are the cause of as many as half of all absences in companies and therefore cost a great deal of money. Innovative robots, cobots and exoskeletons that can relieve that work and make it healthier are therefore a major economic and social challenge. The EU-funded SOPHIA project, in which three Vrije Universiteit Brussel research groups are participating, will develop a new generation of cobots and exoskeletons over the next four years.

The other 11 partners of the SOPHIA project are: Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (coordinator of SOPHIA), Università di Pisa and Istituto Nazionale per l’Assicurazione contro gli Infortuni sul Lavoro (Italy), Université de Montpellier (France), University of Twente (the Netherlands), Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, IMK Automotive GmbH and Deutsches Institut für Normung (Germany), as well as companies such as Volkswagen Sachsen (Germany), HIDRIA (Slovenia) and Hankamp Gears (the Netherlands), where the researchers will be able to extensively test the various solutions being developed within SOPHIA.

“A lot of lifting, bending or certain repetitive actions lead to physical discomfort that make work unpleasant,” says Professor Bram Vanderborght, robotics specialist and core lab manager of Flanders Make, and VUB’s principal investigator in SOPHIA. “SOPHIA targets the design, integration and evaluation of innovative robotics applications that remedy this. The ultimate goal is to create a safe hybrid workplace for human and robot. In this way, we offer an answer to two major challenges: firstly, to create healthier workplaces with less absenteeism and, secondly, to make more productive companies and thus a stronger economy. We are, of course, very pleased with the €6.5 million grant awarded by the EU to the project.”

SOPHIA stands for Socio-physical Interaction Skills for Cooperative Human-Robot Systems in Agile Production. Led by the Italian Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, it brings together 12 partners from six EU countries, specialising in robotics and social and physical interactions in the workplace. VUB’s Brubotics research centre is the only Belgian partner, with three research groups involved. Prof Vanderborght will develop software to control the robots, Professor Kevin De Pauw (human physiology) will conduct research on how humans react physically and cognitively to robots. Professor An Jacobs (sociologist at imec-SMIT-VUB) will focus on the evaluation of social acceptance and desirability of the innovations, in which humans are central.

Brussels as AI capital

VUB’s participation in SOPHIA is a continuation of the Claxon project, supported by Innoviris and imec, in which VUB co-developed a cobot for Audi Brussels. The fact that the VUB Brubotics research centre is participating in a major European project is in line with the ambition of the Brussels-Capital Region to turn Brussels into an AI capital: “With our interdisciplinary approach, we want to develop artificial intelligence and robotics for the common good. This could be for better working conditions, as in the case of this SOPHIA project, but it could also be for other major societal challenges, such as easier mobility or the fight against coronavirus,” says Vanderborght.




AI for the common good

VUB and ULB want to set up a European artificial intelligence centre in Brussels (AI for the common good). The institute will engage in research, innovative applications, training and projects on the societal impact of artificial intelligence within different domains, such as health and well-being, mobility, climate and sustainability and media. By doing so, the institute aims to support and facilitate the EU’s Digital Agenda. The VUB AI Experience Center will become part of this institute. It is a high-tech test, demonstration and meeting environment where companies, technological entrepreneurs, researchers and policymakers can experiment with AI and work together to develop and produce technological solutions.

Both universities have a leading reputation in artificial intelligence thanks to their pioneering role in scientific research, their strong interdisciplinary tradition, their central location in Belgium and Europe and their close ties with global economic players, including the ecosystem of Flanders Innovation, the Brussels Region and the Walloon Region.