This month we travelled to the capital of the European Union, Brussels, to visit a young Belgian Digital Innovation Hub specialised in artificial intelligence and located at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels Campus.
We met with Hans De Canck, Manager of the AI Test & Experience Center, who explained us more about this hub that received last year the visit of the EC’s President Ursula von der Leyen.
Tell us a bit about the AI Test & Experience Center
HDC: In 2019, four major research groups from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) joined forces in creating an AI Test and Experience Center. The VUB internal funding was supported by IOF funding (IOF – Industry Fund Flanders), and recently the hub has received funding from the Brussels Capital Region in the Relance and Resilience fund program of the European Commission. This is in the context of the FARI – AI for the Common Good project proposal submitted by VUB and ULB (Universté Libre de Bruxelles) which will allow us to invest in some additional test infrastructure.
The AI Test & Experience Center (AIXC) aims to support an integrated approach in the setup of AI, Data and Robotics test infrastructure, alongside other facilities like training rooms, network facilities and what we call the Experience Center- a place where demonstrators and proof of concepts related to AI, Data and Robotics driven research are at display for many stakeholders. This integration is beneficial for applied and fundamental research where engineers, neuroscientists, physiologists, and sociologists can continuously interact, not only with each other, but also (and most importantly) with the broader public. This will help them to optimize the methodological development of Human Centered, Sustainable and Trustworthy digital systems and research infrastructure that serves the research roadmap of both interdisciplinary and fundamental research projects on AI, Data and Robotics.
Could you describe your DIH ecosystem?
Most of the research up to now had to be performed in ad hoc test set ups (often project based and with little funding) or at external institutions or living labs (like e.g., the City of Things platform in Antwerp, hosted by imec) where robotic applications could meet end-users (humans). The research groups that created this application (VUB AI Lab, Brubotics, SMIT and ETRO) are developing a structural test infrastructure, embedded at the VUB campus to make this Human Centered technology research more empirical and less dependent of ad hoc project funding or the external availability of data, respondents, or infrastructure. At the same time, it links with existing labs, be it on VUB Campus or e.g., with other campuses in Brussels (like VUB Health Campus where is located the Brubotics robot rehabilitation infrastructure), could be made to create a network of Digital Innovation Hub facilities. As such, the AI Test & Experience Centre is a cornerstone in the development of a Brussels AI, Data and Robotics Test and Experience Hub, and its role will be important in the digital transition of economy and society.
Because of its industry and policy outreach, as from 2020 onward, our DIH also acts as the Brussels Office for CLAIRE, the Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe.
What specific services does your DIH offer?
The main objectives and services offered are at this stage focused on training (LifeLongLearning) and consultancy (Opportunity Workshops), as well as experience and networking (Round tables, thematic events with third party organizations from industry and innovation). The test infrastructure for researchers and industry is currently under development. The main target audience are industry (startups, SMEs, and Large Enterprises) as well as policy makers (e.g., February 18, 2020 – President Ursula von der Leyen visited the venue for the announcement of the European Commission’s plans in relation to artificial intelligence). We also facilitate activities of AI strategy programs like the Flemish AI Plan: Knowledge Centre Data & Society organizes workshops and makes use of the setup.
Can you tell us some examples of companies supported by your DIH?
Startup companies like Umango (HRTech), Alberts (Food Robotics) and Axiles Bionics (Bionic Prothesis) have participated in our workshops and made use of the test infrastructure to further develop their business plans.
Are you a candidate EDIH and if so, what are your expectations as a future EDIH?
The AI Test & Experience Centre and its expertise is part of the Brussels AI EDIH (European Digital Innovation Hub) proposal (sustAIn.brussels) that will be submitted in the EDIH call that is due in 2022. We believe that close collaboration with other local innovation players and constant knowledge sharing between different types of scientists and engineers and non-academic stakeholders will further enhance efficient integration of better and more Human centered digital technologies to the benefit of society.
Did you receive any EU funds?
Our participating research groups are very active in the Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe Innovation program. We are active in projects as SOPHIA (ergonomics of cobots), SMART and SHERO (smart and self-healing materials for soft robotics), Cyberlegs++ (prostheses), and Spexor (exoskeletons). We have several stands of those projects in our AIXC. The recently required NextGenEU funds of FARI will allow further development of its infrastructure.
How mature is Robotics in your sector and what are the barriers to uptake?
Maturity of the requested technology varies strongly, therefor we collaborate on different TRL levels. For low TRL (up to TRL 4), new robotics technology is developed in the so called SBO (Strategic Basic Research) projects where companies are in the industrial user board. We also have PhD projects which are jointly performed in a company. For Mid TRL research, we often work in ICON (Interdisciplinary Cooperative research) or Brussels Team-up projects where there is a balanced consortium between research centers and one or more companies. This is for developing new knowledge that can be applied in practice and thus contribute to economic and broader social added value in Flanders and Brussels. Of course, we also have direct research contracts with industry.
What is the most interesting application of robotics you have come across in your DIH?
There is a lot of interest from companies in our technology e.g., in improving the ergonomics of workers and the use of cobots and exoskeletons. However, there is also still a lot of doubt about which technology or combination of technologies (AI, Data). is best suited for which type of work. Therefore, we replicate the work requested by the company in our lab and evaluate the impact of our different technologies together with human physiologists. Moreover, our sociologists study the acceptance of the technology. Currently we are expanding our infrastructure through the Flanders Make infrastructure project called AUgmentX. We have now a new motion capture system, force plates and other physiological measurements in place.
Did COVID-19 affect you? In which way?
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, unfortunately the DIH needed to close, but we were able to organize several online events and developed an online tour application to allow a sneak preview of the hub. Since the social robots Peppers became unemployed during the pandemic, we sent them to an elderly day care facility with a teleconference app so residents could stay in touch with their family and friends. Another Pepper was used by the University Hospital to remind patients and visitors to follow the security measurements such as keeping distance and wearing a mouth mask. Our expertise was also used for developing open-source adaptors to turn a snorkeling mask into an emergency mask for medical staff and for breathing machines.