Labor Market

Successful conclusion to first Brabant Robot Challenge

In the unlikely event you had not noticed: robots are here to stay. We should welcome rather than fear them, Ton Wilthagen firmly believes. Wilthagen is Professor of Labor Market Dynamics at Tilburg University and the initiator of the Brabant Robot Challenge. On the final day of this challange, January 16, 2017, five student teams pitched their ideas for using robotics in care.

Winning Team Brabant Robot Challenge

Winning Team Brabant Robot Challenge

Zora, a humanoid robot, has proven to be of great value in care institutions. The Brabant Robot Challenge students who watched the care robot in action saw how the dementia-afflicted residents perked up the moment Zora entered the living room. But its enthusiastic rendition of the hyperactive Gangnam Style song gave them quite a start.

An ABBA song might be more suitable – one of the many suggestions which students offered to their client, Stichting Vughterstede, that won them the Brabant Robot Challenge award: they came out on top against four other teams. One of the students was Jens Thomaes, who studies Law & Technology at Tilburg University. As the jury noted: ‘The students suggested specific improvements that can be implemented straight away.’


‘I think the Brabant Robot Challenge has been a successful experiment,’ says Professor Ton Wilthagen. ‘We’ve brought together care institutions, companies, and students in higher education in Brabant. That’s what Brabant is really good at. Silicon Valley is innovative because non-compete clauses have been abolished and so anyone can transfer from Apple to Google. We’re innovative because we seek each other out.’

It is a view Bert Pauli, member of the Provincial Executive, whose portfolio includes Economy and Internationalization, wholeheartedly endorses. ‘That’s why I think an event such as this one is great. Open innovation is Brabant’s forte. And schools are the perfect breeding ground for new outlooks and revenue models.’


Eleftherios Chelioudakis is one of the students who took part in the challenge. ‘I study law at Tilburg Law School and what I liked most about this event was working together with students from a completely different field, such as information science. Of course, it took a while for us to get used to each other, but in the end I found the event to be truly inspirational.’

When asked what law and robots have in common, Chelioudakis’s answer is very clear: ‘A great deal! The privacy dimension of all those new initiatives in robotics is just one example. Lawyers can really weigh in there.’

Ton Wilthagen fully agrees. ‘Robotics shouldn’t be left to the techies: the key thing is to bring together various disciplines to help steer that technical revolution – ‘enabling technology’ as I call it. That requires the involvement of lawyers, ethicists, labor market experts such as myself, and many other specialists. And this is precisely where Tilburg University comes into its own. If we join forces in Brabant, we needn’t fear robots: we can actually reap the benefits they represent.’

From dull to dazzling

PhD student Robbert Coenmans worked closely together with Wilthagen. ‘Our initial idea was to arrange a series of lectures at various institutions, but we quickly dismissed that plan as being a bit tame. We then asked ourselves: wouldn’t it be possible to deploy students at care institutions so they can have a shot at dealing with real-life situations? That’s how the challenge was born.’

Wanda Kruijt of care institution GgzEi ‘really enjoyed’ working with the students. ‘We deal with ethical issues every day. Our patients sometimes really build a relationship with a care robot, but that robot is controlled by a member of staff using an iPad. Now suppose that member of staff hears a patient telling the robot that they are hiding their medication rather than taking it, how do we respond? This is the kind of dilemma the students have tackled head-on, and they have presented a problem-solving approach that will definitely help us move forward.’

Text: Raymond Krul for Tilburg University