From a degree in physics to studies in nanotechnology and their diagnostic applications, and then on to robotics. This is the path followed by Roberto Cingolani, one of the 14 top Italian scientists called by the Lombardy Region to participate in the jury of the new international "Lombardy Is Research" award which will be given to the winner Giacomo Rizzolatti on 8 November at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Having travelled from Bari to Genoa (passing through prestigious research centres in Germany, Japan and USA), Roberto Cingolani is the Scientific Director of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa, one of the world's leading research centres on Artificial Intelligence (AI). From there he tells us about the prospects in his field of study, how the career of researcher must be reformed, his experience as a member of the jury for what he calls "an extraordinarily intelligent and meaningful initiative: this award is a credit to the driver of this country that is Lombardy".
Director, first of all, for you what does it mean today to work with robotics?
"People tend to associate it immediately with androids, a machine made of nuts and bolts with a human appearance, but AI is something much more complex. We're talking about technologies that must go beyond the banal imitation of human behaviour, nor can we think that AI is just computation. Instead, it means to reproduce that essential link between body and mind that distinguishes living things, in particular primates and humans, a relationship developed over millions of years and that is not just the sum of several factors, but something much more sophisticated governed by biochemistry. Today robotics and AI must draw on evolution, on the solutions developed in nature - that work very well, are adaptive and consume very little energy - in order to transfer them to technology. Doing so involves biochemistry, psychology, mechanical engineering, materials nanotechnology: the technological paradigm developed so far must be reassessed. Achieving the objective also means developing replacement organs for humans, rehabilitating children who have neurodevelopmental problems and people who have lost a limb, or developing biodegradable materials. In short, the objective is not to build a new doll that acts just like us, that's just the tip of the iceberg".
But IIT is also famous for iCub, the robot child that was recently joined by the R1 version for domestic work. Will we see them one day in our homes?
"You have to have a clear idea of the time horizon. IIT has developed platforms that reproduce the entire evolutionary path: we have a robot plant, a robot quadruped, a robot child and an adult. Now we are developing centaur robots for extreme situations, like fires or disasters. Simply said, we are making a systematic effort to draw lessons from nature and reproduce some synergies in various applications. For example, in the robot plant the robotic part is in the roots, we developed it with the idea of creating an intelligent endoscope that knows how to explore the human body just as roots move underground to look for nourishment, overcoming obstacles. In the case of the domestic robot, whose software system we developed in collaboration with IBM, the functions may be different: one is that of caregiver - it picks up objects from the ground and helps you move them from place to place, becoming a home assistant - the other that of a nurse, able to recognise a medication and to carry it where it is needed, a third that of a store salesperson. So these are machines that must carry out routine tasks, boring, with an AI able to communicate in a basic manner and especially to identify risks (send images, recognise if a person has fallen). If we look at the evolution of mobile phones, in 20 years we have gone from a telephone to what is now basically an extension of our brain, guardian of our memories and everything that has to do with our daily lives. The function of our robots should be the same as that of the smartphone: a personal assistant that not only extends our mental abilities (memory, calculation, etc.) but also physical, performing little services. At this point we are already used to being accompanied by this kind of technology. The big news is that soon it will be as if our smartphone was able to perform movements for us, helping us with small daily activities".
The nurse function evokes the controversy about robots ready to take over all our jobs, especially in certain sectors. How do you deal with this prospect?
"It is certainly a current issue and it is important to talk about it. In recent centuries, every new technology has led to the elimination of some trades. It is equally true, however, that new technologies bring with them new needs, so that after a few years things even out and for every job lost in a certain area 10 others are created in other sectors. The problem is that until the 1970s the development of these new technologies was steady, giving us a chance to get used to their pervasiveness and to take countermeasures. In more recent years, however, the technology has begun to grow so fast that our society cannot metabolise them. I do not doubt that increased automation through intelligent machines will create more jobs than those that will be supplanted: I think of manufacturing, technical service, jobs that do not exist today like a cloud manager. But times are moving so quickly that we get scared, then it becomes important to have some rules and most importantly discuss all this before it happens, contrary to what we did with the internet. By the time we realised how pervasive the web is, it was too late. Today it is premature to worry about it, I don't see a massive loss of jobs over the next three years, but surely the time is right to take some countermeasures. Taking into account the different scales: it is possible that in the most advanced countries high-routine low-skill jobs might be lost, but in the meantime automation will improve water consumption and the environmental footprint of manufacturing processes, if you produce more food in a more sustainable manner the impact of the technology on a global level can offset the negative effects at the local level".
So it is crucial to orient the increased productivity brought by automation?
"It is clear that if the development model is a 2% growth rate in advanced countries with no consideration towards what happens to other people, against whom we erect walls and don't worry if they have nothing to eat, the overall outcome will be negative. The scenario toward which we are moving may seem like this but there is another possible horizon: that of a more delocalised and sustainable development, where growth of the most advanced countries is perhaps 1.3% but with benefits that affect 70% of the world population, who today don't have problems with growth but rather with survival. If we don't want to shut ourselves inside a golden bubble, I see in automation something that can greatly improve the condition of the planet on a global level: for example, I think of crops managed by intelligent machines, able to exploit the land without impoverishing it. If we want to feed everybody then we have to focus on new technologies. At this time there are no solutions: but it's crucial to discuss the question of automation without dire predictions on the one hand and excessive optimism on the other. The way forward passes through a non-ideological analysis and informed citizens, a public awareness of the pros and cons and taking a position at the time of the vote".
In the jury for the new prize awarded by the Lombard regional council you worked with colleagues from very different disciplines related to life sciences. What area of research seems most promising with regard to innovations that can affect the daily lives of private citizens?
"I have lived in many parts of the world, but I was born in Milan to a Lombard family and this is another reason why I find the 'Lombardy Is Research' prize to be extraordinarily intelligent and meaningful. It's a tribute to the driver of this country that is Lombardy, and Milan in particular. Five years ago I would be a fish out of water in a commission like this, but now computer science and robotics are already going arm in arm with chemistry and biology. Starting from this precise experience, from my point of view what the future holds is a growing mix of advanced technologies in the Life Sciences, quantum and otherwise, from gene therapies to personalised care. I also see great development for instrumentation technologies, in imaging, genetics and computing applied to medicine".
Taking a step back to your guidance of the incubation phase of the Human Technopole, near Milan, for which you designed an architecture centred on Life Sciences, divided into seven areas: is the aggregation of research centres the winning path to compete on a global scale?
"Absolutely. With the Human Technopole we proposed something that recalls the Broad Institute in the US and the Japanese Riken, national initiatives with an international value. The goal is to bring together genomics, molecular, clinical and pharmaceutical biology, processing of Big Data, skills with sensors, according to the interdisciplinary paradigm we talked about with regard to the prize. We must therefore have the humility of a global perspective, none of these skills can claim greater weight than the others. Medicine today must deal with different areas and find a common language among them in the name of a higher interest, that of the health of our citizens. In my opinion, those who oppose this model are protecting their own turf, trying to maintain leadership in their own sectors".
Talking more generally about the status of research in our country, public funds are scarce: how much does this penalise us?
"There is no doubt that there is a lack of money: we invest half of what other developed countries do. We need to do more. But there's another aspect to consider: I think the rules of engagement of researchers in our universities have to change, because today our recruitment is done in an archaic and unattractive manner, so it's not enough to say that there's a lack of funds, we must also change our method of governance. As for individuals, they too must invest in research, but since they have the idea of making a profit in three to five years, the long-term perspective can only come from public funding. Only in this way by the way will private citizens be motivated to believe in research and to invest money".
Finally, what are the obstacles that we need to overcome today to have more patents, research and innovation?
"There is a problem of public awareness, as I said before, because innovators are trained starting when they are six years old. You have to start from schools, the spread of information and newspapers. Our culture should be more oriented to problem solving. For example, I have three children aged 8 to 23 years. In their studies they have studied the Punic Wars four times and their programmes have never changed even though the oldest belongs to the keyboard generation and the smallest to that of the touchscreen. In short, our system doesn't evolve and this is worrying. But to change we need to invest, for example to have more teachers. Secondly, the entire career of the researcher should be reformed. To select the best we should adopt international criteria, both for recruitment and for subsequent evaluation: the idea of a public selection without further verification is no longer adequate. At IIT, which is a public centre, we use these criteria: there are 1,600 people, half of whom come from 58 different countries, and the evaluation is carried out by a panel of international 'peers' so there are no conflicts of interest in Italy, able to certify the competitiveness of a researcher. So the sole objective cannot be stabilisation after 36 months, a period that is too limited, by the way, to judge a project. At IIT we have a multi-year strategic plan according to which we select skills through international calls, with five-year renewable contracts. Without any constraints of belonging to certain disciplines, as opposed to what is done in the universities, and without supervisors: during the years of the contract the researcher is fully autonomous".