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Video Interview


Engineering, Robotics

Paolo Fiorini




Prof. Paolo Fiorini received a Laurea degree in electronic engineering from the University of Padova, Padova, Italy, in 1976, a MSEE degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Irvine, Irvine, CA, USA, in 1982, and a Ph.D. degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1995. From 1985 to 2000, he was with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, where he worked on telerobotic and teleoperated systems for space exploration. Since 2000 he has been a professor in the School of Science of the University of Verona, Italy, where he first founded the ALTAIR Robotics Laboratory. He is currently a Full Professor in computer science with the University of Verona. His research interests include teleoperation for surgery, service, and exploration robotics funded by several European projects.

Interview with:

Host: "In the field of science and economics, robotics  has become a rapidly developing sector within a few years. With its various applications, it is forcibly entering into the management of our daily lives. Professor Paolo Fiorini, you are one of the most distinguished experts at the international level. Who better than you can give us a panorama of the various centers of excellence that flourish both in Italy and in the United States? "

Guest: "There are no more isolated centers of excellence. Robotics and even more artificial intelligence are technologies addressed in almost all Italian (and obviously European) and American universities. By now we must focus on the area of specialization that interests us and then look for which researchers are addressing that area. Obviously the historical centers of robotics in the USA (MIT, Stanford, UPenn, UC Berkeley, Caltech) and the Italian ones (POLIMI, Sant'Anna, Sapienza, UNIBO, Federico II, UNIGE, UNIPI, IIT) cover a very wide spectrum of areas , and can respond to almost all needs, but not all, given that there are now many sub-areas, extremely specialized, which have developed considerably.

In recent years, networks have sprung up that bring together organizations, institutes and researchers in robotics. The largest organization is the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society (RAS), while the I-RIM (Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines) association was recently founded in Italy. At European level, robotics activities are funded by the European Commission's DG-CNECT. In recent months, however, and even more within the next Horizon Europe framework program, robotics has been assigned a secondary position with respect to artificial intelligence . The term robotics has almost disappeared in the funding calls (and if it is present robotics projects are not financed). It is a situation similar to that which occurred in the late 1980s when there was an explosion of neural networks and expert systems, which blocked (in the USA) funding for robotics projects. In that case, artificial intelligence did not turn out to live up to the promises, but for many years the funding was channeled only in that direction. We are witnessing a similar phenomenon even now, we will see the results.

As for the current COVID-19 emergency, unfortunately there are still very few robot manufacturers to respond quickly to current needs. In the laboratories there are many prototypes, but they are not robust enough to deal with real situations, as already happened for Chernobyl and Fukushima, where the robots used to explore the two sites broke after a few hours of use. There are initiatives at a global level (European and Italian) to try to overcome these limitations, integrating the skills of researchers with those of the medical communities and makers. The last ones in fact can provide accurate specifications and "distributed" construction skills, which could prove very useful.

In the world of science in general, exchanges and relations between researchers from various countries constitute the fruitful humus for academic training with the consequent stimulus for the creation of projects and start-ups. ISSNAF is a foundation that since its inception in 2008 has pursued its mission as a bridge to facilitate an effective dialogue that leads to this type of exchanges. How can we strengthen the relationship between the two areas, in particular with regard to the job sector such as academia, industry, start-ups?

The possibilities of these exchanges are endless. There are also forms of funding (for example Erasmus +) which can be used appropriately. It should be noted that, in Italy, each university usually provides additional funds to promote the mobility of researchers, both incoming and outgoing, and that research projects often explicitly include the possibility of financing visits by foreign researchers. The common problem for both the USA and Italy is the lack of qualified people who can work in robotics. In the USA, given the acclaimed equivalence of robotics = artificial intelligence (AI), all graduates with a thesis even minimally dealing with AI immediately find work in cutting-edge companies. For this reason, it is very difficult to hire good people at universities and to keep them for one or two years. In my laboratory, I “lost” several promising young engineers to companies in the rest of Europa. In addition, Italy has also the problem of not being able to offer academic careers with precise timelines to young people, who therefore may accept less stimulating jobs, when they do not receive concrete offers from universities. Funding for the university has always been small (and decreasing) and the current emergency and the debts that will be accumulated to manage the current epidemic, will make research funding even leaner. An alternative halfway between academia and company is to join a start-up. These companies often offer stimulating jobs in a context of advanced technology. Italy, however, is not Silicon Valley and the ecosystem that should support start-ups is very small and often unreliable. There are few financing companies and it is very difficult to find people who could support a start-up with the appropriate competence and track record. There are many so-called "angel investors", but you have to be very careful and request precise credentials, and yet this is not always enough to avoid unpleasant surprises.

With regard to the research centers one would say that the substantial differences between North America and Italy in the organizational and economic legislative sectors create difficulties in the dialogue and operational interaction between the two areas. One of consequences of this is probably the phenomenon of brain drain in Italy. How can common actions be taken to mitigate the negative impact of these problems?

It no longer makes sense to talk about brain drain or return. In the global economy you can live and work well everywhere, but every nation, or region, has its specific aspects. The opportunities offered by companies in the USA are difficult to find in Europe, while a certain quality of life found in Europe is difficult to find in the USA. Personal and professional choices must be considered to find the best solution, type of work and type of life, social and cultural relationships, level of salary and cost of living, etc., but I would say that at the present time the possibilities to obtain a very satisfactory accommodation on both sides of the ocean are many. Obviously, a good choice must be prepared and not improvised, by choosing the right specialization, by making a post-doc in a growing sector, by creating and taking care of the necessary contacts. All these things are obvious, but sometimes they are forgotten when a young researcher is rushing to finish her or his PhD.

And yet many young people in Italy, who have left their country to study abroad, find it difficult to return due to the lack of an adequate network that can accommodate them and offer the opportunity to use the acquired experience, while receiving an adequate economic remuneration.

In Italy, unfortunately, professional skills are not highly appreciated in many companies. Obviously companies try to take the best people available on the market but the job offered, the career opportunities and economic growth are not even comparable with the possibilities that exist in the USA. In particular, advanced degrees are not fully appreciated by companies, whose objectives may have a shorter time horizon. Obviously there are exceptions, both in companies and in research centers, but the Italian industrial world is (rightly or not) very conservative and does not like risks (see the few investments in start-ups and the very few projects with universities), unlike the American world which loves to bet, often risking to lose all the investment. But in the USA, failure is not a mark of "infamy" as in Italy, but it is a sign of resourcefulness and of experience gained. In high-tech activities it is unthinkable not to take risks, and therefore it is logical to expect many failures. If there is no such propensity to risk, new initiatives will not grow or they will grow in a state of suffocation, without funds and without great prospects. Unfortunately, young people who grow up in this environment, especially in the academy, lose the desire to face risks and aim at high rewards. Some of them are satisfied with their daily routine. Fortunately there are many exceptions, but they do not receive the due reward and are not brought as models of virtuous behavior, on the contrary, sometimes the opposite may occur."

Host: "Ethics and communication are two factors that play a consistent role in robotics. The interaction between man and machine varies according to the culture in which it develops. Italy and the USA rotate in the same western sphere of influence, but there may be differences in reference to certain values. To conclude this interview, professor Fiorini, it would be very useful to understand how this problem is addressed in the two countries?"

Guest: "The Ethical, Legal and Social (ELS) aspects of robotics are becoming an extremely important part of the discussion about robotics and artificial intelligence and their impact on the society. Europe has always been on the forefront on the discussion on these themes, since the early 2000’s with two very important workshops on Roboethics. At that time, we did not talk yet about autonomous car and intelligent machines, but now that these technologies are (almost) commercial products, we need to address them again. ELS is challenging because of the many meaning that we can give to ethics, because of the legal lag that there is between the legal framework in which new products will operate and, finally, because of the potential massive impact of these technologies on the society. Very briefly, when we talk about ethics we may think of “ethical machines”, i.e. machines that can/must decide how to behave. This point of view is very well expressed by the MIT project “Moral Machine” that surveyed several millions Internet users to understand how each community would expect an autonomous car to behave in a critical situation. In Europe two important projects funded by the European Commission (RockEU and RockEU2) addressed specifically the ELS issue by examining the ethical “impact” of intelligent machines, i.e. how they would change the society when deployed. In this case, the ethical problem is tightly coupled to the social problem, i.e. what would be an ethical use of a machine that can replace a human worker? Efficiency may not be the only paramenter to consider since economical benefits must be traded with costs for the society as a whole. The ELS aspects of intelligent machines have been addressed by an EU report on trustworthy AI, and the EU has issued a document regarding the liability aspects of intelligent machines. In my research, I am facing these issues all the time, since I am studying the technologies that endow surgical robots of some autonomy to help surgeons in their tasks. Here the issue is not to replace the surgeon but how to communicate in an effective way what the system is proposing. Communication is in fact a key issue of the ELS problems. For example how do you explain to a patient that the robot will make some autonomous decision? Or how to start a public discussion about the benefits of intelligent machines, e.g. preserving jobs that could disappear or attract young people to artisan jobs, and their risks, e.g. unemployment and loss of blue and white collar jobs? This discussion is ready to start in Europe, whereas in the US I did not see any evidence of interest in the topics. Furthermore, the current emergency situation makes all these discussions futile, and hopefully we will be able to pick them up again, once the Covid-19 virus has been defeated."

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