In the world’s eyes, groundbreaking robotic innovations are usually associated with the high-tech research carried out in leading countries like the U.S. or Japan. Nevertheless, Italy as well boasts a very productive robotics sector, which is one of the best examples of our creativity, programming and manufacturing skills.
Riccardo Oldani is a Milanese science journalist, who collaborates with major Italian journals, such as Focus, Quark, Newton, National Geographic Italia, and La Macchina del Tempo. Among other interests – including renewable energies, industrial innovation, and modern technologies applied to the food and wine industry, – he has recently published his second book, “Spaghetti Robot,” and shed light on Italy’s excellence in this key field of modern science.
How has your interest in robotics developed and how was “Spaghetti Robot” born?
As a science journalist, over the last 15 years, I had many occasions to visit high-level Italian research labs that work on robots. Centers of excellence in this field have been established at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Tuscany region, and the Italian Institute of Technology in the northern city of Genoa, hosting students and researchers from all over the world. At some point, I realized that the information collected was enough to write a book on this topic, and the publishing house Codice Edizioni Torino welcomed my idea.
In your opinion, why is robotics “made in Italy” barely known, despite being an example of excellence?
The Italian universities and research centers have always paid more attention to research itself rather than scientific communication and dissemination, and in this regard they still fall behind their international counterparts. The reason is also in the relationship with the mass media: unlike their American colleagues, many Italian scientists can’t understand or take advantage of the key role played by mass communication in promoting their research.
What would you say is the main feature – either good or bad – of Italian robotics, compared with other leading countries like the U.S.?
As far as I can see, Italian scientists usually design and manufacture “human-centered” robots. Nothing to do with simple machines, programmed to replace us at work or to be employed in war, they are rather created to help, collaborate, and even save us if need be. It’s no coincidence that a new discipline called “roboethics” has developed in Italy, focusing on ethical issues with the aim of producing harmless robots. Yet due to scarce and uncoordinated R&D funds, many projects can’t be fully implemented, while in countries like the U.S. or Japan both the initial selection of the projects and the allocation of the resources are more accurate.
Can you reveal some of the most significant innovations in robotics, developed by Italian researchers and potentially capable of changing our lives in the near future?
They are so many that it would be impossible for me to mention them all. Perhaps two of the most extraordinary ones are a robotic hand and arm prosthesis, designed by Pisa’s Institute for Biorobotics of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in the framework of a European project. It has been the first prosthesis of this kind ever to be implanted on an amputee, a Danish volunteer, connecting to his nervous system and responding to brain stimuli like a real arm, and even capable of recreating the sense of touch. Several other centers in Italy are working on similar projects, with the goal to produce a low-cost prosthesis (less than a hundred dollars) for all the people who lose an arm in accidents, at work, or in war.
Robotic cars represent another great innovation made in Italy. Far before Google entered this business sector, the Italian Vislab in Parma, Emilia Romagna region, developed a kit to be installed on mass produced cars to allow them to safely travel without driver on any roads in the city as well as in the countryside. In 2010, one of these robotic cars traveled for over 8,000 miles from Parma to Shanghai without incidents, and in 2013 it was tested in urban traffic conditions in Parma. All major automotive companies worldwide have taken interest in Vislab’s work, until the laboratory was recently bought for 30 million dollars by the American Ambarella group, which intends to keep the Italian location and staff.