The Italian Institute of Technology relies heavily on artificial intelligence and big data

The Italian Institute of Technology relies heavily on artificial intelligence and big data

The future? “Any IIT experimental activity will be a source of data”. And while political turbulence worries those who, like scientists, work on long and complex projects, it is to be hoped that "on some issues that are important for the well-being of all humanity, the programs of political parties and coalitions will follow the dictates of science and experimental evidence. There is now no doubt that climate change is a global problem that requires immediate action ". Giorgio Metta, born in Cagliari in 1970, is scientific director of the Italian Institute of Technology, where he took over from Roberto Cingolani, of which he was deputy, when he became Minister of Ecological Transition in the Draghi government. Over the years, Metta has put together a top level curriculum between academia, research and institutional positions. After graduating with honors in electronic engineering (1994), a PhD (2000) at the University of Genoa, from 2001 to 2002 he was a researcher at the prestigious AI-Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. He was one of the three Italian representatives at the 2018 G7 on artificial intelligence (Ai) for the Ministry of Economic Development. Dad of the iCub platform - and of the homonymous child android robot - for the study of humanoid robotics, he is the author of over 300 scientific studies. With him, in the midst of the perfect storm for the planet made up of challenges that affect health, climate, geopolitical crises, new materials and artificial intelligence, took stock of the work of the Italian Institute of Technology, on the greatest successes of this very Anglo-Saxon and not very Italian body and on the innovations that the institute has introduced into the world of local research.

At what point are the objectives of the IIT Strategic Plan 2018-2023? Have you mitigated any delays due to the pandemic?

It being understood that in the world of research there is never a point of arrival because the researcher's goal is constantly shifting, once a goal has been reached, the next is already sought. Each new discovery opens the door to a myriad of alternative and increasingly challenging research directions. Compared to our plans, the pandemic period has seen us accelerate further. Iit has grown in all its indicators: number and size of projects, joint patents and laboratories, publications and their impact, media presence, launch of startups, demonstrating that our 'model' can be 'exported', in its quantitative and qualitative, nationally and internationally.

How many of the funds included in the M4C2 mission of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (Pnrr) have reached the IIT and for which projects?

We have received a total of approximately 100 million euros in funding, which represents an annual increase of 25 percent of the Institute's budget, assuming an average duration of three years for each project. As an example, we have a very important innovation ecosystem project called Raise, which sees the Liguria Region as institutional partners, and the technical-scientific collaboration with the University of Genoa, Cnr [the National Research Council, ed], the Ligurian Irccs [scientific hospitalization and treatment institutes, ed] and many other industrial partners in the area. The unifying theme is that of robotics and artificial intelligence declined in the sectors of health, port automation, smart city and environmental monitoring. We are also part of and lead the activities of some nodes (spokes) of the National Centers on "RNA technologies and gene therapies" and on "supercomputing, big data and quantum computing" coordinated respectively by the University of Padua and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics ( Infn).

The political crisis, the elections and the change of government put these projects at risk and in general what is your opinion on the state of health of public research in Italy?

The political crisis is certainly a cause for concern. As scientists, we can only hope that, on some issues that are important for the well-being of all humanity, the programs of political parties and coalitions will follow the dictates of science and experimental evidence. There is now no doubt that climate change is a global problem that requires immediate action. Diseases, hunger, hydrogeological instability, ecosystem reduction, wars, migrations, are some of the more or less direct consequences of the rapid change taking place. There are economic means and plans for an energy transition. We must use any means to strive to achieve the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations for 2030 and 2050. With respect to the state of health of research, important reforms have been initiated to modernize the recruitment system and career path of researchers adopting, at least at first glance, a system very similar to that of IIT. The NRP will also improve the overall infrastructure which is an important attraction factor. If the trend towards meritocracy continues to grow as in recent years, I believe that at the end of the NRP we will have taken an important step forward at the country level.

The IIT and its network of centers and laboratories are a unique reality in Italy, parallel to that of the universities with which your centers collaborate. In the past, in 2016 but also more recently, this unique nature has raised some controversy: what is the role of IIT in the Italian research ecosystem, on whom does it really depend in its scientific strategies?

The nature of Iit is singular only in appearance. First of all, IIT borrows a series of mechanisms and methodologies typical of the Anglo-Saxon world with regard to the recruitment and career development of scientists and some recent decrees also bring the university closer to this model. With respect to its strategies, IIT is as independent as universities and other entities. A statutory mission is given which is expressed in the development of technological research and its transfer to the productive fabric. The achievement of this mission is evaluated at all levels and ultimately by the supervisory ministries (Ministry of Economy and Finance and Ministry of University and Research). I like to underline the fact that Iit has brought an original and complementary vision to national research programs, investing mainly in a multidisciplinary approach. Several years ago, for example, we introduced in the Strategic Plan a research domain of computational sciences forerunner of today's boom in artificial intelligence.

The IIT was founded in 2003 to act as a bridge between research and the productive world. , As for example in Germany the network of Fraunhofer institutes on a much larger scale of the IIT: that function is carried out correctly and the exclusive relationship with the Ministry of Economy is an advantage or not an oddity for a scientific and technological research institute ? Among those over a thousand patents, are there really revolutionary ones for the industrial and productive world?

If we take the Fraunhofer as a unit of comparison, we discover that IIT is at least as productive as the German body. The difference is only partly due to the size: the Fraunhofer budget is almost 3 billion, that of IIT 150 million. The nature of IIT with respect to the referring ministries does not have a particular impact. Despite the 'special' relationship with the Ministry of Finance, Iit is also supervised by the Ministry of University and Research with which we have direct but also indirect relationships thanks to hundreds of collaborations with the world of public research. Our 11 entrances located throughout the country and co-located at the main universities represent another element of conjunction with national research. The nature of a foundation under private law allows Iit to use recruitment formulas modeled according to international standards. Following the latter, our assessment procedures for senior positions have always seen the involvement of panels of international scientists. This model made it possible to select a team of first-rate scientists who, clearly, obtain high-quality results.

Among the results it is worth mentioning not so much a specific patent - although we have obtained some patents of potential drugs that will go into trial and which we believe could be revolutionary - as far as high impact results are concerned. In one of our projects funded by the Aosta Valley Region, we started the first targeted and personalized therapy for a patient with cancer using sophisticated computational screening of genetic material. In a nutshell, precision medicine is within reach and many other patients will benefit from it in the coming years. budget of Iit, it is not even patented but simply incorporated into the products of the companies. In other cases, our technology transfer mission is expressed in the creation of companies (startups). In 2022 there are already five.

Should you indicate the biggest bet currently in the pipeline at the IIT, by "bet" I mean the most promising and rapidly implemented research front, which one would you mention?

Two words are enough: 'Ai first'. In the next Strategic Plan, which will see the light on January 1, 2024, I would like to make any IIT experimental activity a source of data, probably "big", suitably prepared and stored to allow the application of artificial intelligence algorithms, understood in its sense wider. I am thinking of laboratories where automation makes us faster, where AI helps us to select among the many possibilities of interpreting data, in which the scientist uses algorithms in a transversal way to be more efficient in his research. The experiment will always be the ultimate demonstration of the correctness of the hypotheses, but the speed will change thanks to the computation. We will do a lot in silico before moving into the physical world. I imagine a science where we no longer think of any barrier, be it between disciplines rather than the distinction between theory and applications.

How the geopolitical, raw materials and energy crisis have changed research priorities ?

Our Strategic Plan includes among the great challenges to which we would like to give an answer that of sustainability and that of health, issues strictly related to the general state of health of our ecosystem and to the particular health of citizens. The epidemiological results of cancer, the spread of communicable diseases, mental diseases and, in general, the quality of life show a direct link with pollutants, the state of the environment and cities, climate change. Our program therefore sees lines of research working on the development of biodegradable materials on the one hand and robotics for precision agriculture on the other, we have scientists who deal with CO 2 capture, as well as those who develop new materials for the realization of photovoltaic systems. These are just some of the examples extracted from an overall program that sees 82 thematic groups at work with about 1,600 people in total directly dedicated to research. I believe that increasingly, the duty of scientists, at least throughout this century, will be to work to ensure that science and the technologies derived from it address the problem of climate change, while keeping us healthy. A happy degrowth does not exist, the science-based transition does. An appeal to decision makers, of whatever nationality they are: we must act quickly because the current model will lead to dire consequences very quickly.

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