Looking towards 2021 with hope and optimism

Giorgio Metta

The end-of-year reflections of the Scientific Director Giorgio Metta*

2020 has been a complex year for everyone. But research never stopped: on the contrary. Without doubt, many activities were linked to the pandemic: research centres, universities and companies joined forces to face a situation that unfortunately remains problematic still today. IIT also helped in dealing with the health emergency. Even though this subject was not central in the activities included in our scientific programme, we launched the IITvsCovid-19 project, cooperating with health companies and structures, research institutes and groups, providing extra “weapons” for combating the pandemic: new emergency respirators, new PPE, AI and robotic diagnostics systems, and much more besides. However, luckily, at IIT, just as at other organisations and universities worldwide, “routine” research activities never stopped, and important results were attained in all fields of science, though these were somewhat diluted in terms of media coverage in a scenario that was understandably focused on coronavirus and on handling this emergency.

In 2020 we reached important results in the area of robotic prosthetics: our robotic prosthetic hand Hannes, developed with Inail, won the Compasso d’oro (Golden Compass) design prize, and was featured on the cover of the prestigious magazine Science Robotics; likewise, Softhand Pro, the prosthetic hand that attracted many European grants and that was the outcome of cooperation with the University of Pisa, came second in the Cybathlon, the Cyborg Olympics. Studies on life sciences technology also attained exceptional results: the creation of a new drug, designed by a multidisciplinary team of neuroscientists and computational scientists, to reduce the cognitive impairments characteristic of the Down syndrome and certain neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism; and studies on RNA-based pharmaceuticals that show great promise for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Lastly, we should not forget the very recent project that combines robotics and life sciences, in which our iCub robot is testing programmes that provide help for children affected by problems in the area of autism.

There are yet other themes that have been partially obscured by the effects of this unprecedented situation, including its media impact: the importance of finance for research, the transfer of technology, and the industry 4.0 plan, which, notwithstanding everything, is continuing, increasingly connecting the world of science and technology with that of enterprise. New innovation hubs have been founded, such as Amave, managed by the Competence Center Start 4.0, while other centres of expertise have been further empowered, such as Seastar, dedicated to energy and sustainability, involving MISE (Ministero dello Sviluppo Economico, Ministry of Economic Development) and Politecnico di Torino (Turin Technical University) in addition to IIT. In 2021 we will open the Center for Joint Industrial Research at the heart of Valpolcevera, in an area that today, more than ever before, needs relaunching, sited precisely under the new Bridge that symbolises hope in science and technology. It will be a state-of-the-art infrastructure, with interiors equipped for the production of large-scale industrial robots, analogous to those made by IIT and Camozzi for Ponte San Giorgio (the St. George Bridge), and with about 150 researchers working there, in laboratories that are all linked to high-tech industries and a business incubator. Considering the calculating power of our recent HPC – High Performance Computer – along with the super computer named Franklin, installed in cooperation with Liguria Digitale and that alone represents about 10% of the total calculating power in Italy, and the network infrastructures programmed for our region, I think that we can truly look towards the coming year with hope.

For next year, we have programmed the launch of important projects which include: one dedicated to sustainability, with about 40 research teams which will be focusing on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) comprised in the 2030 Agenda, one dedicated to Artificial Intelligence, which will be increasingly multi-sectorial, impacting every field of research (from medicine and the science of materials, right through to robotics), and one dedicated to studies on RNA, a molecule that is at the base of complex cellular processes and that opens up new prospects for understanding and combating incurable diseases. Over the next few years, Italy will have to dedicate continuously-increasing attention to technological research and innovation. We are ensuring that the institutions are constantly aware of the importance of not abandoning science, considering it not only as a source of solutions to problems, but also as a way of posing new questions and challenges to be faced in order to improve people’s lives. Scientific research is like a journey to the moon, you can’t do it alone. Many people are needed, with different skills, working together towards a shared objective. Whatever the goal, as a country and as a company, we have to work together, researchers, institutions, enterprise and citizens, in order to give our children a better world worth living in.

*Article already published in Il Secolo XIX on the 28th December, 2020