From the Roomba vacuum robot to Elon Musk’s Tesla with integrated AI, we are already submerged in a world of automation, of robotics. There is a whole host of engineers who come up with the ideas before they are even put into action. And among a thousand other difficulties, they have to compete to obtain enough funding. Christian Cipriani is one of these, an electrical engineer who found his way in the field of biorobotics (a discipline based around automation and biomedical engineering). This path took him to 2017, when he became the Director of the Biorobotics Institute at the Sant’Anna School, a public university in Pisa. It is a centre for excellence, where theory meets the practical to create the most advanced projects. It is a place that, “Allows all the researchers that work there to achieve their dreams,” is how Cipriani sums it up. All this while keeping a keen focus on their aim of improving people’s lives, especially those – amputees for example – who, through technology can regain a fully functional relationship with the world around them.
How did you get into biorobotics?
There was no particular reason that brought me into biorobotics. Let me explain: I studied electrical engineering and the day I graduated, a new postgraduate school – the IMT in Lucca, my home town – was established. I saw the news in the local paper and decided to apply, because I was particularly interested in the robotics part of what they would be teaching there. After all, I’ve always been interested in things that move, understanding how objects work. It was sheer luck that the right opportunity found me and over the course of my PhD in biorobotics, I was able to focus my research on the prosthetics sector – something that immediately captured my passion and fascinated me.
What routes are there today to become a specialist in this area?
There are many ways to get into this world. On the one hand, there’s the engineering side: electronics mechanics, IT, biomedics. Those studying in these fields make up the majority of biorobotics postgraduates and other figures who, over the years, have worked with our Institute. It’s the main way of getting involved in the activities that we undertake at the Sant’Anna School. Essentially, with a degree in any of these subjects you’ll be able to go on to cover one of the roles necessary to be able to build robots, by developing a specialism or by expanding their knowledge. On the other hand, you could get into biorobotics by studying biology, neuroscience, psychology and other subjects within specific, clinical areas. In essence, the biorobotics discipline is based around a mix of skills that complement one another, going beyond just a simple mechanism – it’s more than just light on or light off.
Our researchers have access to very few funds, but without a doubt they rank within the top six or seven research centres in the world.”
The “mio-kinetics” system is at the centre of your research, What is this?
First and foremost, we should underline that mio-kinetics is a word that didn’t exist before and that we invented ourselves to define a new system, an interface, the purpose of which is to measure the muscle contractions of an amputated limb. Let’s take, for instance, the case of a person who has lost an arm. That person presents residual musculature that, before, would have moved the fingers on the hand. Our aim is to insert magnetic markers into these residual muscles so as to understand how they contract and what a person’s intention is when they’re trying to perform certain actions. All of this is so that we can take that knowledge and implement it into an artificial limb that would then restore a person’s grip, the ability to make gestures and full physical operation. Essentially, the idea is to try to turn a subject’s intention into action, by reading the magnetic fields generated by these magnets, which move in synch with the muscles as they contract. We at the Sant’Anna Institute are the first to work on this matter. It's an emerging sector on which we have focused our attention for three years and it receives funding from the European Research Council. We still have several years of research ahead of us, aimed at developing and using the first implementation of this on a person.
You became Director of the Biorobotics Institute at the Sant’Anna School in Pisa in December 2017. What type of setting is it and what is its mission?
The Sant’Anna School is a public university, funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research. Only the very best students get in. In addition to study and teaching for regular students, the Sant’Anna School also has a strong research mission that it carries out across six institutes. Around half of these are devoted to experimental science, the other half to social sciences. The Institute of Biorobotics, of which I am in charge, is part of the former. This position will last for at least the next three or four years, with the target of consolidating the findings of our research. After all, while the institutes were officially founded in 2011, they gather evidence from research labs that existed in the 80s and that here in Pisa can be traced back to our founder – my predecessor – Professor Paolo Dario. Given his importance across the entire landscape of robotics in Italy and his pioneering role in teaching and education – from nothing, he built one of the most important centres for this field and helped it flourish – my responsibility is nothing if not to consolidate as best as possible our position as one of the leading biorobotics facilities in Italy and in Europe.
How do you face the academic and economic competition in order to accomplish all this?
Competition is really high, within Italy and across Europe. In Italy in particular, the level is so high that – paradoxically – it becomes a lottery draw. I mean that the ordinary funds for financing projects have been at historically low levels for several years and the range of applicants is vast, so you’re competing for money and the likelihood of winning it is extremely low. This makes the entire system unsustainable. This, of course, does not mean that we don't receive any funds, but it’s a complicated process that doesn't observe deadlines and is weighed down by bureaucracy. Across the continent, the largest, most substantial funds are those coming from the European Commission, but we really have to sweat to get them because there are so many applicants. In fact, the number increases every time the EU gets bigger. And to win them you have to work, to make sacrifices in order to meet certain criteria. Performance is key in this context. In a recent study, the Sant’Anna School had the highest rate of European financing per lecturer. The same can be said of the Institute of which I am in charge, which is currently top out of six European projects.
The next step is not going as well: transforming new findings, the unique results of our research, into products and processes that match their innovative nature. In terms of culture and entrepreneurial approach, we’re a little behind.
From your advantageous viewpoint, how do you rate innovation and research in Italy?
Supported by various data freely available online, I believe Italian research is going really well. Of course, our researchers perhaps don't have access to much in the way of funds, but without a doubt they rank within the top six or seven research centres in the world. That’s to say, we’re more efficient than the Americans. What’s not not going so well is transforming new findings, the unique results of our research, into products and processes that match their innovative nature. In terms of culture and entrepreneurial approach, we’re a little behind. Basically, Italy is no Silicon Valley. Spin-off companies are set up, but they struggle to grow. When they find large funds, they may end up having to sell their souls to the devil, or else be crushed by the kind of bureaucracy that is fatal for small, innovative companies. Even I have had a first-hand experience of business and I assure you that sometimes you want to tear your hair out: you have to become an expert in safety, a lawyer, an accountant all at once. There are too many things to learn that we could do without. Even the most willing find themselves caught up in red tape, in a conservative environment where wealth is not reinvested. Fortunately, there are still companies that are clued-in, that understand that innovation is necessary to become competitive on the market. It’s a shame there are still so few of them.