Interview 24 November Nov 2017 1100 24 November 2017

Barbara Mazzolai, mother of the plantoid: “Innovation means going against stereotypes”

The IIT Researcher: “Nobody believed in the Plantoid. Perhaps, if I had been a man, they might have taken me more seriously. The best work environment? A multi-disciplinary one”

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Definition of “out of the box”: take a girl, get her to study a science subject such as biology, move her into alien territory, such as engineering and robotics, and encourage her to revolutionise it with brand new ideas. The result is Barbara Mazzolai, a researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology - an avant-garde scientific outpost of the staunchest anti-science country, at least in the Western World. Ms Mazzolai is the mind behind the Plantoid project, conceived with a view to producing plant-like robots: “I deal with biologically-inspired - or, if you prefer, nature inspired - robotics,” she says. “Our aim is to study nature and uncover its secrets, ranging from materials to modes of locomotion. Our job is to first observe them, and then to try to replicate them mechanically, either by means of a robot or a sensor.”

This robotics branch is undergoing a profound evolution and is garnering increasing attention - above all, of course, as regards humanoids and animaloids: platforms that fly, or robots that run like cheetahs, swim like fish, or climb like monkeys. “Contrary to what one might expect, science mostly focuses on replicating the behaviour of insects,” says Ms Mazzolai. “Almost more than that of humans,” she adds.

The researcher has opted for plants, but not as her first choice: “I too started out with animals,” she says. “My first project involved an octopus-robot, created together with Cecilia Laschi from the Sant'Anna Institute. It was the world’s first ever octopus-robot.” So why move on to plants? “I started out as a biophysicist, dealing with the effect of pollutants on the environment,” Ms Mazzolai tells us. “Then I won a scholarship for an international Master in Engineering at the Sant'Anna Institute." After her Master, the Engineers of the Sant'Anna Institute asked her to stay on, working with them on technologies in favour of the environment.

Barbara Mazzolai’s idea was to build a robot whose main feature was the ability to adapt to the surrounding environment - almost mimicking the researcher’s own life, marked by her need to adapt to alien, if not hostile, environments.

Her engineering colleagues had stumbled upon a problem: the quality of soil, which is so heterogeneous and sensitive in nature, was much more difficult to measure than the air and water: “That was when I took inspiration from the plant world; a world we know very little about”, says Ms Mazzolai. Her face lights up as she speaks: “A robot designed to measure the quality of soil must fit into narrow spaces; it must be able to move and adapt to unforeseen situations,” she explains. “Plants are a paradigm for all this: plants are the only living beings that associate movement with growth. Plants continuously change morphology. This is because, throughout their whole life, they grow and adapt to the surrounding environment. Plants also penetrate the ground in depth, creating networks and infrastructures. They were perfect: all we had to do was imitate them”.

Taking this concept to the extreme, Barbara Mazzolai’s idea was to build a robot whose main feature was the ability to adapt to the surrounding environment - almost mimicking the researcher’s own life, marked by her need to adapt to alien, if not hostile, environments: “At the start, when I first presented the idea for my plantoid, people were very sceptical,” she recalls. “After all, we are all used to thinking of plants as being unable to move, communicate or perceive the environment. Instead, they move continuously and adapt to the environment better than any animal.”

Things are different now, of course, but what counts is the moment “you understand that your strength lies in your diversity. Nowadays, I am very happy. I work with lots of different people with the most diverse backgrounds. I had never been lucky enough to work in a multidisciplinary context, and this is something I really appreciate. However, that alone is not enough: I will not rest until these machines work the way I want them to do. And I want them to be useful to man”. But I though robots were bad?

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