In Italy we tend to minimize academic conferences because we believe that the topics covered are "theoretical", distant from real life. Perhaps this happens because for too many years we have relegated the Italian university to a marginal role with respect to the economic and social development of the country. Or perhaps because we believe the role that a well-founded theory has on the effectiveness of the proposed solutions is of little use.
Whoever participated, like me, in the two days organized by CINI (National Interuniversity Consortium for Computer Science) on artificial intelligence in Italy, faced a reality that I would define schizophrenic. The afternoon of 18 in March was marked by a tight sequence of parallel thematic meetings on 12 different application areas of the IA: health and medicine, industrial automation, conservation and enhancement of cultural heritage, transport and smart cities, cybersecurity, multimedia content and art, space applications, food industry, public administration, finance, education. In each meeting, dozens of researchers and professionals from Italian universities and research centers, as well as from companies, presented the summary of the activities carried out. In total, in the 5 afternoon hours hundreds of short presentations alternated showing a great vitality of the Italian community in the field of Artificial Intelligence. And many positive examples of collaboration between academic research and business with internationally significant results.
But the next day, drawing the conclusions from the work of the previous day, the knots came to a head: why, despite the numerous and varied activities, are the obtained results hardly occupying the front pages of the newspapers? Why when we talk about artificial intelligence do we immediately think of the research carried out in the USA, China, Russia and the companies whose products we often hold in our hands and whose profits depend heavily on the application of artificial intelligence techniques?
Unfortunately, the answer has always been the same for some decades now: no government has ever firmly bet on research and innovation in Italy. Which means both directly funding research by providing resources to increase the number of researchers starting from research doctorates, and allocating substantial resources to finance competitive bids where the various research souls in Italy can cooperate in large-scale projects with technological endowments and funds for the development of prototypes that enable the methodologies developed in the laboratories to be translated into practice. But it also means increasing the system actions that encourage companies to allocate resources to high-risk activities and to collaborate with research centers, for example through tax relief mechanisms and the streamlining of unnecessary bureaucratic procedures. The design and testing of artificial intelligence techniques is in fact linked to the processing of large amounts of data and to large-scale verification, all activities that require time resources, highly qualified personnel and equipment.
One cannot hope that the important results that the Italian academy is producing over the years, including through its presence in important European projects, will have an impact on the economic fabric of the country without the creation of a real research infrastructure. Without the awareness that only by funding academic and industrial research can the creation of technologies and new jobs be enabled.
So while even in Europe, France in the front row, we equip ourselves to blow on the fire of ideas with investment programs aimed at carving out a leading role in the international scenario, in Italy at most we can expect to receive congratulations from the politician on duty when the success of the academic proposals in the international arena is evident. But it is considered as if it were a fortuitous event and not as the result of schools of training and scientific research whose methodological structure is the key to success. And indeed it is not a coincidence that in the avant-garde universities and foreign companies often the engine of ideas was formed in Italian universities.
Here is an example, which for me is paradigmatic: the case of self-driving cars. Today when they talk about it, Tesla, Google and perhaps other "giants" come to mind, but they have entered this sector relatively recently. But someone knows the pioneering activities of the Vislab of Parma (https://vislab.it)? That since the end of the years 90 had equipped a Lancia Thema (called ARGO, photo opening) with which it had realized the "Millemiglia in Automatico" (http://www.argo.ce.unipr.it/ARGO/) and that just under four years ago it was bought by the Californian company Ambarella for 30 million dollars.
It is only one of the many examples of how research in artificial intelligence is alive in Italy, active on frontier issues and capable of producing results that have an impact on the world level. A search restrained by the scarcity of funding sources, and by a regulation of expenses that instead of being based on maximizing merit, efficiency and taking responsibility, seems rather to want to favor floating in mediocrity. The world of academic and industrial research in Italy is showing that the conditions exist to be protagonists. It is only a matter of wanting it, and not preferring instead a reality of followers.
Photo: web / Presidency of the Council of Ministers / author