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An interview with Cecilia Laschi, Professor at the Robotics Institute of School Sant’Anna of Pisa and “mamma” of Octopus – the world’s first soft robot – introduces us to the world of soft robotics.


How much research is there in the area of soft robotics?

It is an extremely young but rapidly growing sector. We’re addressing the key challenges related to the use of soft materials in robotics, and innovative technologies have been developed to build these robots.

What applications will soft robotics focus around?

There are many applications in all areas in which the robot has to come into contact with, the environment, people, and so on. For example, in the biomedical field, a soft robot can assist a person, operate within the human body or be worn to provide support.

The new generation of robots emerging in recent years – how much space will they have in the life of each of us, and for how long?

The robots are starting to become part of our lives in different forms, such as robots that produce the cars we use every day, simple floor-cleaning robots or the emergence of autonomous driving cars. All these intelligent machines will be more and more present in our lives in the near future, though maybe not in the form of robots that is part of the collective imagination, tied to science fiction.

Will the way we will speak with the machines change in the near future?

Like other technologies, such as smart phones, the robots will be constructed to have a more intuitive interaction with humans

In PHD’s latest international publication ‘Merge | The closing gap between technology and us’, some innovators suggest more intelligent machines will close the gap between man and technology and decrease until it reaches a melting point. What do you think?

I think what is meant by machine intelligence is very different from what is meant by human intelligence. I think they follow parallel tracks that, whatever the degree of evolution of intelligence of the machines, they will keep this melting point unreachable.

Ray Kurzweil, Chief Engineer of Google and among the most recognised futurists in the world, says: “by 2029 computers will have reached a level of intelligence of a human”. Do you agree with this?

There are a few things that machines do better than the human brain, such as calculations. This does not mean they have reached or even exceeded human intelligence. I don’t think you can ever make a comparison between human and artificial intelligence.

With the development of machine learning, can robots also learn to get excited? Could they do this?

You can simulate emotions in robots and some groups in the world working on this, but I don’t think this can be compared to the emotions felt by human beings.

How important is ‘interdisciplinarity’ right now in the most advanced scientific and technological research?

Current engineering, and especially modern and soft robotics, is characterised by a variety of aspects that need to be addressed in an integrated manner. Interdisciplinarity is typical of robotics engineering sectors spreading to the disciplines of life sciences and social science.

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