written by Ruth Theus Baldassarre, Science and Technology Counselor in Rome
with an Interview with Prof. Alessandro De Luca, Full Professor of Robotics, Automation, and Automatic Control at the School of Information Engineering, Informatics, and Statistics of the Sapienza University of Rome, Department of Computer, Control, and Management Engineering
Children are still treated as “little kings” in Italian society, all of their deeds and misdeeds being pardoned on the grounds of them “just being children”. Nevertheless, the fertility rate of this children-loving country is steadily decreasing, while the number of one-child families has been continuously growing. There are multiple reasons for this 30-40-year long trend, such as the high level of education of the population, women’s increased access to the job market as well as the economic crises the country has been facing since the ‘90es, which lead to profound financial and occupational instability.
The impact of these factors on the demographic trends is seldomly focused upon by Italian lawmakers, media and society at large.
In mid-September, however, an advertising campaign for an awareness day (“Fertility Day”) sponsored by the Minister of Health, Beatrice Lorenzin, lead to heated controversies. The purpose of the “Fertility Day” was to raise young citizen’s awareness with regards to lifestyle choices affecting their ability to procreate. For several reasons, the initiative faced harsh criticism, forcing the Ministry of Health to stop the campaign and redefine its strategy. Nevertheless, one positive effect of the controversy was that the media began to scrutinize and discuss the rapid decrease of the Italian population and its direct and crucial relation to migratory fluxes.
Even though the awareness level and the political discussion still appear insufficient, scientific research and statistical data concerning the demographic evolution are already widely accessible and do anticipate serious challenges for the country in the next five decades.
Today, Italy has a population of approximately 60 million. According to estimates by the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), this figure will be virtually identical in 2065. However, the composition of society will change dramatically. In the next decades, the Italian population will gradually age. At the same time and connectedly, the development of the population will be facing a dramatic scenario: whereas only 28.5 million children will be born in that timeframe, ISTAT estimates that 40 million Italian residents will pass away, leading to a deficit of 11.5 million units.
If the emigration of resident Italians, estimated by ISTAT at around 6 million units, and the immigration of foreign nationals, estimated at around 18 million units, are taken into account, the quota of foreign nationals living in Italy will increase from 8% in 2016 to 22-24% in 2065.
The reported data (ISTAT, 2011) shows an accentuated increase of the number of elderly people. It is estimated that the number of residents over 65, which today account for little more than 20% of the total population, will account for 32% in 2056, leading to an increase of the average age to 50 years. This development will thoroughly transform the societal structure and inter-generational relationships. The trend for the population in active age (15-64 years) is in decrease. In 2065 the working population will account for approximately 54.7% of the total, 11% less than in 2016. An important indicator is the old-age dependency ratio, which was 30% in 2011 and will double in the next five decades, reaching approximately 60% in 2065.
According to the estimates by ISTAT, Italy’s active population will not only have to take care of the children and adolescents (0-14 years), but also of a significantly growing amount of elderly people. In this context, it appears implausible that, in 2065, a poor Italian Eneas, holding his father Anchises on his shoulders while looking after his son Ascanius, would be able to keep the elegant posture Bernini gave him in his masterpiece statue.
Already in present-day Italy, it has become exceedingly difficult to combine work and family responsibilities, resulting in significant hardships for the majority of the working-aged population. In the light of the demographic trends discussed above, such difficulties are bound to increase. This scenario shows the great challenges the country faces on the political, social, economic and scientific plane. Researchers and innovators are working on numerous fronts in order to find ways to tackle the challenges posed by this deep demographic transformation. One field that is providing interesting answers and a number of promising solutions is robotics. In Italy, the Genova-based Italian Istitute of Technology (IIT) has been active in this field for many years.
The Care Robot R1 “Your Personal Humanoid” developed by the team of Prof. Giorgio Metta of IIT has been presented this summer to the media and the public. The R1 has been developed to provide to those in need of assistance in matters of daily life, doubtlessly including the elderly of tomorrow. As steps are being taken for a wide-scale production of the robot, it is reasonable to believe it will eventually be sold at an accessible price.
Robotics represents a point of excellence in the Italian scientific community. In the following interview, Prof. Alessandro De Luca will provide us with valuable insights on the intersection between robotics and assisted living, a field which strives to create better life conditions for the elderly of the future.
Interview with Prof. Alessandro De Luca
- By 2065 the population of Italy will be one of the oldest worldwide. Is there a general R&D policy or rather an approach of applied sciences to solve upcoming challenges with an aging society?
Unfortunately, Italy is not known for planning ahead of time its efforts and resources to anticipate and provide solutions to social problems that will arise in the next future. Nonetheless, scientists are aware of statistical trends in the society, act at a global level with international collaborations, and have already started to address some of the technical issues involved in facing the problem of population aging. As one of the enabling technologies, Robotics can certainly help in providing engineered solutions that sustain an active aging of people. This concern is now fostering research in several areas, ranging from cognitive and physical human-robot collaboration to ethical issues for autonomous machines, from ubiquitous sensors for monitoring our living areas to energy-efficient actuators that recover or enhance human mobility.
- 2007 Bill Gates predicted „a robot in every home“ by 2027. Which are the research fields and the new technologies that are developed in Italy within the active and assistive living (AAL) of elderly people? Who are the leading Institutions?
Bill Gates’ statement generated a lot of interest in the media, anticipating for personal robots an impact on daily work and leisure activities similar to the one that personal computers had twenty years before. What is different in this new challenge is that robots have to be actually present and physically interact with the real world. They perform a continuous loop between sensing the environment, processing perceptual information, and performing actions that modify the state of things. Beyond the software programs that realize very sophisticated reasoning and behaviors, a robot needs to have more capabilities and features in place with respect to being just “an extended PC”.
Anyway, with about a decade to go, the prediction of a robot in every home (of an economically advanced country) is still very plausible, in particular if we include in the picture the many, relatively simpler robots available on the consumer market, like autonomous vacuum cleaners. Under the umbrella of service robotics, the research community is developing aids for impaired manipulation and locomotion, devices and friendly interfaces for support to personal mobility and communication, and systems for remote monitoring and assistance.
The leading Italian actors involved in advanced robotic research are public entities, like the Scuola Superiore S. Anna and the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), as well as the universities in Bologna, Genova, Pisa, Siena, Roma, Napoli, and Catania, and the Politecnico in Milano.
- Could you illustrate us some significant examples?
IIT is developing humanoids capable of autonomous execution of daily activities (e.g., opening doors, lifting weights, switching off the lights). They have also participated to the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) in May 2016. Antonio Bicchi from the University of Pisa has designed a soft and light robotic hand with minimalistic actuation (only one motor!) that can be driven easily by EMG signals of amputees. The hand can perform multiple types of grasping tasks, based on the concept of human-like synergies. Massimo Bergamasco’s team at the Scuola Superiore S. Anna works on assistive exoskeletons that can support elderly people in their activities. The group of Domenico Prattichizzo at the University of Siena is internationally known for works on haptic devices and augmented reality, and explores the possibilities of providing a remote sense of touch. Monitoring and safe control of physical collaboration between humans and a new generation of lightweight and compliant robots is the research focus of our laboratory at the Sapienza University in Roma and of Bruno Siciliano’s team at the University of Napoli Federico II. In Roma, we have developed a hierarchical architecture for robot supervision based on three control layers that produce consistent behaviors between safety, coexistence, and collaboration in human-robot interaction. These concepts are fundamental also for Care Robots in domestic places, where the workspace is intimately shared. Humans and robots may perform their tasks in parallel and independently (coexistence) as well as together (collaboration), but in any case the underlying safety features should be guaranteed at all times.
- In the next decades, will there be a production on industrial scale Care Robots in Italy?
According to the latest data by the IFR World Robotics Report, the number of service robots for personal/domestic use that were sold in 2015 reached 5,4 millions. The forecast is to have 42 millions new service robots of this type (75% for household and 25% for entertainment and leisure) sold worldwide in 2016-19, with a turnover of 22.4 billion US$. The market is definitely there, and growing. However, the current players are not the large brands of robot manufacturers, rather small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and a multitude of spin-off or start-up companies originating from research centers or doctoral programs in universities. The same is true also in Italy.
Production at a large industrial scale requires an agreement on what a “Care Robot” is and should actually do for us, how it should look like, how to interact with it, and so on. In this rapidly changing landscape, we started only recently to reason about norms and standards for service and personal robots, whose definition is very important for their global production and diffusion. However, there is not yet a common view on many of the characteristics of personal robots.
One typical issue is the trade-off between the efficiency of existing, dedicated machines (at home, say, a dishwasher or a laundry dryer) and the need or desire to have a general-purpose robot doing all the tasks. In this respect, the domain of interest for robots at home need to be better specified, so that alternative solutions may be adopted in parallel, which require conventional automation only. Also the appearance of such robots is disputed, with many interesting cultural implications. In the eastern world, and in particular in Japan, there is a push toward developing automata that reproduce as much as possible the human figure, in particular our facial expressions like in the Geminoid series of robots by Hiroshi Ishiguro. Some of his realizations have brought us closer to the uncanny valley predicted by Masahiro Mori, a situation where the high level of anthropomorphism reached by a robot would generate a negative emotional response in a human subject being exposed to it. Nothing similar is found elsewhere in the world. Most of the current prototypes of home-care robots are in fact moving on wheels, have two articulated arms, a soft body, a head with audio and vision system, and a screen for entering or displaying data: they clearly do not look anthropomorphic, but this does not lower their acceptance as useful machines, as long as they provide the right help to end-users.
- Actually, elderly people in Italy are mostly assisted at home. In your opinion, will there be generally an acceptance for Care Robots?
Matching the needs of older people is really “the” central topic here. It also requires dealing with society and family structures and traditions. Which are our main objectives in the elderly care? People should be able to stay longer in their own homes, preserving their autonomy and mobility, and keeping alive their social communication with the external world. In addition, we may wish or need to (remotely) monitor their health status, and possibly supervise the critical activities in the daily living of our parents.
Some of these requests can be satisfied by modern communication or automation tools and Internet-of-Things devices (this is the domain of domotics). By and large, smartphones with multiple and easily accessible apps, internet-based television, wearable monitoring devices (with a remote health center being called in for more complicated support) may already serve to most of the above purposes. On the other hand, robotic solutions are needed to guarantee user mobility and to provide access to all domestic facilities. The general feature of robots designed for home assistance should be their dependability: they should behave (move, talk, collaborate) so that the human user understands, is confident, and can fully rely on what the robot will do for him/her, minimizing misinterpretation about mutual intentions or, even worse, the risk of accidental collisions that may cause potential damages. Bi-directional communication should take place in the most natural way, with speech recognition and synthesis of common language, through hand gestures, with eye gazing to gain attention, but also using touch and pressure in a multi-modal interaction.
One special feature that may fill a gap between robotic and internet devices is the possibility of transmitting remotely some form of tactile sensing. We can easily imagine how would a grandmother feel if she receives a soft touch by a machine, but knows that is in fact her grandson who is carefully caressing her from the distance. Such haptic feedback is indeed an emotional crash, just as the astronaut’s wife who had tears in her eyes when feeling a gentle push from her husband in the remote space…
- Worldwide there is an increasing debate about Robots and Artificial Intelligence, in particular in the field of Care Robots and Military Robots. What are the guidelines in Italy?
The debate on ethical issues is very active also in our country, in particular within the Robotics and AI communities. The famous paradigm of Asimov’s three laws of robotics (“a robot may not injure a human being….”) is now challenged by the current technical developments and the international warfare. There is a consensus that humans should be kept in the loop of critical decision-making processes that are faced by autonomous robots (e.g., for drones on the battlefield). But even in our civil life, the issue of legal responsibility is a prominent one in case of accidents with driverless cars, which are autonomous robots in all senses, as well as for robots that fail in the proper handling of human partners or patients at home.
One technical bottleneck is that many successful algorithms nowadays learn the correct robot behavior from a long, continuous campaign of experiences (just like humans do), processing a huge amount of statistical and sensory data —deep learning on big data is the keyword here. However, the robot may not be able to translate in rules why a specific decision has been taken at a given time. This lack of predictability and failure in the duty to explain are indeed not acceptable in terms of assessing the responsibilities behind autonomous robot actions.
More ethical issues, partly unanticipated, are blooming as robots get closer to humans. Is there some form of discrimination embedded in the programming of their behaviors? What will happen when robots have emotion awareness?
How is our privacy affected? What about social aspects and the manipulation of trust? What if we receive a denial-of-service from our personal robot due to a security attack in the cyberspace? We expect engineers and philosophers to work side-by-side to address these questions in a sensible way.
- Last September in Switzerland took place the AAL Forum 2016 – Ageing well with technology. Innovations ready for Breakthrough. Did Italy participate? Are there similar experiences in Italy?
There was no Italian participation to the AAL Forum in St. Gallen, except possibly for the presence of a booth of the European Commission with exposure of results obtained in projects from the past Framework Program FP7 and in the current Horizon 2020, in which Italian research institutions and companies are quite active.
Participation of Italian teams is more consistent in other international robot challenges and competitions, such as the Rockin@Home benchmarking challenge, focused on assisting the elderly or impaired who need some support to keep healthy at home, the RoboCup Rescue Robot league, where autonomous navigation capabilities and efficient mobile manipulation in unstructured environments are key aspects, or Cybathlon, a true competition engaging technology developers and persons with disabilities, which aims at promoting robotics aids for patients and the general public. This year in Zürich, the SoftHand Pro team of Pisa/Genova obtained a very good placement in the class of powered arms prostheses, which were used to perform tasks mimicking daily domestic activities.
- In the field of R&D of Care Robots, are there bilateral programs between Italy and Switzerland?
No, as far as I know. Our collaborations occur mostly in the form of student exchanges -e.g., two of my students applied recently to the Swiss NCCR Robotics Master program for women. More in general, the chance of collaborative projects at the European level with Swiss partners, such as EPFL or ETH, have been temporarily reduced and are now subject to special protocols after the political decisions taken by Switzerland a couple of years ago.
 For a detailed analysis, see also Centro Studi di Confindustria. Scenari economici. Immigrati da emergenza a opportunità – dimensione, effetti economici, politiche, Rome 22.6.2016.
 Old-age dependency ratio: relationship between the population over 65 and the population in active age (15-64).
 Young-age dependency ratio: relationship between the population of 0-14 years of age and the working-age population (15-64 years). This index stays substantially stable: while it was 21.6% in 2011, ISTAT estimates 23.1% in 2065.
 Full Professor of Robotics, Automation, and Automatic Control at the School of Information Engineering, Informatics, and Statistics of the Sapienza University of Rome, Department of Computer, Control, and Management Engineering. CV: http://www.diag.uniroma1.it/~deluca/pers/CV_ADL.pdf