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Artists of science: Italian talents keep emerging

Projects news & results: 10/07/2012 - 02:00
Throughout history, Italy has produced some of the world's most remarkable luminaries in fields ranging from art and politics to science and mathematics. Today Italian science and technology research continues to excel in novel, imaginative and interesting ways.

Gerolamo Cardano was a gifted Italian Renaissance mathematician known especially for his achievements in algebra. But Cardano was also a notorious gambler. It was a bad habit, but one that nonetheless led to his extensive research into probability theory, making him one of the founders of the field. Today, more than four centuries after his death, Cardano's 'Book on Games of Chance' might make good reading for anyone interested in understanding the financial speculation that led to the global economic crisis, from which Italy, like much of the rest of Europe, continues to suffer.

But a solution, at least one that might help prevent future crises, could soon be at hand, thanks to groundbreaking research taking place in Cardano's homeland that merges serious gaming with economic theory and ICT.

Led by the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, the EU-funded Crisis (1) project promises to produce a much smarter and more sophisticated method of modelling and understanding the European economy. Using complex systems-based ICT tools, the team, which involves researchers from three other Italian institutions as well as partners in seven other European countries, is developing a bottom-up 'agent-based' simulation that fully accounts for the heterogeneity of the financial actions of households, companies and government actors, incorporating the latest advances from behavioural economics. This will be used to create serious games to predict more accurately the effects of different macroeconomic and financial events.

'[Current] models may provide "good enough" answers during normal times, during the crisis they proved highly inadequate. The crisis was characterised by behaviours that did not fit the "perfectly rational" models, markets that failed to clear, severe economic imbalances that were far from equilibrium, and micro-level features of the system and network structures of interconnection between institutions had major systemic impacts,' the Crisis project partners explain. 'The Crisis project will seek to address these limitations by building a next-generation macroeconomic and financial system policymaking model.'

In a similar vein, researchers at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche are also turning to ICT tools to improve economists and policy-makers' ability to predict systemic risk and global financial instabilities. In the FOC-II (2) project, an interdisciplinary consortium of computer scientists, physicists, economists and policy-makers are developing an ICT-based collaborative platform for monitoring systemic fragility and the propagation of financial distress across institutions and markets around the world.

While Cardano might be impressed by technology that offers a model of future risk and probabilities, other Italian visionaries would certainly find some other projects currently taking place in Italy nothing short of eye-opening. From Galileo Galilei and Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who made major discoveries in astronomy and physics, to the outstanding polymath Leonardo da Vinci and physicist Alessandro Volta, Italy has an outstanding scientific heritage that today's researchers can build upon.

Volta, to whom we owe the word volt and who developed the first battery, for example, would surely take an interest in the Nanopower (3) project, currently being coordinated by the Universita degli Studi di Perugia.

With nano- and micro-scale devices becoming increasingly widespread, solving the issue of how best to power them is becoming increasingly critical. The aim of the Nanopower project therefore is to study energy efficiency and identify new energy-harvesting technologies that the team will then deploy and test in a range of nanoscale devices such as nano-mechanical non-linear oscillators, phonon rectifiers and quantum harvesters.

'This is a new, exciting field that is gaining increasing importance with the realisation that a new generation of micro-to-nanoscale devices aimed at sensing, processing, actuating and communication will not be possible without solving the powering issue,' the Nanopower team notes.

Da Vinci, who has been described as a man of 'unquenchable curiosity' and 'feverishly inventive imagination', might well be intrigued by a project on how plants see the world.

That, in essence, is the focus of the Pleased (4) initiative, coordinated by Rome-based company WLAB. The goal is to use plant bio-signals to develop a first-of-a-kind range of bio-sensor devices that could be used to help tackle a range of problems, from air pollution to the use of chemicals in agriculture.

'Plants have amazing and significant sensing capabilities. For instance, each single root apex can simultaneously and continuously monitor many chemical and physical parameters,' the team says. 'A nice aphorism well describes our vision: "One day you will step into the garden to look at the flowers - and the flowers will look back at you." Even more interestingly, we also claim that plants will gossip about you!'

From talking plants to touching, feeling robots? In Italy it seems anything is possible.

In the Roboskin (5) project, a team led by the Universita degli Studi di Genova and involving two other Italian partners as well as teams in Switzerland and the United Kingdom, have worked on developing robots embedded with tactile sensing technologies and cognitive architectures to support skin-based cognition, behaviour and communication. The aim is to improve the ability of robots to operate effectively and safely in unconstrained environments and also aid their ability to communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans. The system was tested with autistic children, helping them to learn about social interaction.

'Children with autism have problems with touch, often with either touching or being touched,' says Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, one of the researchers. 'The idea is to put skin on the robot as touch is a very important part of social development and communication and the tactile sensors will allow the robot to detect different types of touch and it can then encourage or discourage different approaches.'

While children with special needs may benefit socially from robots, another Italian-coordinated project is focused on helping everyone communicate and interact socially - all from the comfort of their own homes.

The Reverie (6) project, led by STMicroelectronics, is developing a safe, collaborative online environment, merging the best aspects of social networking with virtual reality and 3D entertainment. The project team say the system will enable users to meet, socialise and share experiences using equipment they already have at home, such as 3D TV and Microsoft 3D Kinect, along with a range of content-creation tools built for the platform. A teacher might, for example, take their geography class on a virtual online field trip, a business person might use it for an important presentation or a student to attend a distance-learning class, or anyone could seize the chance to play the lead character in their favourite film and invite their friends to join in using existing social networking channels.

With a similar focus on interaction, entertainment and education, the SkyMedia (7) project, led by Bologna-based Mavigex, aims to demonstrate a novel multimedia end-to-end architecture that can provide unique immersive media experiences to audiences during live events. Using 3D images captured by unmanned aerial vehicles, distributed via state-of-the-art communications and processing technology, and displayed on immersive 3D media platforms, the project team hope anyone will be able to take part in a marathon or feel themselves on the pitch with their favourite football team match - remotely and virtually.

Such projects are dealing with vast amounts of data, but it is not the only data hurdle being tackled by Italian researchers.

In the Epiwork (8) initiative, a team from the Fondazione Istituto per l'Interscambio Scientifico are developing technology to analyse vast amounts of social, demographic and behavioural data to develop innovative tools to help predict and detect the spread of diseases.

Also working in the healthcare domain, the team behind the Photo-Fet (9) project are developing low-cost, disposable devices for bio-sensing to perform diagnostic testing. Coordinated by the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, the researchers aim to create lab-on-a-chip devices that are much smaller, more accurate, reliable and efficient, and considerably cheaper than existing technologies.

As these and many other projects exemplify, Italian science remains as energetic, emblematic and varied today as it was during the Renaissance. Italian researchers, it seems, continue to work by one of Da Vinci's most famous sayings: 'Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation ... even so does inaction sap the vigour of the mind.'

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The projects featured in this article have been supported by the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research.

(1) Crisis: Complexity Research Initiative for Systemic InstabilitieS
(2) FOC-II: Forecasting Financial Crises II
(3) Nanopower: Nanoscale energy management for powering ICT devices
(4) Pleased: PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices
(5) Roboskin: Skin-based technologies and capabilities for safe, autonomous and interactive robots
(6) Reverie: REal and Virtual Engagement in Realistic Immersive Environments
(7) SkyMedia: UAV-based capturing of HD/3D content with WSN augmentation, real-time processing and immaterial rendering for immersive media experiences
(8) Epiwork: Developing the framework for an epidemic forecast infrastructure
(9) Photo-Fet: Photo-Fet: Integrated Photonic Field-Effect Technology for bio-sensing functional components

Useful links:

- FP7 on CORDIS
- Crisis on CORDIS
- FOC-II on CORDIS
- Nanopower on CORDIS
- Pleased on CORDIS
- Roboskin on CORDIS
- Reverie on CORDIS
- SkyMedia on CORDIS
- Epiwork on CORDIS
- Photo-Fet on CORDIS