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Exclusive interview with Jadran Lenarčič, PhD, director of Jožef Stefan Institute, who won DELO's Personality of the year award

A scientist competes with his colleagues around the world and wants to discover something unknown, while the economy wants to create capital. Although these are two different worlds, they must exist in a positive conflict. It is therefore necessary for a country to put in place instruments that make it easier to connect the two worlds, says Professor Jadran Lenarčič, director of Slovenia’s Jožef Stefan Institute.

Author:  Špela Bizjak                                                                         Photos:  Uroš Hočevar/DELO

Jožef Stefan Institute, ranked among the most prominent scientific and research institutions in Europe and the world, celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. With over 1,000 employees, the Institute is research-oriented in the field of robotics, automatics, biorobotics and modern production technologies. In an exclusive interview with The Adriatic Journal, the Institute’s director, Professor Jadran Lenarčič, PhD, shares his views on the world of robotics – through the lens of an engineer.

In your opinion, what are Jožef Stefan Institute’s most important achievements in recent years? What would you highlight as being the most significant?

The Institute publishes close to 900 research articles in international scientific journals, which means 900 achievements per year. It would be unfair to mention just one, though there are some that resonate more in the general public and partially in the professional circles. An example are micro lasers and their incorporation into a living cell; the discovery of a ferromagnetic fluid that may be the basis for a development of a new type of liquid crystal. It is also important to point out the research in the field of quantum physics where everything is about making a computer with the fastest memory. There are a number of other equally important discoveries. It is difficult to determine which criteria is more, or less, important. It takes 20 years for this to become evident, just as the current Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievements from decades ago.

The fact is that today companies are more aware than ever of the importance of collaborating with science.

You have repeatedly pointed out that fundamental scientific research and the integration of science with the economy are crucial for Slovenia's future development.

This connection is extremely important. Science has two different sides. One is exploring to discover something new, which is important for further exploration. The other side is whether what you discovered has already been discovered somewhere else. You can turn a discovery to benefit the society. This can be done in cooperation with the economy, but not solely. There are other social activities that require scientific discoveries and the assistance of researchers in putting them into practice. The economy is extremely important because it creates added value and invests in social development. The added value is based on knowledge. 

Slovenia is fortunate to have started to explore artificial intelligence at its very beginning, in the pioneering times. It is one of the most automated countries in Europe

How can we achieve closer integration of science and economy?

The investment in R&D is too small. From the beginning of my professional career, for more than 40 years, I have been living and working on the border between pure science, one that is only based in research and discovery, and the one that works for users. This has changed over the years. Science and the economy are two different worlds. A scientist competes with his colleagues around the world and wants to discover something unknown, while the economy wants to create capital. Although these are two different worlds, they must exist in a positive conflict. It is therefore necessary for the country to put in place instruments that make it easier to connect the two worlds.

What potential does Slovenia have in implementing smart technologies in the region?

As an engineer, I hate the label “smart technology” because it has been trivialised. If you have a washing machine and you have to switch it on with a switch, it is not smart, but if you switch it on with your phone, it becomes smart. It’s still the same washing machine. That is why I am a little sceptical of the expression and all the euphoria that is being created about smart technologies. It is primarily about introducing sensors into production processes and also into everyday life, which means that you get information on what is happening to certain appliances in the house, in the city, in factories, etc. This is an area where Slovenia has a traditionally good position – our Institute in particular. In the field of artificial intelligence alone, we have three research departments, while in the field of robotics and automation we have two more research departments, and at least three more in the field of communication technology and computer science.

Companies that have more robots in the factory are more automated, more flexible and therefore earn more money in the market and create more jobs.

What advantages do smart factories and smart processes bring to the business environment?

Certainly this is more about digitalization than anything else. This means that you obtain data from individual devices, be it in factories or everyday life, and then use it accordingly. Today you have an abundance of information that we can use in our daily lives. Twenty years ago, when you didn’t have GPS, you came to a city and were lost. Today navigation takes you to your destination, and you know exactly what the hotel you are staying in will look like before you get there. This is certainly an achievement. It’s similar to a factory where machines make things and you don’t know why some products are faulty. These digitalization processes help you identify where is the source of error. It’s about the quality of the products, the quality of the customer research, the market, the integration with the markets and customers. It’s computerization. Every second billions of data are accumulating on our devices worldwide. All of it is written down somewhere and we don’t exactly know what to do with that information. Even businesses do not know what to do with most of the data they have. On the other hand, data collection also has ethical and other concerns.

The Jožef Stefan Inst itute is the leading Slovenian scientific research institute, covering a broad spectrum of basic and applied research. The staff of about 1050 specializes in natural sciences, life sciences and engineering

We often hear that in the future, robots will replace humans and do our jobs. What are your thoughts on that?

That fear is unnecessary. If you are looking at whether a robot will replace a spot welder or someone who lacquers floors eight hours a day, I hope it will. I hope jobs like that cease to exist. What is interesting is that nowadays robots in factories enter workflows, they enable the production of certain products which wasn’t available before. Robots contribute to the workplace, they don’t take it away. There are, of course, some exceptions. But in such cases, it is actually better for humans. For example, computer vision can count the number of products within a tenth of a second, which has not been possible until now. Robots in industrial environments will only contribute to additional jobs, better quality of work, greater humanization, higher standard, less discharge, which is important for the economy, so that the added value is raised and the value of the product on the market is higher than the cost of the product. Robots contribute to all of this.

How do you see the society in the future in terms of automation and robotics?

Ten years ago, I predicted that factories of the future will be like a park where humans and robots work together. It will also be a pleasant environment where robots and humans will share information and learn from each other. However, this should not be understood in such a way that the humans will be subordinates to robots. They won’t. Man, as a living creature, has its biological characteristics, the adaptation of genetic changes. Robots are a pile of iron. The robot is nothing more than a sewing machine. A sewing machine changes your life but you do not dependent on it. You can throw it out of the window and it’s gone. Robots are the same. The other issue is the area of digitalization of the society, especially the collection of huge amounts of data. As I move from one room to another with my phone, my device registers my movement. There is an ethical component of collecting information about people. They present potential dangers to our free society. But again, this is not about the technology taking over the world. Technology is exploited by man to take over the world. My Japanese colleague says old technologies hurt the world, thus we create new ones. He wanted to say that new technologies are constantly evolving, and if there is fear that artificial intelligence could take over our minds, we will develop technologies that will combat this.

Slovenians live in the part of Europe that has strong cultural and technological traditions and we are not far behind. We have nothing to fear.

So, do you give humanity advantage over robots in the future?

I often give this example: if I make a decision, everyone questions it. Everyone asks why I decided the way I did and what if I made a mistake. If the computer makes a decision, we all agree. But in reality, the computer made that decision based on algorithm and information that was input by humans. It is like a black box that has no idea what it is. We believe the box and think it will control us. But it cannot control us because if we change the algorithm or input different information, the result will be different. Robots are just tools that help us. The computer can handle a huge amount of data and is basically autistic because it can’t forget, because it doesn’t use emotions in its decisions, it doesn’t take into account some other elements that people consider. Even the mathematicians say, “This equation is beautiful.” Man uses many more functions than a computer. In some segments, however, the computer overtakes us. A computer can easily remember ten phone numbers, while for me it is harder. But this is not my weakness, it is my advantage. Based on emotions and experience, nature has made us forget trivial data and give weight to what is more important.

Adriatic Journal

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