Honorary professor Cecilia Laschi: "For a long time I really wanted to be a dolphin trainer"
In November 2023, professor Cecilia Laschi was awarded an honorary doctorate at SDU for her outstanding research within bio-inspired robots and soft robotics. We caught her for a quick chat about why she even wanted to become a researcher, and she does when she is not, among many other things, studying the embodied intelligence of octopuses.
Why did you become a researcher?
I was not the kind of child who knew exactly what to do when I grew up. For a long time I really wanted to be a dolphin trainer, but I changed my mind many times. By chance, I met robotics during my studies in computer science. Everything within the field was still so new at the time; it was so stimulating, and I just wanted to continue diving into the area. Then, I realised that a Ph.D. was an excellent way to do that.
What fascinates you at the moment?
Well, of course, soft robotics is my main interest. It is also a very novel field, and I have the same feeling of wanting to investigate and discover something new. I started researching soft robotics around 2007, and we started from scratch.
The octopus, my first model for a soft robot, especially fascinates me – it is such a different animal, and so many aspects of them are still unknown. Their kind of intelligence is very different from our human and other animals’ intelligence.
What is the most significant breakthrough in your field?
In robotics as a whole, it is amazing what Boston Dynamics is showing. But I also consider a robot like the Roomba – the robot vacuum cleaner – a significant achievement. Because they used a novel, much simpler approach to control, they made it robust – and even, for the time, cheap – and succeeded in making the first real commercial robot.
How do you hope other people will benefit from your research?
We don’t have many applications for soft robotics yet, but generally, what soft robotics brings to the field of robotics is a focus on embodied intelligence. The goal is to create robots that move like animals with flexible, passively formable bodies rather than fully precisely controlled like traditional stiff robots. This will have all sorts of benefits – it will simplify the control of the robots and make them a lot more energy efficient, to mention two.
Which other research field fascinates you the most?
Before working in soft robotics, I used to work in what we called neuro-robotics. There are so many interesting tricks we can learn from brains. For example, brains are very good at predicting what will happen next. It still fascinates me, and I try to use this in my work today.
What do you have in your office that most people don't?
I have pieces of soft robots. And then I have plants. It is very nice to have plants around when you work. And they are, by the way, also very interesting models for robots because they, too, have completely different forms of intelligence, and they move and make decisions. One of my good colleagues is researching this.
Who do you admire?
Uh, there are many. But to mention one, my mentor, Paolo Dario, has always been very important to me. He really started from scratch and was a pioneer in everything he did. He is an emeritus today, but he is still very active and always has brilliant new ideas.
What do you do when you are not researching?
I like sports and being active outdoors. And I love everything around the water – I used to sail and scuba dive, now I freedive when I can and go swimming.
Professor and Head of Robotics at the National University of Singapore and Professor at Scuola Superiore Sant' Anna, Pisa. Honorary professor at the University of Southern Denmark at the Faculty of Engineering. A pioneer within the field of soft robotics.