“There is only good or bad research”
Congratulations, Professor, on receiving the Medal of Merit state award. How did you feel receiving the award?
It was certainly a great feeling, perhaps one of excitement, leading me to look back at my life up to now. I appreciate the award, because there is no higher award I could get in the Czech Republic. I’m happy my work has been valued at home too, having received a similar Austrian award, specifically a Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 13 years ago. This award, however, is not just for me, but also for my colleagues. Today’s Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics could not have come about without the courage and passion of over a hundred of my colleagues, who shared my vision of building something new and necessary for the whole Czech Republic.
Looking back at your career, what do you see as the key milestones?
One of the key milestones is building up the Cybernetics Department at the Czech Technical University, which I established in 1999 and led until 2013. This department has received the European Union Centre of Excellence title and the European Commission’s prestigious European IST Prize. Besides ourselves, only two companies have received this award, and when it is received by a department it demonstrates its outstanding quality. The next stage in my career began in 2008-2009, when I came up with the idea of building a new type of institute. In so doing, I aimed not just to integrate research in the subject area and secure a synergy between different workplaces, but also to become a kind of doorway to the world of industry, along the lines of Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and Tokyo University. We must seek a solution such that we can transfer the knowledge which is concentrated at university and continuously expanding, to industry and put it into practice within society. We realise we are funded from the government budget. We are seeking a model for connecting excellent research with useful results to apply in practice.
I can feel your energy and passion, so I must ask about your further plans. We’re talking in a new building, the just opened and unique Testbed, but I’m sure you’ve got other visionary ideas in your mind.
Our first task is to make this institute fully operational by 2020. I anticipate the institute will have fully met its capacity of 350 researchers within three years. Already at the end of 2017, we have 180 positions filled. The institution won’t just be a showcase for the CTU, but for Czech higher education in general. We need another three years to implement this. We’re always aiming for the new; we’re currently supporting Industry 4.0 and Society 4.0 in the Czech Republic. We want to be home to a National Centre which will support not just implementation of Industry 4.0 ideas within industry itself, but also support smart cities, smart regions and modern energy systems. These three areas are closely related to today’s industrial revolution and represent three cornerstones on which quality of life will be dependent in future. Besides the Testbed, a new research and experimental workplace focused on Industry 4.0, we also want to have Smart Cities, Smart Regions and Smart Energy laboratories. And I’m going to mention one more longterm vision which goes beyond 2020. I want to connect our institute within a European research infrastructure in industrial manufacturing. Together with our partner institutes in Saarbrücken, Germany and other Austrian institutes, we want to lay the foundations of European virtual infrastructure for researching manufacturing facilities and systems on the basis of the utilisation of virtual reality. And then I’ll be able to retire.
I really appreciate your approach of not separating primary and applied research. In Israel, they consider this separation outdated.
I’ve held the opinion for many years that there is only good or bad research, and not basic and applied research. Both categories overlap so closely that no-one can say exactly where the border is. Some research is naturally closer to investigations of how the world works – physical, biological and other principles, while other research is closer to industry. Look at the graphene nanomaterial, for example. Where is the border between basic and applied research here? If I’m researching something, I need to test whether it is going to work in practice, and then use this feedback in further research closer to the core of the matter. It’s an artificially created border. Those whose research mainly results in publication outcomes endeavour to create their own world. Those with financial or industrial results should not enter this world. But one cannot live without the other. Here I deliberately set up mixed teams so that both categories of scientist are represented; both those closer to theory and those closer to practice. Expert theoreticians, who prove mathematical theorems and who are difficult to understand, work alongside those who can take intermediate results and test them out in practice. This is the best approach to ensure scientists working on socalled basic research do not become isolated in their own bubbles.
Another thorny issue is co-operation between universities and business. Why do some still look down on this type of co-operation?
Dare I elaborate. Do you mean they look down on it as something which is dirty, dishonest, inferior? Let’s go back to the start of our discussion. We’re at university, we travel the world, we collect knowledge, and all using public money. This means we have an obligation to do something for the state. The state needs to support the economy; it needs small and medium-sized companies which are going to respond to global trends to be competitive. Unfortunately, the Czech Republic does not own large companies such as Siemens and IBM, and small and medium-sized companies do not have enough funds for research. Thus our job is to assist small and medium-sized companies and bring them results. So why do I think there is so much grumbling that co-operation with industry doesn’t work? Co-operation with industry at sums of tens of thousands of crowns is not attractive, and doesn’t make sense. Only co-operation which is both long-term and systematic makes sense. That’s why we need a system which is stable and won’t change every two years depending, for example, on the decisions of academic senates. Teams which co-operate must be set up for the long-term, and must be stable and of a certain size. I am an open critic of the Czech higher education environment because it is not governed with a management style, but rather through senates with great powers but no responsibilities. Thus the environment closes in on itself and publications and taught lessons are valued, rather than transferral to real practice.
You’ve said that large and small companies are important for co-operation. Could one give a specific example of such co-operation in the large company SAP, with your centre as mediator, and Linet as a representative of small and medium-sized Czech enterprises?
You’ve put your finger on the fact that we do act as a mediator between multinational companies which set the trend, the research community and small and medium-sized businesses. This “triple alliance” is needed in applying new technologies within small and medium-sized firms. It is here that our economy’s momentum is created. And now let’s be specific. SAP has its own programme supporting universities and implementing cooperation. Institutes such as ours are a suitable partner because we are a platform both within the CTU and within the Czech Republic in general. If SAP is supplying software solutions or technical support, then it is basically supporting all faculties and opening up the doors to other universities who have workplaces here. We have created a single place where the complex SAP system can be established, and thus which can demonstrate all of its various aspects. We are gradually beginning to take up individual aspects and implement them into teaching, and we will subsequently be providing consultation to small and mediumsized enterprises. It should be said that there were a number of large companies that expressed an interest in co-operation, but discussions often ended merely at the level of promises. SAP, however, took action. They implemented a system, made a contract on co-operation with similar centres in Europe, were very accommodating in the needs of teaching and released the system for industrial co-operation with other businesses. Thus, in our Testbed we can demonstrate how physical production facilities can be connected to SAP. Investment from the company and our efforts are always required to begin with. We, however, teach small and medium-sized enterprises to use all the technologies we have available to us. It would be a shame if they didn’t use the systems because nobody understood them. You really need to bring in students to the systems, let them have a go on them and implement a smaller solution. In line with current trends, then, a large company with a very interesting global product which, however, is difficult to operate, can find a university which plays the role of mediator both for teaching future users, and also to enlighten current users.
And how does Linet come into this scheme of co-operation?
I’ve been following Linet since the very beginning; it is a company which is growing very successfully through the managerial abilities of its founder, Mr Frolík, whom I know personally. Our scientists have helped at various phases in solving certain elements of technology, whether in terms of developing special sensors for measuring particular patient bodily functions directly at the bedside, or in terms of a system using collected data from sold beds to help to secure so-called after-market service. At the current time, our co-operation is leading to improvements in current products, and we are considering what additional technologies can be added, whether in terms of computer vision or assessing biomedical data from sensors we have available. Linet is another example of a company which has always promoted co-operation with universities. Last week, we received their newest type of bed, which we are going to have in our so-called “intelligent apartment”. We’re going to be testing out all the equipment in this apartment. The apartment has standard furnishings, with a kitchen, staircase, living room with seating, a bed, but it also contains a network of sensors which are going to be collecting data on the movement or falls of individuals. Thus it will be able to monitor older, sick or disabled people. Basically, we’re going to have an overview of what’s happing within the apartment. And what does Linet expect to get from us? Testing their product in operation, feedback, involvement in the development of further solutions and last but not least, students learning about their product. Many students may become engineers in hospitals and will have an awareness of the brand and its products. This co-operation is evidence that small and medium-sized companies who work in developing technologies can become large companies. The Czech Republic can do this. This is the right vision for the Czech Republic. Small and medium-sized companies, which really are the driving force of the economy, will be able to penetrate not just beyond the Šumava mountains with their ideas and products, but even across the Atlantic Ocean, as Linet has demonstrated with its approach. Linet doesn’t just co-operate with us, but also with other universities, some of which they have already managed to join us up with.
Can representatives of other companies contact you about co-operation?
Yes; we have a procedure for co-operation with businesses. As I’ve said, we are always interested in long-term co-operation. We offer businesses the creation of shared laboratories where company representatives can investigate and prepare new technology solutions alongside our experts. The Czech Republic has much better conditions for this type of co-operation than many other countries. We have clever engineers with the gift of innovative thinking who can handle any situation.
So even Czechs can teach the world something?
Exactly; I’ll give an example I’m proud of. In 2016, we signed a contract with a German institute for artificial intelligence when Angela Merkel came to visit. Mrs Merkel promised 1 million Euro for the purchase of shared equipment. From the Czech politicians, we’re still waiting for the money promised, but our German colleagues had the money in their account within 14 days and today they have purchased 16 collaborative robots. We wanted to do an experiment in which we would take the robots and use them in our lines. After calculating the transport costs, we were forced to find another solution. As such, the machines can remain in Germany, but we can involve them in testing the production line using the internet. We sent our products to Germany electronically, and our colleagues printed them out. In this way, we created the first virtual Testbed in Europe. Some machines were on the ground floor, we left heavy robots in the basement and two robots were involved in Germany. We tuned their functions and using Google Glass we saw them on the screen as if they were here. On the neighbouring screen, we checked that they are connected in Germany as we had anticipated. Our colleagues in Germany really liked this first experiment. It is we who are today preparing a large European project within virtual reality. And an innovative solution such as this was the result of a lack of funds to move the robots. The possible outcomes, and resultant changes in the business model hand in hand with flexibility and speed represent the endless opportunities of the future shared economy.
By Linda Štucbartová
Photo: Vladimír Weiss