"Science deals only with the ‘how’ and not with the ‘why’ of our world"
23 November 2016
Interview with Roberto Battiti, Visiting Professor at IMDEA Networks Institute
Roberto Battiti is Full Professor of Computer Science, Università degli Studi di Trento (Italy), Director of the LION lab (machine Learning and Intelligent OptimizatioN) for prescriptive analytics; Chair of Excellence UC3M-Banco Santander; Visiting Professor, IMDEA Networks Institute.
1. To begin this interview, we are curious about how you were called to the life of science. When and why did you decide to become a scientist?
When I went to high school I was not ready for compromises, I wanted the truth, nothing but the truth, and the real explanation behind our world. I had a real passion for Physics, Math and Philosophy. I was intrigued to discover the laws of Nature, and to overcome challenging problems. In class, from time to time, I found subtle mistakes in the textbooks, which gained the admiration of my teachers and fellow students.
I was very introverted, bordering on autism, and obtaining a top performance at school was my way to strengthen my character and define my position in the world. Now that I am much older, I understand that Science deals only with the “how” and not with the “why” of our world, but it is still difficult for me to accept this state of things. I now agree with the definition of Science by Von Neumann: “The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.”
(“Method in the Physical Sciences”, in The Unity of Knowledge (1955), ed. L. G. Leary (Doubleday & Co., New York), p. 157)
2. What training and background do you have as a researcher?
I got my first degree (Laurea) in Physics from the University of Trento, my hometown in Italy. Then I decided to apply for a PhD in Computer Science in the USA. At that time internet had not been invented yet, so I sent a dozen letters to the most prestigious universities and I followed the standard selection process with tons of paper. I was the first student of my university to go abroad for a PhD and I was surprised to gain acceptance letters by eight universities among the “top ten” (well, letters or telegrams, do you remember that technology? J). I decided to join Caltech (California Institute of Technology) because of its reputation and the overall appeal of California and the West Coast of the USA. At Caltech I could breathe the environment of a top school, with motivated students aiming at changing the world with a positive determination and aggressiveness.
3. How did you get the opportunity to come and work in Madrid? What institutions have you been connected to so far?
I met Prof. Arturo Azcorra years ago in the context of European research projects and he recently suggested the possibility of applying for a temporary position here through the Cátedras de Excelencia UC3M-Santander competitive call. Now I am sharing my time between University Carlos III of Madrid and the IMDEA Networks Institute.
4. What interested you most about the IMDEA Networks project? What made you want to become involved?
IMDEA Networks is a top place with a clear vision, international character and researchers of excellent quality.
5. In what research lines will you be working? What specific results do you expect to see?
IMDEA Networks is focusing on computer networks and telecommunications, while I am focusing more on software and services. In particular, I like to use data to build models and extract knowledge, exploit knowledge to automate the discovery of improving solutions, and connect insight to decisions and actions. I am working with local researchers to explore research directions at the boundary between different disciplines and I am also looking at startup possibilities.
6. Did you know Spain before joining IMDEA? What do you like best about Madrid?
I must admit I knew very little of Spain. I had visited only for short periods, mostly for conferences at Barcelona and Málaga, in addition to Madrid. Madrid is a very intriguing mixture of Latin openness and a desire to enjoy life, with a Swiss-like organization of public services. I like hearing people speak Spanish; the language is so close to Italian (actually even more to our local dialect) that I can understand about 70-80% without effort. The vivacity of people while they talk is contagious and makes you feel happy even on a rainy day. Public transportation is super-efficient; I think Madrid has the best subway system in Europe. Also, I was surprised to see people queuing up with patience at bus stops, which looks very English to me. In general, everybody looks gentle and relaxed, or at least more gentle and relaxed than in the average European capital.
UC3M is very efficient and characterized by a high level of attention to details. For a concrete example, I like the idea of a separate canteen for faculty and PhD students with the availability of microwaves and armchairs to relax. IMDEA Networks reaches an even higher standard of attention towards its employees, with modern offices, equipment, and even kitchens, refrigerators, and coffee. Offering kitchens and refreshments is something I tried to do at our university but I could not because of too many bureaucratic regulations, but I am sure that designing optimal working conditions and “cuddling” employees is the proper way to reach excellence, much more that super-detailed rules.
I must recognize it has been a long time since I did not have this level of concentration at work. I am enjoying this phase and I am sure something very positive will come out of it.
Roberto during summer in the sixties, working in the fields around Trento (hometown).
Torri del Vajolet (Trentino) 2016, with Filippo and Edoardo.