35 years of IDSIA USI-SUPSI

On Tuesday evening in the East Campus Lugano IDSIA celebrated its 35th anniversary in front of a large audience of students and researchers, representatives from academia, business and politics. Celebrations were held to mark the important milestone achieved by the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence USI-SUPSI, the brainchild of Angelo Dalle Molle. 

When it comes to artificial intelligence, one cannot abstract from the people behind the complex algorithms. It’s a rule that applies in general and applies perfectly to the history of the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence USI-SUPSI. Through probabilistic models today, AI is able to make predictions, but it still lacks the ability to have forward-looking visions like the one Angelo Dalle Molle had when he sensed the disruptive impact that technology would have on society. As early as the second half of the 1960s in his villa on the Brenta he envisioned car sharing and the introduction of computers in the family business, a fact that happened shortly afterwards with a huge investment of a billion liras. This visionary nature of his," his nephew Antonio Dalle Molle explained in the hall, "was not understood by everyone, but time proved the entrepreneur and philanthropist right, and in 1988, in circumstances that were out of the ordinary and not very institutional, he founded the IDSIA in Lugano, finding its first headquarters in what is now the USI library. "Dalle Molle’s vision was unbelievable," recalled Carlo Lepori former director of IDSIA along with Luca Maria Gambardella and Jürgen Schmidhuber, "he wanted it not to be human beings communicating in binary code with computers, but for machines to understand human beings. Thus was born IDSIA, which, thanks in part to earlier activities carried out by a group of professors at the Scuola Tecnica Superiore and the Associazione Ticinese Elaborazione Dati, found fertile ground in Lugano in which to grow.

After the early years, marked by significant public funding in addition to the contribution of the Dalle Molle Foundation, IDSIA faced a critical phase, to the point that its very existence was called into question. Mauro Martinoni , former head of the DECS Office for University Studies, recalled that delicate phase: "In 1993 Giuseppe Buffi entrusted me with the university project and invited me to visit the institute, which, contrary to the good name it had in the rest of the country, did not enjoy a great reputation in Ticino. The idea was to close it down. In Lugano I was received by a gentleman in shorts and T-shirt, but beyond this first impact, meeting Luca Maria Gambardella and Carlo Lepori gave hope for the future of IDSIA. Ten years after its founding, that institute that at the time seemed like a ’foundling’ gained its final recognition with the creation of the cantonal university hub. With affiliation with USI and SUPSI it could begin its run."

Even today, the IDSIA - stressed Mauro Dell’Ambrogio , former state secretary for education, research and innovation, first secretary general of USI and former director general of SUPSI - represents a unicum in the Swiss landscape because of its dual affiliation. The institute has been able to create synergies between the two realities thanks to the commitment of people who have been able to move in an interinstitutional context. Cooperative and brilliant minds arrived in Lugano thanks to a careful search for talent. An aspect emphasized by Luca Maria Gambardella for years director of IDSIA: "We have always had the courage and humility to look for people who were even smarter than us, thus giving momentum to research. We always worked in full scientific autonomy, doing good science that was then transferred."

"The orientation to basic and applied research is the key to the success of this institute" - remarked USI Rector Luisa Lambertini as well, "which from its inception clearly showed that it was a scientific jewel in the field of AI and robotics. "In 35 years," added SUPSI Director General Franco Gervasoni , "IDSIA has been able to develop a wide range of skills and has had the ability to weave a dense network of collaborations. Not to mention the focus on young recruits, with Bachelor’s and Master’s courses and a growing number of active researchers."

The Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence USI-SUPSI today has 130 staff members headed by Andrea Emilio Rizzoli , who is supported in turn by three scientific directors: Jürgen Schmidhuber , Marco Zaffalon and Cesare Alippi , who gave his inaugural public lecture in this new role during the 35th anniversary event.