Alessandro Palmas, CEO at DIAMBRA — AI for Control Systems, Automation in Aerospace, Digital Twins Impact Beyond Gaming, Artificial Pancreas

In this interview, we speak with Alessandro Palmas, an innovator at the leading edge in AI and digital innovation. Alessandro offers insights into the promising role of AI in control systems and the impact of automation in aerospace. He explores the influence of digital twins across sectors and shares his vision for transforming theoretical concepts into market-driven innovations, including the dream of an Artificial Pancreas. Join us for a peek into the future of AI applications through Alessandro’s perspective.

Alessandro, could you share with us one particular achievement or metric of DIAMBRA that you’re especially proud of, something that encapsulates your vision for the platform?

One aspect of DIAMBRA that we are particularly proud of is the enthusiasm we’ve ignited among our users. This enthusiasm isn’t just about engaging with cutting-edge technology; it’s about participating in a community that values excitement, quality, and the joy of learning through play. Our platform is designed not just as a sandbox for experimentation but as an arena where creativity meets competition in the realm of artificial intelligence.

One of our goals has always been very ambitious: to do for coding and AI development what Robot Wars did for engineering, making the coders the true stars of the show. We are getting ready to extend the current AIvsCOM mode, in which the algorithm aims at finishing the game, with the AIvsAI mode, which really embodies this vision by allowing models trained by different users to compete directly against each other. This feature isn’t just about showcasing the prowess of individual algorithms; it’s about creating a vibrant, dynamic environment where innovation and strategy play out in real-time.

Moreover, we’re also working on taking the concept of training models beyond the conventional coding practices. We will give our users tools to train their model in two additional ways, by allowing them to play against their AI to make it become more robust, as well as to record their own games to leverage Offline Reinforcement Learning, where agents learn from a dataset of human expert demonstrations.

What excites me most is not just the technology we’ve developed but the community we’re building. DIAMBRA is more than a platform; it’s the living proof that when people are passionate about a topic, they naturally thrive to innovate.

In your work with AI for control systems, what are some of the most promising applications you foresee, and what barriers exist to their widespread adoption?

In the context of AI for control systems, the advancements we’re seeing, particularly in the field of Reinforcement Learning (RL), are going to revolutionize how we approach automation and control in various industries. The inherent flexibility and adaptability of RL-based control systems set them apart from traditional methods, enabling them to tackle complex, dynamic tasks far beyond the capabilities of conventional controllers. These systems are not confined by the linear dynamics or approximations that limit classical control systems, allowing for real-time application and significantly reduced computational demands.

One of the most exciting aspects of RL in control systems is its universal applicability across different sectors. Whether in aerospace, manufacturing, automotive, or even more nuanced applications like environmental regulation, RL can offer tailored, efficient solutions. This universality also opens the door to automated pipelines for system updates, maintenance, and the development of new applications, seamlessly integrating with existing and future technologies.

Moreover, RL’s capacity to compress and optimize traditional control logic or even human expert demonstrations into a more efficient deep learning architecture unlocks new possibilities for real-time applications. This ability to replicate or even exceed the performance of existing systems, but with greater efficiency, promises to enable new levels of operational effectiveness.

However, widespread adoption of RL-based control systems faces several barriers. These include the necessity for accurate simulators to replicate end-to-end system dynamics, the creation of datasets to train these systems accurately, and the need for ML and RL coding expertise. Additionally, the computing power required to run these sophisticated models and the challenge of integrating stochastic-based controllers in safety-critical applications are significant hurdles.

Addressing these challenges is at the forefront of our efforts. By developing more intuitive interfaces, enhancing the accessibility of high-quality simulators, and advancing the efficiency of computing resources, we aim to democratize access to RL technologies. Our goal is to lower these entry barriers, making it feasible for a broader range of industries to leverage the full potential of AI-driven control systems.

How do you see the future of AI and automation impacting the aerospace industry, and what steps should businesses take to integrate these technologies effectively?

The integration of AI and automation plays a central role in the future of the aerospace industry, it is going to reshape operations and unlock new realms of efficiency and capability. One of the most notable impacts will be the adoption of next-generation AI-based control systems, which will enable a shift toward greater autonomy in aerospace systems. These advanced control systems will empower aircraft and spacecraft with the ability to navigate complex, unpredictable scenarios autonomously, thereby enhancing safety and operational flexibility.

Additionally, AI and automation will revolutionize the prototyping process within the aerospace sector. The utilization of neural network-based enhanced simulation tools, as happening in the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) world, will enable engineers to rapidly iterate and refine designs with unprecedented speed and accuracy. This accelerated prototyping capability promises to significantly shorten development cycles and bring innovative aerospace technologies to market more swiftly.

Moreover, the demand for faster delivery times from the market will further drive the integration of AI and automation in aerospace operations. Businesses will need to adapt to meet these heightened expectations, leveraging AI-driven solutions to streamline manufacturing processes, optimize supply chains, and enhance overall operational efficiency.

To effectively integrate these technologies, aerospace businesses must first embrace the AI trend with an open-minded approach. Despite potential skepticism in certain contexts, recognizing the transformative potential of AI is essential for staying competitive in a rapidly evolving industry landscape. Additionally, investing in talent acquisition is paramount. Hiring individuals with the requisite expertise and experience in AI and automation will be instrumental in driving forward the adoption and implementation of these technologies within aerospace organizations.

In your transition from aerospace engineering to leading cutting-edge AI research and development, what has been the most challenging aspect of applying theoretical knowledge to practical, market-driven innovations?

Transitioning from aerospace engineering to cutting-edge AI research and development has been an amazing journey that exposed me to its fair share of challenges, among which two main aspects have been particularly complex to handle.

On the research and academic front, the extremely fast pace of innovation within the field of AI presents a very demanding challenge. The landscape is ever-evolving, with a constant flux of new publications, methodologies, and breakthroughs flooding the scene on a weekly basis. Staying on top of these developments requires not just dedication but a relentless commitment to learning and adaptation. The volume of information can be overwhelming, making it a constant battle to distill the most relevant insights and incorporate them into practical applications effectively.

Conversely, on the industry side, navigating the intricate labyrinth of technological stacks has proven to be quite hard. The domains I’ve been immersed in, from aerospace to gaming to engineering simulation, are characterized by complex tech infrastructures that demand a lot of engineering skills and effort. Transforming theoretical concepts into tangible, market-driven innovations necessitates surmounting significant engineering challenges. From designing and developing meaningful prototypes within tight timeframes to orchestrating the process of industrialization, every step requires a wide range of technical and engineering abilities.

Reflecting on your extensive experience in both research and production environments, how do you balance the pursuit of innovation with the practicalities of software development deadlines and market demands?

Balancing the push for innovation with the practical demands of software development deadlines and market pressures is an art that requires handling delicate trade-offs, and years in both research and production environments are needed to be prepared. At the heart of it lies the establishment of a robust R&D department, properly guided to navigate the continuously shifting landscape of technological innovation while remaining aligned to the strategy outlined by the company’s product innovation roadmap.

The key element of this approach lies in giving the R&D team a healthy degree of autonomy and freedom to explore and innovate within carefully delineated boundaries. These boundaries, directly connected to the company’s strategic vision, serve as guiding beacons, ensuring that the pursuit of innovation remains aligned with the main business objectives. This delicate equilibrium between exploration and execution is essential for capturing the latest research findings and leveraging them to propel the evolution of products.

Empowering the R&D team to explore emerging technologies and cutting-edge research is the first step to create a fertile ground for innovation. By ensuring strategic alignment, this exploration has a clear purpose, directed towards developing technologies and solutions that address the pressing needs of the market and customers.

The synergy between innovation and application extends beyond the confines of the R&D department. Close collaboration between research and production teams ensures a seamless transition from ideation to implementation, with a key focus on meeting software development deadlines without compromising on the quality or integrity of products.

As someone deeply involved in the development of digital twins, could you explain how this technology is revolutionizing industries beyond gaming, perhaps with examples from the consulting service in your previous company Artificial Twin?

The emergence of digital twins represents a paradigm shift in a wide range of industries, aiming at giving birth to a new era of innovation and efficiency. At Artificial Twin, we’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of this technology across diverse sectors, with two significant trends emerging at the forefront of this revolution.

Firstly, the fusion of machine learning approaches with traditional engineering simulation methodologies is reshaping the landscape of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and other simulation-based practices. By harnessing the capabilities of deep neural networks, we’ve witnessed a quantum leap in simulation speed and accuracy. Tasks that once required hours, if not days, of computation can now be executed in a fraction of the time, thanks to the accelerated capabilities afforded by ML-driven simulation frameworks. This not only expedites the design and optimization process but also opens new frontiers for innovation by enabling engineers to explore design spaces previously considered infeasible due to computational constraints.

Secondly, the need for more realistic and performant simulation systems has never been more evident. As industries increasingly rely on AI-driven solutions for decision-making and autonomy, the need for high-fidelity digital twins capable of mimicking reality with unparalleled accuracy has become paramount. At Artificial Twin, we were leveraging our expertise to develop simulation environments that not only replicate real-world scenarios but also serve as robust training grounds for AI models. By training these models in accurate simulation systems we mitigate the risk of encountering generalization issues and ensure the robustness and reliability of AI-driven systems when deployed in the real world.

The field of AI is incredibly vast and fast-moving. How do you stay abreast of the latest developments, and which areas do you think will be most impactful in the near future?

In the dynamic landscape of AI, staying up to date with the latest developments is not just a professional necessity; it’s a continuous journey of learning and adaptation. While there are myriad avenues for keeping informed – from reading conference proceedings to subscribing to newsletters and following industry events – I’ve found that nurturing a robust professional network within the field yields unparalleled insights.

Engaging in discussions with like-minded individuals who share a passion for AI enables a deeper understanding of emerging trends, breakthroughs, and challenges. These conversations go beyond mere information exchange; they foster a collective exploration of opportunities and limitations, illuminating new pathways for innovation and growth. By leveraging exchanges with my peers, I’m able to glean insights that extend beyond the surface-level understanding offered by academic papers or news articles.

As for the areas that will have the most significant impact in the near future, the proliferation of Large Language Models (LLMs) and diffusion models, particularly in the realm of Generative AI, is undeniable. The ability of these models to generate realistic, contextually relevant content has already catalyzed transformative applications across various domains, from natural language processing to creative content generation.

However, I believe the next frontier of AI innovation lies in Reinforcement Learning (RL). Techniques aimed at mitigating the sample complexity problem, such as offline RL, are gaining traction and represent a pivotal area of research and development. By leveraging existing data to train RL agents, we can unlock new realms of efficiency and scalability, paving the way for AI systems capable of tackling increasingly complex real-world problems.

Given your passion for creating tangible projects that harness the power of AI, could you share a project or idea that you haven’t yet started but dream of bringing to life?

Our current projects are absorbing our full energy and dedication as we prepare to push more and more innovation in this space. But there’s a project that I would really love to see realized—a project that embodies the intersection of AI innovation and tangible, real-world impact. If I were to embark on a new endeavor, it would be the development of an AI-based control system to create an Artificial Pancreas.

The concept of an Artificial Pancreas isn’t new, but the realization of a fully autonomous system capable of regulating insulin injection based on real-time physiological feedback remains a unsolved challenge. I firmly believe in challenging the status quo and refusing to accept the notion that such a feat is beyond our reach.

Diabetic individuals make decisions regarding insulin dosage multiple times per day, based on a multitude of factors, from blood glucose levels to dietary intake. A sufficiently intelligent control system could feasibly undertake these evaluations with precision and efficiency. Imagine a device that seamlessly integrates with the body’s natural rhythms, continuously monitoring physiological cues and dynamically adjusting insulin delivery to maintain optimal glucose levels.

Such a project would require not only technical expertise but also a profound commitment to human-centered design and ethical considerations. Ensuring the safety, efficacy, and accessibility of the Artificial Pancreas would be paramount, necessitating rigorous testing, collaboration with medical professionals, and a deep understanding of the lived experiences of diabetic individuals.

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