Starting Up

I live in Amsterdam, the city that prides itself not only for its “live and let live” mentality and for having been a location for Sense8, but also for being iCapital, i.e. the European Capital of Innovation 2016. Tesla, Netflix, Optimizely and NextDoor have the European HQ in Amsterdam. Companies like TomTom, Squla, Alliander and others are attracting young talented data scientists and machine learning experts to Amsterdam. And when even a royalty is involved in StartUpFest Europe, you know that the Dutch mean business.

But what about my homeland? What about Italy?

When in Rome…

On September 16 of this year I had the pleasure of visiting the PiCampus, the slightly more modest European version of Silicon Valley in Rome. PiCampus, founded by Marco Trombetti (of fame) and entrepreneur Jamshid Alamuti, is described like a place where “machine intelligence meets human creativity” and where startups can find not only a physical location for their activities, but also mentorship and funders.

So, what made me join a crowd of twenty-something engineers who dream big and eat voraciously a gigantic quantity of pasta in less than half an hour? I’ll give you two names: Alex Waibel and Hassan Sawaf.

For those of you who up to now have been oblivious to what happens in the outside world, Alex Waibel is professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the main expert on speech-to-speech (S2S) technology. His talk at PiCampus revolved around the apparently simple question: “Is it possible to build dialogue systems, so I can speak in one language and the other person can hear me and respond in his own language?” It was an amazing presentation, full of insights, and you can watch the full recording here.

Hassan Sawaf is Director of Applied Science and Artificial Intelligence at Amazon and an expert in the field of machine translation, speech recognition and machine learning. With his presentation he gave the public a peek behind the scenes at Amazon. It was fascinating and scary, at the same time. The full recording is here.

Media and communicationWill Italy catch up with the Netherlands? Not in the immediate future. Italy has still a long way to go to leave the economic crisis behind, although things are on the lookup. Does Italy have what it takes to create a favorable ecosystem for startups? I think Italian entrepreneurs and startups should rediscover and take pride in the legacy of Adriano Olivetti, who, by the way, is  a source of inspiration for the founders of PiCampus. Let’s not forget that some of Olivetti’s ideas have crossed the pond and influenced many of the Silicon Valley’s companies trying to build an innovative culture alongside their products. Even Prof. Waibel in his presentation mentioned Perottina P101, the first desktop computer produced by Olivetti meant to be so simple that anyone could use it.

There were other presentations at PiCampus that are worth mentioning and that attracted a good crowd. For example, Marcello Federico (Head of Language Tech at FBK) talked about machine learning and how to translate human language through technologywhile Renato Beninatto, well known agent provocateur of the translation industry, revealed how to sell in America and announced his upcoming book, The General Theory of The Traslation Company.

Keep an eye on the Library page of the PiCampus for more interesting videos.

Recommended further reading:

This Italian company pioneered innovative startup culture—in the 1930s

Stories of cities #21: Olivetti tries to build the ideal “human city” for its workers

In the research spotlight: Hassan Sawaf

Speech Translation Technology: A conversation between Alexander Waibel and Mark Seligman

Valley Speak – Deciphering the Jargon of Silicon Valley


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