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Nicolò Annino, beyond machine learning

Nicolò Annino is a brain that stubbornly remained in Italy, in his Catania. Senior machine learning consultant, he has founded companies and communities, is part of the Italian Association for Machine Learning (IAML) and is mentor to startups and companies. Nicolò is the guest of the next Data Science Seed meeting, event partner of C1A0.

Between the design of bioinspired robotic arts, the conception of new security protocols based on machine learning, the invention of protection devices for publishing industry and the design of X-ray generators, he found the time to found Idealarm Ltd, a company committed to the development of advanced security systems for the fight against crime and terrorism.

The company, based in London and Catania, has a specific focus on computer-vision and machine learning. Nicolò has also founded IA-DataScience, the newborn of the Idealarm group, to support the numerous requests for consultancy in the introduction of AI and machine learning based systems in Italian companies.

The story of Idealarm seems to come out of Silicon Valley, instead it was born in Sicily…

I started dealing with in companies immediately after graduating, but when I founded Idealarm I was already thirty years old. Together with another guy I left my previous job and we closed ourselves up for a whole year at home to develop. I had saved some money from my previous job, and we did everything with these funds. It was, for me, the third attempt with a company. In Italy it is not easy to do these things, especially because of cultural heritage. My luck has been to have a family that has always encouraged me. Even though we didn’t have great financial resources, my parents have always helped me and, above all, encouraged me to move forward.

My friends call me “serial entrepreneur“. I have treasured all these experiences until I founded Idealarm in the UK in 2010. Then we opened an office in Italy. Today the production part is in Catania, while the administrative part and the servers are in Regent Street, London.

Why London?

In 2010 connectivity in Italy was not very developed, especially in the south. In 2009 we developed what we called “encrypted video surveillance on remote servers“, the Cloud Computing definition was not yet in use. From an economic point of view it was unthinkable in 2009 to make massive recordings of many cameras by concentrating video streams on a server resident in Italy. It has been easier to go to London.

Why did you come back to Italy then?

Usually returns to the home country are made after achieving success abroad, I preferred to return to Italy (in the deep south) because there was a need for security systems. There was a need for inventions and for trying to convince some of the many brilliant people to stay, offering an alternative to expatriation to find what is considered normal in other countries.
If we intend wealth as an indicator of success then I cannot call myself a successful person.
I much prefer to take money away from my person and invest it in paying an extra salary to acquire a young talent or buy equipment and machinery so that I have better working tools.
Like many Italian entrepreneurs, I have a company that is forced to live among a thousand difficulties and I often think that if I had gone to America, today I would have completely different numbers.
But for me the goal has never been to maximise money, but to maximise happiness. Today I live where I like, I have a house with a garden, a family, dogs. I am aware that if I had left Italy, I would certainly have lived more comfortably, but I would have lived in lack… the lack that feel those who think they can do something, but leave without trying to change things, cutting ties with friends, family and their roots.

If, as an entrepreneur, you could ask the Government to solve a problem, what would it be?

I have eight people working in my company (plus a dozen external staff), but I would like to grow. The difficulties of hiring, the very high labour costs and the associated costs are concrete problems that slow down the growth of a company and this makes you angry. I would not ask the government for help: I would ask them to leave me in peace, which means renegotiating taxes in a fairer way and simplifying the formalities.

What exactly does Idealarm do?

Advanced military and civil security systems based on computer vision and deep learning. These technologies are used in particular sectors of national security and specific applications for law enforcement. Noticed by enlightened people involved in national defence, we were invited to make tests in a hangar to demonstrate the effectiveness and validity of the technologies we developed. We demonstrated that our technologies work.
Italy has always preferred to adopt foreign technologies for these sectors (mainly from America and Israel). We entered as perfect outsiders and showed that even a company like ours could produce high level products, with results even superior to the renowned foreign technologies. At present, our flagship products are aimed at air defence, but I would like to point out: nothing to do with armaments.
We also do a lot of other things: we help other companies not only to go digital, but to take the next step: using artificial intelligence.

Any examples?

Technical consultancy for publishers developing artificial intelligence systems applied to user profiling, data analysis and NLP and fake news identification. We work with companies to optimise production processes: we try to forecast customer purchases to predict which product lines to intensify, allowing huge savings. Among our customers there are car rental companies that need to predict optimal vehicle prices.
Our characteristic is that we are not single-product: by choice and vocation we work on many different fronts.

Before becoming an entrepreneur?

I studied engineering and robotics. When I was 23 years old, I created a solution to prevent quiz books in preparation for competitions from being photocopied systematically: only through an electronic device the correct answers to the questions could be obtained. They ordered 5000 pieces and I had a contract with an important amount of money for the age I was.

When I was at university I tried to build a machine to generate x-rays for ion propulsion systems at high altitude: I had an intuition on how to build an air acceleration engine – a kind of giant hairdryer – but no professor understood and let it run like an extravagance. In the military field, on the other hand, that idea became interesting again…

This has a lot to do not only with engineering skills, but also with creativity…

The creative range is very important and that’s exactly what I try to “extract” from the people who work with me. Because it is not enough to know how to write a string of code: it is fundamental to know how to see what it will become one day.

How was the Machine Learning Italia community born?

At the end of 2017, I opened the Machine Learning Italia social community, which today gathers more than 3500 teachers, researchers, professionals and students in the sector. I wanted it to be a place to talk with those who deal with these issues in a concrete but scientific way. This is how I discovered that in Italy there are so many ideas and so many people capable of doing. There are a lot of people who are sensitive to environmental issues and AI. Young people are already studying knowing that they will have to leave Italy to have a better working future, if only we could focus all these energies and not disperse them who knows what would happen.

What can you tell us about the application of AI to climate change, the main topic of C1A0?

I like to think that artificial intelligence and green development can be new ways to keep all these people working in Italy: those who develop their own vision and fight to achieve it and those who want to use their talent to be part of it. Personally, I want to spend my life so that as many of these excellences as possible can find a place in our country.

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