‘Greece could use an Elon Musk’

Greek-American electrical engineer and professor at the University of Pennsylvania laments the absence of the right ecosystem to breed innovation


He was born in New York to Greek migrants; his father worked as a waiter at the Waldorf Astoria and his mother was a housewife. When he was 5 years old, however, his parents decided to return, moving back to their native town of Aridaia in Pella, northern Greece. “So, there I was, in first grade, the ‘Amerikanaki.’ Everyone’s called me George since then,” says George (Giorgos) Pappas, a professor and chair of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and a global authority on robotic and automation technology.

Pappas and his team are organizing what is expected to be the biggest robotics convention in the world, due to take place in May in Philadelphia, with more than 5,000 participants and 200 companies. He also headed the team of diaspora scientists working with the newly established Hellenic Institute of Advanced Studies (HIAS), which carried out a study into how to develop the field of robotics in Greece. Their proposals were delivered to the prime minister and the National Research, Technology and Innovation Committee.

Pappas spoke to Kathimerini shortly before returning to the United States at the end of the summer with his wife Anna Papafragou, a linguistics professor at Pennsylvania University, and their two daughters, after spending a year in Greece as digital nomads.

How did you decide to become digital nomads?

The digital revolution has changed how we live and work. We came to Greece on holiday in the summer of 2020. The US was in turmoil. Trump was president – and he was recommending bleach injections for coronavirus patients – and the protests over George Floyd’s death were daily. As soon as our university introduced remote working, we stayed. It was the best decision we have ever made. We reconnected with our country and our daughters learned Greek better. I hadn’t spent that much time in Greece since 1993 when I returned for my military service.

What were the most striking changes you observed?

The digital transformation has been an impressive achievement. The progress with infrastructure has been significant, except on the islands, which are lagging, especially when it comes to telecoms. The first phase of the pandemic was managed well and, in some respects, better than the US government, which treated a global problem with local solutions. This success, however, may have created the illusion that the pandemic would be easily beaten, and all the talk of success led to complacency. What bothered me most – because I dabble in computational epidemiology – was the absence of public information about the epidemiological situation. As in all developed countries, I expected to have access to data so, as a scientist, I could see if I could help and, as a parent, I could decide how best to protect my family.

Do you think this failure to provide citizens with adequate information is an innate weakness of the Greek system, or deliberate?

EODY [the National Organization for Public Health] delivers certain statistical epidemiological figures every day, but they are lacking, and they are mainly quantitative. There is no qualitative data, which can tell us a lot. Why? Maybe because there’s a tendency to control the narrative of how the pandemic is being managed. Let’s leave it at that.

What were the broad strokes of the proposals HIAS presented to the government in its report?

In robotics, as in other scientific fields, we would like to see a greater connection between scientific research and its imprint on the Greek economy and society. Even though great research is being done in this country, this is not leading to new companies, new job opportunities or the use of robots by private companies or public organizations. What we need, therefore, is a long-term national strategy for robotics. Its implementation and evolution would need to be assessed not just by how many programs there are at universities and research centers, but also by the impact research would have on national priority areas. Our proposal contains various implementation mechanisms that have worked very well in countries like Israel, Italy and the United States.

How could a robotic boom benefit us?

National security is one area where aerial robots are considered essential. By the term “national security,” meanwhile, I mean things like environmental monitoring, rapid response to fires and earthquakes, and also border patrol. Furthermore, we could use our significant geographical advantages and focus on agricultural and marine robots, as well as on robots that can be used in the up-and-coming logistics sector. Greece could be a research and innovation pioneer in these areas.

How would you try to convince a young person to take an active interest in your field?

The fourth industrial revolution has already started, and it is still in its early days. Robotics are its microcosm and it is full of opportunities. Teams at schools and universities are creating a wonderful culture in high-tech innovation. Robotics is the perfect way to initiate young people into innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why did you choose robotics?

It was luck: an elective and an inspired teacher. Back then, in the early 1990s, robotics was regarded as exotic. What I tell my own students, however, is that they cannot decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives at the age of 18. A career is a path filled with crossroads and, at each one, we need to consider three questions: What do we like? What are we good at? And what do society and the market need? One of these alone is not enough. It’s a tricky combination. The boom in telecommunications at the time (the first cell phones had just come out) took most of my fellow students in that direction. Robotics was not a highway – it was a lonely path…

At the risk of sounding naive, what does robotics mean today?

It’s a good question, because the term is greatly misunderstood. When we talk about robotics, we usually mean a mechanical system – a car, a lever, a drone etc – with sensors and artificial intelligence control mechanisms, which works autonomously, sees what’s going on around it and makes decisions. The decisions mainly concern movement. Robots see better every year and will be able to make better decisions in the future. Huge strides have been made in the last decade in automated vehicles, which is the technology my lab deals with.

Would you put your daughter in a self-driving car?

I’d put myself in one, but not my daughters. I’ll explain why. Despite the impressive progress that has been achieved, it’s still hard for a robot to consider every possible combination of problems that may arise in the streets of a city. Thanks to technology, we can be 99.9% sure that nothing bad will happen. This is enough for many applications, but not for a situation where people’s lives may be at risk. The remaining 0.1% may seem slight, but it’s not: It requires a lot of work and enormous cost, and I believe it will take at least 20 years before we get there. You can’t make discounts on safety. And for the time being, self-driving cars are not as safe as those driven by people.

What are your views on Greek universities?

Greek universities are excellent at imparting knowledge to their students, but what they do not give them is the ability to create and produce. They favor individualism. It’s a cultural thing. Greeks prefer to carve out a small space for themselves, even if they’re alone, than to build it with others. But collectivity leads to bigger ideas and robotics is perfect for this because it requires cooperation. It’s like students creating small startups while at university. Look at Elon Musk, who is a graduate of our university. He created a revolution with Tesla and in aerodynamics. He represents the ideal of the American innovator. Greece could use an Elon Musk: people with big ideas, ambitions and vision, who dream of changing the world. Unfortunately, it does not have the ecosystem needed to create them.