From: Philadelphia Inquirer, Posted on Sun, Nov. 20, 2005

Educator Spotlight

Teacher: Doug Blank, assistant professor of computer science

School: Bryn Mawr College

What he has done: Blank, 42, was part of a four-member team that received an award in October for an educational robotics programming software it developed called Pyro. The other members were Deepak Kumar, computer science professor at Bryn Mawr; Lisa Meeden of Swarthmore University; and Holly Yanco of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

They were cowinners of the 2005 Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Educational Courseware, sponsored by the National Engineering Education Delivery System (a digital library project) and John Wiley & Sons publishers.

Pyro, which stands for Python Robotics, can be used to run different kinds of robots, such as Sony AIBO robotic dogs and the large, rover-like Pioneer robots in Blank's class laboratory.

Blank received a joint Ph.D. from Indiana University in computer science and cognitive science. Before joining Bryn Mawr in the fall of 2001, he was an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Arkansas.

Question: What is Pyro?

A: It's software that's designed to hide the complexities of robotics so students and instructors can explore important ideas like intelligence and consciousness without getting bogged down in the low-level details of robotics.

Q:Where did the idea come from?

A: It came out of a project with students [at the University of Arkansas in 1999]. The idea of controlling robots through a scripting language [Python] was a far-out idea.

Q:So Pyro is software that I, as a lay person, could get on a CD?

A: We make this available over the Internet [at]. Every year, there's a new version of Pyro. We're currently on version 4. It runs on Windows, Macintosh and Linux. It's freely available, open source, so people are free to change it and adapt it.

Q: Would I need a robot?

A: You can download a few simulated robots. If you had a real robot, you could connect to the real robot.

If you had a robot dog, you could talk to it over a wireless computer. You could turn the dog on and you could download a brain onto the robot dog and switch brains.

[Without a wireless network,] if you had a robot with a wire, you could do it, but it would be limiting.

Q: What can someone do with Pyro?

A:The big answer is they can explore. That's why it's very useful in the classroom. You can play robot soccer. Any problem - for example, search-and-rescue - is a big topic in robotics. You could explore that with Pyro. It could be very practical.

Q: What other research are you working on?

A: Our research agenda [with Kumar and Meeden] is very different from the award we won. We're interested in developmental robotics.

We're exploring what would motivate a robot to learn. When I started out, I wanted to explore intelligence. I thought it would be rational, based in logic. Now, we start talking about motivation, emotion, motivating a system to explore. These are all aspects of a developmental system.

Very few researchers in the world are exploring the problem in this perspective. There are probably about 30 to 50 researchers in the world exploring this. Thousands of people go to the National Conference on Artificial Intelligence. Most are exploring artificial intelligence from a rational, logical view.

Julie Shaw

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