Teacher: Doug Blank, assistant professor of computer
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
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
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 www.pyrorobotics.org]. 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
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
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