Wednesday, September 8, 2010
CMU Professor Uses Robotics to Help the Poor
Bernardine Dias has a big goal;
she wants to connect the people of the world using technology - all of the people of the world, especially the poor and the underserved. As a result, this Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Robotics professor, a woman of action, created a research group called, appropriately, "TechBridgeWorld," to help communities in some of the most underserved locations in the world.
Professor Dias has good reasons for wanting to bridge the world. She grew up in
Sri Lanka, where her family started at the base of the economic pyramid, and
saw, first-hand, the devastation and division wrought by misunderstanding,
prejudice and war. Dias remembers July 23, 1983, when she was eight years old,
as a day that changed her. That day civil riots broke out in Colombo, beginning
a period of violence that affected her family and friends. "My life definitely
shifted from that moment; I began to think about what I might do to change
Dias applied herself to her studies and earned the highest distinctions in high
school. Her parents encouraged her to apply to universities outside of Sri Lanka
to avoid the political violence and hazing that was ongoing at local
universities. Dias applied to small schools in the United States, choosing
Hamilton College in upstate New York.
While at Hamilton, Dias excelled in her studies and became the only woman in her
class to major in computer science and physics. When it came time for her senior
research project, she chose robotics. Dias graduated second in her class of 400.
"Upon graduation I had graduate school offers in physics and computer science,
as well as robotics," she said. "I chose CMU because I realized that they played
a big role in changing the future, and that's what I desperately wanted to do."
After earning her Ph.D. degree in robotics, she took a research faculty position
at CMU and negotiated the opportunity to create TechBridgeWorld as a way to
connect her research with her passion to change the world. "At TechBridgeWorld,
we look at how computing technology can be applied innovatively to address needs
that are most meaningful to the communities we work with."
Dias elaborated, "Partnerships are crucial. We go into a community with
exploratory technology and nothing else. We don't try to tell people, 'here's
what your vision should be.' The goal is to help them to achieve their vision by
creating relevant technology solutions that address their needs and challenges."
TechBridgeWorld's research efforts are driven by students at CMU. Graduate and
undergraduate students from across the university participate and come from
departments as diverse as business, engineering, information systems, and public
policy. Unlike other organizations of its kind, TechBridgeWorld offers courses,
a summer internship program, seminars and other opportunities for students to
learn about the growing field of Information and Communication Technologies for
"I want to have true impact in 20 years, to change the relevance and
accessibility of computing technology. The best way I can do that is to get
students involved, because they are the future," Dias said.
TechBridgeWorld has been innovating computing technologies since 2004, with
projects in literacy, social work, education, and assistive technology. One form
of technology involves the blind.
"More than 87% of the world's 314 million blind and visually impaired people
live in developing communities, according to the World Health Organization,"
Dias said. "Despite the importance of literacy to employment, social well-being,
and health, experts from the United Nations Development Programme estimate 97%
to be illiterate."
In 2006, TechBridgeWorld partnered with a blind school in India to learn about
their challenges. What resulted was a low-cost, low-power Braille writing tutor
that helps visually impaired students write Braille. As the student writes each
letter, the tutor provides immediate audio feedback by repeating the written
letters and words. It also guides writing and corrects mistakes through audio
cues. Students can learn how to write, practice writing and be quizzed on
letters and words through the tutor's many modes.
Since then, many researchers at CMU have worked on the project and the tutor has
been introduced and expanded to blind schools and institutions in the U.S.,
Bangladesh, China, Qatar, Tanzania and Zambia. It is now available in several
Braille languages and educational games.
"This research takes time and money," Dias said. And, she spends time trying to
educate people about TechBridgeWorld and to find funding support.
Additional funding will take TechBridgeWorld to an entirely different level,"
she said. "We would be able to impact so many more students and communities
around the world. Right now, we get emails and calls from around the world
asking for partnerships that we simply don't have the resources to explore."
Article Courtesy of PRNewswire