1938 in Bristol
14 April 2004, in Glasgow, aged 65
ROBIN John Popplestone was one of the early pioneers in robotics and computer programming languages. Some would describe him as the classic absent-minded professor in appearance, and few who knew him could help but notice that he was truly unique, sometimes a touch eccentric, with flashes of genius.
He was a quirky, modest and very likeable person, a creative software designer and skilled and elegant implementer, at a time when one person could make a major contribution to exploring the potential of computing.
Robin was born in Bristol but after the Second World War his family moved to Belfast, where he grew up. He was educated at Queen’s University, Belfast, receiving an honours degree in mathematics in 1960. He first worked with computing while studying for a PhD, initially at Manchester University and then at Leeds University. His project was to program a computer to prove logic theorems. In this, he succeeded, but his creativity got the upper hand over the tedium of writing up the thesis, so he neglected the thesis and instead used the university computer to design a boat - a very early example of computer-aided design.
He went on to build the boat and set sail for Edinburgh, where he had been offered a research fellowship at the university. In the North Sea, a storm broke; Robin was rescued and taken aboard a passing ship, but his boat, alas, went to the bottom (it is a myth, however, that the boat contained a draft of his PhD thesis).
Sailing remained a passion nonetheless, and although computer science became Robin’s profession, mathematics remained at the heart of his research.
On his arrival in Edinburgh in 1965, there was only a small "computer unit" and an "experimental programming unit", of which he became the fourth staff member. The university did not yet own a computer. The experimental programming unit was led by Donald Michie and it was the beginning of work on artificial intelligence at Edinburgh.
Soon after Robin arrived, the unit acquired an Elliott computer. On this, Robin designed and implemented a programming language, POP-2, for non-numerical work, together with its operating system. POP-2 was very expressive and used minimal computing resources. Although it never achieved international currency, it was used elsewhere in the United Kingdom and gave a head start to artificial intelligence work at Edinburgh.
In 1972, Robin was a member of a small team at Edinburgh which developed a hand-eye robotic device that could assemble some simple models, a toy boat and car, from a few pieces. The system was trained to recognise the pieces visually, they were then dumped on the table, the system separated them and the hand put them together to make the model. The system could be made to build a different model after a day’s work training and reprogramming it. All this was based on Robin’s work on POP-2, without which it would never have happened. He continued to do visionary work in robotics involving the integration of multi-modal sensing (including vision) into robotic control and the development of techniques for modelling of and spatial reasoning about geometric objects. He established and led one of the first world-class robotics research groups in Europe.
In 1985, Robin joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as a professor of computer science and director of the laboratory for perceptual robotics. With his students there, he advanced group theoretic frameworks for describing relationships between bodies and describing symmetries in tasks that could be exploited by control and planning. In 1990, he was selected as a founding fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in recognition of his seminal contributions. Due to illness, he retired from the University of Massachusetts in 2001 as an emeritus professor, returning to Glasgow to be near his family and the sea.
Robin was a beloved adviser to many students, a warm and caring friend, a deep intellectual thinker on a wide range of subjects, a witty conversationalist and an expert sailor. He spent considerable time in his later years living with his wife on their boat, sailing extensively around Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark.
He was a profoundly unique person who touched the lives of all who knew him. He is survived by his wife, Professor Kristin Morrison, three children by earlier marriages and three grandchildren.