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Robin Popplestone (1938 - 2004)

in memoriam
Professor Emeritus


Professor Emeritus Robin John Popplestone, one of the early pioneers in Robotics and Computer Programming Languages, died on April 14, 2004 in Glasgow, Scotland after a 10 year battle with cancer. He was 65.

"We will all miss Robin very much," said Professor Rod Grupen, co-director of the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics with Popplestone. "Robin is a legendary figure in our community; technically, as a personality, and as a sage mentor. He inspired new research topics for budding dissertations literally until the day he retired from UMass."

Robin Popplestone was born in Bristol on December 9, 1938. After the war, his family moved to Belfast, where he grew up. He was educated at Queen's University Belfast and received an honors degree in mathematics in 1960. He then spent the next four years at Manchester University doing graduate work in mathematics. One of the widely believed stories surrounding Robin (although Robin refused to corroborate it) has it that he never completed his Ph.D. in mathematics because he lost his thesis manuscript in a sailing accident shortly before it would have been delivered to the faculty at Manchester University. Sailing remained a passionate pursuit nonetheless, and though computer science became his profession, mathematics remained at the heart of his research.

Robin arrived at Edinburgh University as a Lecturer in 1965 and spent the next 20 years establishing one of the first world-class research groups in Robotics in Europe. He did visionary work in Robotics involving the integration of multi-modal sensing (including vision) into robotic control, and developed techniques for modeling and spatial reasoning about geometric objects. In addition to this work in robotics, he co-developed the programming language PoP-2. This work, which started soon after he joined the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception in Edinburgh, anticipated functional and higher order programming by over a decade.  PoP-2 was the main language used by researchers in Artificial Intelligence in Britain during the 1970's. While on the faculty at Edinburgh University, he played a major role in keeping the fledging field of Robotics alive in Britain after the Lighthill report on Artificial Intelligence precipitated a major decrease of funding in this area. He had a long history of fostering university and industrial interaction in Edinburgh and served as departmental chairperson in 1981.

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, Robin was selected as a Founding Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in recognition of his seminal contributions to AI. Due to illness, he retired in 2001 from the University of Massachusetts as an Emeritus Professor and returned to Glasgow, Scotland to be near his family and the sea.

"Some would describe Robin 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," said Professor Victor Lesser. "He was a beloved advisor 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." After retiring, he pursued his interest in the Irish language by beginning work on a translation program. He spent considerable time in his later years living with his wife on their boat, sailing extensively around Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark.

"Robin was a profoundly unique person who touched the lives of all who knew him," said Lesser.

He was survived by his wife, Professor Kristin Morrison, his three children Michael Popplestone, Jennifer Dukovich, and Sally Brackenridge, three grandchildren, his mother, and three brothers.