By Maureen Nolan
The name of her research group at Carnegie Mellon was TechBridgeWorld, and founder Bernardine Dias ’98 ran it for more than a decade. Its mission was her mission — to collaborate with developing communities to solve problems through innovative, sustainable technology. “My focus in broad terms, what I’ve always wanted to do, is to democratize technology both in its innovation and use,” says Dias, who has a doctorate in robotics from Carnegie Mellon.
A core tenet of the group was to get to know an underserved community by asking its members what problems need to be solved. One of TechBridgeWorld’s brightest successes was the Braille Writing Tutor, an affordable device to help students with few resources to learn braille. Its partner in the venture was the small Mathru School for the Blind in India.
“I really wanted to work with people who don’t typically get a voice in innovation. It’s really important because a lot of the technology that we innovate serves a very small slice of the global population. It gets more and more esoteric, and it’s stuff that people don’t really need. Yet at the end of the day, there are so many people who need so much.”
The Braille Writing Tutor provides audio feedback and can be used with a computer or as a standalone device. In 2014, the Center for Braille Innovation gave its Louis Braille Touch of Genius Award to TechBridgeWorld. It was the group’s first project. Even amid its other work, interest in the tutor keep the effort alive and growing.
“We could probably have commercialized it, but I chose not to because everyone who approached us didn’t really want to keep it accessible to the developing world, and I thought it would be disingenuous, given that a lot of the world co-designed this, if you look at it that way. So we kept it open-source,” Dias says.
In 2016, she decided to close the group for multiple reasons, one being to spend more time with her young children. The group had a good run; Dias is most proud of its methodologies.
“In the latter stage of TechBridgeWorld we coined it as compassionate engineering — this notion of starting with people and having that respect for the users of your technology,” she says. “I trained a lot of students — a lot of students — to go into a community without this complex that you’re either going to save the world or that you’re going to be this generous person who’s doing all this good, but instead to truly look at people as equals and understand that you’re going to get as much as you give. That leads to a much more sustained impact.”
Diversity is tremendously important in innovation because everyone brings different backgrounds to the table, and different experiences, and that helps them dream up very different types of solutions.
Dias grew up in Sri Lanka in a one-income family with six children. They may not have always had new clothes every year, but they always had new books. Each summer her family volunteered at a camp for people with disabilities. When Dias was 9, civil war came to the capital city of Colombo, and she learned then that humans are capable of great evil as well as great good.
The war led her to Hamilton. In Sri Lanka there was a two-year wait to get into a university, and her parents told her if she wanted to attend college she should look abroad. It took all their resources to send her to Hamilton, and Dias arrived on the Hill with $250 in her pocket, $200 of which was for Adirondack Adventure. She majored in physics and computer science and minored in women’s studies. Later, a sister and a brother followed her to Hamilton and at one time or another worked with her at TechBridgeWorld. Her mom always told the siblings that she wanted to raise children who would change the world.
At the moment Dias is consulting on projects with two groups at Carnegie Mellon, one that looks at making intersection crossings safer for pedestrians with difficulties, with an initial focus on the sight-impaired. The second, an extension of work done by TechBridgeWorld, addresses how robots can assist people with disabilities with mobility and travel-related tasks. Dias is brainstorming about the idea of a TechBridgeWorld outside of academia and what such an entity might look like. Before she started TechBridgeWorld she spent a year talking to people and asking them what they would need to change their lives. Overwhelmingly, they answered better education and better health.
“They wanted to be empowered to make their own solutions and healthy enough to carry them out. What I would really like to do is empower as many people from as many diverse backgrounds as possible to use technology to solve their own problems,” Dias says. “Diversity is tremendously important in innovation because everyone brings different backgrounds to the table, and different experiences, and that helps them dream up very different types of solutions.”