Ayanna Howard, Roboticist
Dr. Ayanna Howard has changed the face of robotics in every sense. She’s one of the few black women in the field and she’s working on inventions with an eye on social impact, not science fiction.
Diana Trujillo, Aerospace Engineer
Fei-Fei Li, Professor at Stanford University & Chief Technologist at Google Cloud
Limor Fried, Founder & CEO, Adafruit Industries
- I am the person that came from another country trying to figure out a better life in a different place, and then took that little seed and expanded it to taking the entire human species into the next level of exploration.
I grew up in Colombia, in Cali. I lived there until I was 17. Growing up, it was a responsibility of the woman to make sure that my dad, my uncle, my grandfather were happy when they would come home, food was on the table, everything was taken care of. My mom was actually the smart one. She was in med school when she met my dad. And then she got pregnant with me and she dropped out. My parents got divorced when I turned 12. After that happened, my mom had nothing. No money. We didn't even have food. And we boil an egg, and then we cut it in half. And that was our lunch that day. I remember just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking something has to be out there that is better than this, some other species that treats themselves better or values people better.
I literally thought, what's the hardest thing a human being can do? If I could be out there as an astronaut and represent humanity, there was no more bigger honor than that. And when you, Dad, see my life, you're going to realize that we can bring-- we women bring something to the table.
I was the first immigrant Hispanic woman on the program. l got to meet astronauts. I got to meet CEOs of companies. None of them looked like me. And among all of the people that talked to us, there was only one woman. But as I was talking to them, l realized we had a lot of things in common, the way that they thought about the universe and exploration, the way that they thought about humanity. I found my people is kind of what I felt.
Once you come out of the launch vehicle, telecom takes over. Can you hear me, right, is the question that you're wondering, can you hear the Rover? A small job with a lot of impact. Multiple times when we did multiple hours and weeks of testing, it wasn't going smooth enough, and you're wondering, I hope this is working. The fact that we got the first picture, I could not believe we had done it. This is Mars. This is Mars. I am one of the first 30 people in the world to see these pictures of Mars.
The fact that we actually found out that Mars was, at some point, habitable, that leads to the next question: Can we actually find some evidence that there was, at some point, life on Mars? We're going to take a sample with Mars 2020 and put it on a tube to be ready to be returned back to Earth. All of those missions are also thinking about human exploration, all the little pieces that at least we need to figure out for us to even conceive the idea of sending a human. As a little girl, I saw the women in my family give up a lot It gave me the tenacity that I needed to say, I'm not going to give up on my dream. I want to be out there looking back in, showing my family that women have value. That women matter.
I like going to places and people are like, what do you do? And I'm like, I'm a rocket scientist. What else? I like having that power. The ability to take things that were imagination, that were in my mind, and make them a reality.
My mom and dad were both techies. My mom was a math major and my dad was an engineering major. And so when I grew up, I would get my little Betty Crocker bake oven, but I would also get my erector set.
I was always into science fiction and anything science-y that was on TV. When I saw "The Bionic Woman," I was totally fascinated. At the time, there wasn't a lot of positive female role models.
And here IT was, this beautiful person who was saving the world with these things called bionics.
- Jamie! Run, Jamie, run!
- We had the technology, which I always resonated with, but you had this social impact. And so I knew at that point that I wanted to build a bionic woman. That's what I want to do.
We're designing intelligent navigation systems for future Rover missions. And here I was, this young, you know, fresh out with her PhD leading engineers who were slightly older, and have not been exposed to a black female engineer. And I come into the room and, you know, first of all, I was really excited, because this was, like, my first lead, and I was this PI on this project.
I remember there was an engineer who was like, oh you're not supposed to be here. You need to go down the hall, because that's where the secretaries are. Basically, he dismissed me because of the way that I look. But I took up the courage and introduced myself, and was like, oh you're on my team. You know, we haven't met before. Let's get down to work. We've got to wait for the other folks. Those kind of things, it was just pushing forward, making sure that I spoke up and didn't sit down. Keep proving yourself, because you're awesome, and eventually that pendulum swings.
When I started at Georgia Tech, I knew space robotics. That's what I knew. And about three years in, I realized that I wanted to do more. That bionic woman desire kicked in, and I was like wait, I'm at Georgia Tech. I can do anything that I want. Why don't I focus on what I wanted to do originally-- this social impact, this health aspect in terms of robotics?
At the time, that was a big risk. Health care robotics was totally new. How do I get clinicians to buy into this idea, because I need medical professionals to work with me, and there are no steps because no one's done it before. So it's exciting, exhilarating, also terrifying.
In my lab research, we focus on robotic therapy. So how do we design robots for the home environment to engage children in their educational therapy goals. We brought in our therapy system into the home of a child with severe spasticity. So part of our system is you play a game. I remember sitting there and the child was in the wheelchair, and at one point he hits one of the objects and it pops and there's like this feedback, so it was like this [HIGH PITCHED SQUEAL] and there's a smile on this kid's face that, oh my. If you could just capture that and put it in a box. Any time you felt bad you could open it up. And at that moment, I was like, you know, we're doing the right thing. We are definitely doing the right thing.
Just like when you work on women initiatives it's good for everyone, when you work on initiatives that are accessible to diverse learning needs of children with special needs, it means you're working on something that works for everyone. I was inspired by the social impact of this woman who had bionics that saved the world. And so I feel now that that's what I'm doing. I'm taking my intelligence along with my robotic systems and I am having a direct impact on children's lives.
FEI-FEI LI: My role is to be the thought leader of AI and machine learning. One of the most important things for me is not only to advance AI, but also to democratize AI.
My childhood was spent in the southwest of China in villages at the outskirts of the city called Chengdu. So it's a very cloudy city. You don't see starry nights too often, which actually made me really long for those few nights that have clear sky. So I always had that very early sense of wonder of what nature is, who we are. Then as I entered school, just the sheer beauty of math and science just always attracted me.
The transition from China to America was quite a shocker. Typical immigrant story that you have to start from ground zero. And I pretty much learned English from scratch here. One big difference of American school is the books are so much heavier. I had to carry all these, you know, volumetric dictionaries to survive my day.
There was one thing about Princeton that was absolutely my dream is I've always been the nerdy kid. So you know, I would never be so popular because I'm not part of any sports teams. But that intense intellectual environment-- I was like a fish in the water, suddenly.
Visual intelligence is the primary sensory system for humans to use to survive, to work, to communicate. Solving the core fundamental problems of visual intelligence is solving intelligence. If we want to ever make robots do tasks for us or with us, robots need to recognize objects.
Most people were skeptical. So we had pretty scathing reviews for grants to support this project. I didn't spend too much time thinking, oh, my god, these people don't like it. Should I do it or not? Because I know in my mind this will change how we think about machine learning. It was staggering for a while. We ended up employing tens of thousands of online workers across more than 150 countries in the world to help us assemble this data set.
The field of AI, as well as the greater field of STEM, is massively lacking diversity. We need to be mindful that human values define machine values. If our training data misses a big population of our world, that would have grave consequences.
When we have a diverse group of technologists, it's more likely that the technology will reflect our collective values. How do we encourage the future generation of technologists? If we communicate the humanistic value and how it will make our world better, we can hope to encourage more diverse groups of students to feel passionate about AI, then become tomorrow's technology leaders.
LIMOR FRIED: is just saying I've got a problem, and I've got all these techniques and tools in my head, we're going to solve this problem together. Engineering is making solutions for people.
I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is right outside of Boston. When I was a young girl, actually one of my favorite memories is I would watch "Mr. Wizard's World" with my dad. And it was awesome. There was building your own record player.
- There's the needle on the amplifier.
- Oh, wow.
LIMOR FRIED: At the time, it was totally OK to set up explosives, as long as you called the fire department ahead of time.
LIMOR FRIED: I just loved being creative, and I loved science. I loved building things, like taking things apart, understanding how they worked.
I was actually having just a lot of, fun because I'd been gaining all these skills in building, and in microcontrollers, and LEDs, and art, and technology. And I'd post these projects online and send them to people, and say, hey, here's a cool project I built. In Boston, Cambridge at MIT, there's a strong open source culture. It was just soaking in this idea of if you are creating new technology, new capabilities, you have to give it away. Otherwise, you're kind of being selfish.
So I took that approach, which is called open source software, and applied it to the projects I was building to make open source hardware. I'd post up these projects and I'd get a lot of emails that said, hey, you know, this project is really cool, I want to learn how to build this too. But I have to buy all these parts, can you just sell me a kit, something that's an all-in-one box, and when I open it, all the parts are in it, and then I'll be able to follow along.
I was living in a condemned apartment. But eventually, that actually got torn down, and then we ran out of space. And so we got another apartment in the same building. And we would shuffle storage back and forth. I was taught engineering, but you don't really know how to run a business, how to manage people, how to create a community. I think having started it when I was 25, I just had to prove everyone wrong. And I was just like I know I can do better than everyone, and I'll show you.
Hey everybody, it's me, Lady Ada, and this is our Internet of Things box. Electronics engineering for me is my art form. What I'm trying to do is inspire people to become curious and practice using technology, learn electronics so that I can build that thing that is in my heart and make it real. At AdaFruit we share everything. I share all the plans, the schematics, the design, the files, the code, it's all online.
And every week, we do show and tell. It's a live video, like hang out. Anyone with a webcam can show off what they're building. So we have people who are doing cosplay. We have people who are sewing. We have people who are mixing like clay, and metal, and glass with electronics to build sculptures.
When somebody who glass blows shows, hey, I embedded the electronics in the glass sculpture so it lights up, I'm inspired. I'm like, hmm, that's a good idea. What kind of technology would help you achieve your goal. And then we publish that online for free. And that can inspire the next engineer in waiting.
The traditional image of engineer is being changed. Right, now the people who are building electronics in my community, they're not what people would traditionally look at as an engineer. And that's good. That means that we're getting more brains, more experience, more people that have new exciting problems to solve.
The most heartfelt moment I've had running AdaFruit is we got an email from a parent, and he'd been watching the show and tell with his young daughter. The daughter turned to him and said, wow, this is so cool, can boys be engineers too? And it was really inspiring, because it's like, one down.