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.
Dr. Ayanna Howard builds the robots that build up humans
Superhero Inspiration: Howard’s parents were techies, but it was a fictional character that inspired her tech focus. “When I saw the Bionic Woman, I was totally fascinated. Here was this beautiful person who was saving the world with these things called bionics. You had the technology, which I always resonated with, but you had the social impact.”
Stereotypes in Space: After finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, Howard joined at NASA at 27. She was ready for the science. The sexism was another thing. “I come into the room, and there was an engineer and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to be here. You need to go down the hall where the secretaries are.’” Instead, she went on to lead her team in building Mars rovers.
Robot Rx: In 2005, Howard started her own lab at Georgia Tech, with the goal of revolutionizing health care for children with special needs through robotic therapy. She wasn’t sure if the medical community would embrace the idea, but an early trial session erased all her doubts. While working with a child struggling with spasticity, he played with one of Howard’s robots and “there was this smile on the kid’s face . . . I was like ‘We are definitely doing the right thing.’”
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.
AYANNA HOWARD: Early on in my career, the main obstacles were ensuring that my voice was heard based on my skill set and my knowledge base. A lot of times, you go into a place, and your voice should be heard. And you know it, because you have the highest degree in the room, you have the most experience. And yet, you're somehow devalued. Either, A, you're cut off, or there's an assumption that you are not the engineer in the room, that you have a different role.
And so you start doubting, like, oh, maybe I'm not supposed to be in this room. No one else in this room looks like me. And so that aspect is more of an internal doubt. So those were the biggest milestones that you had to overcome. One is getting your real voice heard, and the other is dealing with your own self-doubt.
AYANNA HOWARD: They have studies out that show that women led companies have higher outcome measures, in terms of stocks, in terms of employee satisfaction. And I think it's because you lead and you run companies and labs based on your experience. That's all you have to offer.
And because a woman, a senior woman, who's in a form of leadership, their experience is going to be different than, say, a young woman of today. That experience leads them to think about people a little bit differently, think about culture a little bit differently, even putting together a strategic plan, a little bit differently. And something about that diversity of thought, it makes companies produce better.
AYANNA HOWARD: Ethics, and bias, and transparency in our algorithms is just as important as having a very optimal algorithm. And so it doesn't necessarily have to be a woman engineer doing it. It just has to be an engineer that's aware that, hey, my system might be biased because of x, y, and z.
Businesses are working on it. Their motivation of course, is the fact that their customers are the world. And so for them to ensure that they keep their customers, they have to be aware that if their system is biased, they're going to alienate a large percentage of their customers. And so they are concerned because at the end of the day it affects their bottom line.
AYANNA HOWARD: When we think about aspects of work and life balance, we think that there's some magic formula, like 50% work, 50% life, and somehow this makes sense. I think, in the way that I've raised my kids and have been in terms of being there for my family, is that it's a continuum. Sometimes, it's 100% work, and other times it's 100% family. And you listen to your family because they are first, and you meld them into your work environments.
AYANNA HOWARD: There are two primary public fears about AI. One is this aspect of job loss. And then the other aspect is AI robotics taking over the world. The AI robotics taking over the world I'm less worried about only because these AI and robotic systems are learning about us. And, therefore, they will have our values if we're good about it.
The AI taking over our jobs is also a worry because any time a new technology comes in, jobs are replaced. And so that's going to happen. But the positive, I think, is that there's a lot more concern about retraining folks now before we even have to. They are valid fears. But I think we have answers to them.
Being a faculty member, someone once told me it's the most rewarding experience you can ever have. Think about why individuals, in general, start startups. Right, because they think that they have something to offer society, or a product, or some aspect.
And unlike a startup where you start off with zero, like, OK, how am I going to do it. Now imagine that a VC gives you money for an idea you haven't even talked about. So that's what it's like to have to be a faculty member starting up.
It's this exciting time, also terrifying. But it's very rewarding when you do achieve those goals. And you do come up with a product or a research idea that gets published. Or a student graduates or gets adopted by society, it's like, oh, I did this right.
AYANNA HOWARD: We now have AI influencing our decisions-- that's why it's so important.
AI is going to affect everything that we do, at some point. In fact, right now, it affects a lot that we do.
If anyone is using social media, anytime you log into any type of social media platform, there is an intelligent agent that is giving you information or providing you information, in terms of your feed.
We're affected every day, even though we may not know it.