Ayanna Howard is a former NASA robotics researcher and now a professor at Georgia Tech. She talked to TechRepublic about her winding career path and her work to humanize robots.
The Bionic Woman.
It may just have been another television show for most kids in the 1970s, but that strong, resilient character resonated with a young Ayanna Howard, and it has stuck with her ever since.
Howard is a robotics researcher, designer, and educator. Last week, she received the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration Educator award, another in her long list of accomplishments in the field, which also includes her work to get underrepresented minorities into engineering and technology.
Funny enough, though, Howard doesn't even consider herself a great educator — it's something she has evolved into over many years of mentoring, working, and learning. Her biggest passion is building robots that can solve real-world problems, and getting others — especially kids — behind that idea.
And it all started with that TV series.
"I decided I want to build a bionic woman. Imagine, I'm 12 years old," Howard said. But she wanted to be a doctor at first — they were the cool people who worked with Bionic Woman on the TV show. The engineers were too geeky.
In high school, she quickly realized that she wasn't a huge fan of biology, which threatened her cyborg dreams. A math teacher told Howard to take up engineering, which led to her realizing that "bionics" wasn't exactly what she wanted to pursue. Robotics was.
Howard received her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Brown University, where she said she gained a well-rounded general education in the engineering fields. The summer after her freshman year there, she got an internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That, she said, really helped her figure out robotics as a concept, and understand that it was as much computer science as it was engineering.
"What I liked about it was, I could see how I could use it to just make things right. With Bionic Woman — even now I'm still an idealist — how she changed the world was using robotics...she used it as a tool to really affect the world and change it," Howard said.
Howard worked at NASA as a robotics researcher from 1993, right out of school, until 2005. During that time, she also earned her PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California.
One of her most transformative projects at NASA was designing a new navigation system for a robot soon after Pathfinder landed. Before that point, she said, robotics design was a lot of commanding, uploading, and more commanding — "a lot of hand-holding and not a lot of autonomy." Howard was tasked with ways to make the robot look at the terrain and decide for itself what was hazardous or not, then use those answers to navigate.
She decided to ask scientists how they would navigate in hazardous areas, and then designed the robot to mimic those actions. She had undergrads help her haul the robots out to the Mojave Desert to test drive algorithms.
"That was the turning point," she said. "The best way to design the next generation of robots is not just program and design them from scratch, but look at the experts already, which are people. We've evolved into these creatures that we are, and we typically want them to do something we already can do."
This approach shaped Howard's philosophy: "The person should always be part of the interaction, somewhere in this loop, whether the robot is learning from them or interacting with them," she said.
Once NASA cut its research budget, Howard had to look elsewhere to continue her research in robotics. So, in 2005, she joined the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. She began researching earth science because it was similar to her work at NASA, later founding the Human-Automation Systems (HumAnS) Laboratory at the school.
Thinking about what she really wanted to accomplish led Howard to consider robotics for children. She had a small grant to do manipulation with objects and, as she was doing that, she started testing with children's toys. She went back to her favorite question: Who is the best expert on toys? Kids, of course. That led to her idea for children with manipulation issues and disabilities, which was when Howard realized she'd found the next problem she wanted to solve.
She now designs and builds robots and programs them to work in pediatric therapy programs, particularly with children with cerebral palsy. She works with clinicians all over the nation, attends meetings, and regularly travels to speak about robotics and education. This career has been a winding path, she said, but isn't almost everyone's?
"For example the Bionic Woman — I could have been like, 'oh I hate biology, I'm going to stop and give up,'" she said. "Now I'm doing healthcare robotics — it makes life interesting."
In her own words...
What are your hobbies?
"I am a Zumba instructor. I teach three classes a week. I teach an older adult class and two regular classes. I taught a kids' class for three years. I have boys, that takes the rest of my time — going to track meets and music, doing homework... I have 2 stepsons, 15 and 11, and my own is 12."
What type of music do you like?
"My favorite is Reggaeton, which is reggae with some Latin in it. It relaxes me, some really nice melodies in it."
What is some of the best advice you could give?
"Basically the way you achieve and move forward is just compare yourself with yourself. The question is did you do better than yesterday. That's how you progress. That's how you get better."
What are your words to live by?
"If you have a dream, the dream is sound. The steps to get to that, no one knows. You're going to get to it if that's your dream, but no one has the same path."
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