Meet Dr. Ayanna Howard: Roboticist, AI Scientist, and Old School #Blerd

She's one of the brightest minds in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence

Dr. Ayanna Howard
Dr. Ayanna Howard; Image: File

It’s not every day you meet a sister who not only builds robots, is an expert in Artificial Intelligence, and worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, but is also a down-to-earth, humorous, old-school Blerd (Black nerd) who was inspired by The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and all things Sci-Fi as a little girl.

Today, Dr. Ayanna Howard is a respected roboticist and a Motorola Foundation Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.

[Related: Diversifying Google: Meet Three Black Google Engineers]

She received her B.S. in Engineering from Brown University, her M.S.E.E. from the University of Southern California, and her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California. Her area of research focuses on humanized intelligence (what we informally call “Artificial Intelligence”). She is renowned for creating robots for studying the impact of global warming on the Antarctic ice shelves.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, she led research on various robotics projects and was a senior robotics researcher, eventually earning NASA’s Honor Award for Safe Robotic Navigation Task, among many other distinguished science awards and honors.

BlackEnterprise.com interviewed Dr. Howard about her early days, about Artificial Intelligence, and her thoughts on diversity and inclusion in STEM.

BlackEnterprise.com: How did you find your way into robotics and AI/humanized intelligence research?
Dr. Howard: Robotics has been something I wanted to do since middle school. I was a Sci-Fi nut. I loved the original Star Trek. The Next Generation was okay, but nothing like Kirk.

I remember watching. I wanted to do something in Sci-Fi. Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman … I was totally fascinated. I wanted to be The Bionic Woman, which of course, is not a career.

I started working at JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab) after my freshman year in college. That’s when I became involved in programming. I was never classically trained as a computer scientist. I had to learn db4 and Pascal. JPL — they do robotics. So, I paired up with a group focused on AI. When I started grad school I had to figure out if I could use what I was doing at JPL with what I was doing at grad school.

It’s one of those fields where you simply don’t see many, if any, women of color. Do you feel like an anomaly, and if so, how do you deal with that? Or is it something you don’t really think about?
It would affect me — when you go into a room and there is no one in there that remotely looks like you. It does affect you when you are younger; when you get questions from others, “Are you supposed to be here?”

You think, “Maybe there is a reason why I am the only one.” You need people to say, “Yeah, you can do it!”

My mom always called me stubborn. You told me I couldn’t do it is best way for me to try and figure out how. I wanted to do a Ph.D., I was challenged.

Can you talk about robotics without talking about AI? Are the two independent areas of research?
You can talk about AI outside the domain of robotics because intelligence and learning can be applied to computers; one that learns how you type, for example. It’s a learning system, not a robotics system.

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