CoffeEd: Sprinting Toward a Bionic Future

by Mind Rocket Media Group

A leading mind in robotics and artificial intelligence discusses education


Dr. Ayanna Howard, as a teacher and lecturer, is a storyteller. A huge science fiction fan growing up, she was determined at an early age that she was going to build a bionic woman after being inspired by the television show of the same name. At the time she did not know that the technology she would need to make someone better, stronger, and faster through biomechanical improvements was only the figment of a writer’s imagination and had yet to be invented. But Ayanna was always good at math; in middle school, at the age of 12 she loved to design, build, and tinker with simple engines and machines. Her academic career started to ascend, so she started mapping her path to build a bionic woman.

She worked for NASA for 12 years and then entered the academic world as a professor and researcher, building her expertise in robotics and engineering the entire way. She has made significant contributions in the technology areas of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and robotics in her professional career. Dr. Howard is currently a Professor and the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Endowed Chair in Bioengineering at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Dr. Howard talks about her early passions for science, technology, and math.

She says, “We have to teach the student from a very early age how to learn from failure. We have to teach them not to give up so easily. Too many give up too soon before the lesson is learned. We need to teach them that there is an out, a next, a way BEYOND the problem.” Dr. Howard shares the importance of realizing early in life that real learning comes from trying, failing and then trying again. She speaks about being the “smart nerd” in a school that concentrated on sports, and being defined by her mathematical acumen… and the shock of getting to college and discovering that she was defined as being a black woman first and mathematician second, and feeling the pressure and the struggle to justify her enrollment.

She discusses her belief in the necessity to teach students to persevere, to hang on and learn from their failures and hardships. She says, “They need to understand that sustained growth comes from accepting the vulnerability in not knowing the answers, and stretching learning in middle school and high school better prepares students for the increased pressures of higher education.”

About Dr. Ayanna Howard

Dr. Ayanna Howard is an educator, researcher, and innovator.  Her academic career is highlighted by her focus on technology development for intelligent agents that must interact with and in a human-centered world, as well as on the education and mentoring of students in the engineering and computing fields.

Dr. Howard has made significant contributions in the technology areas of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and robotics. Her published research, currently numbering over 200 peer-reviewed publications, has been widely disseminated in international journals and conference proceedings.

She has over 20 years of R&D experience covering a number of projects that have been supported by various agencies including: National Science Foundation, Procter and Gamble, NASA, ExxonMobil, Intel, and the Grammy Foundation. She continues to produce novel research and ideas focused on applications that span from assistive robots in the home to therapy gaming apps to remote robotic exploration of extreme environments. By working at NASA before entering the academic world, she brings a unique perspective to the academic environment.

Currently, Dr. Howard is Professor and Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Endowed Chair in Bioengineering in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She also holds the position of Associate Chair for Faculty Development in ECE and Director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab (HumAnS).

In 2015, she founded and now directs the $3M traineeship initiative in healthcare robotics and functions as the lead investigator on the NSF undergraduate summer research program in robotics. She received her B.S. from Brown University, her M.S.E.E. from the University of Southern California, her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California, and her M.B.A. from Claremont University, Drucker School of Management.

To date, her unique accomplishments have been highlighted through a number of awards and articles, including highlights in TIME Magazine, Black Enterprise, and USA Today, as well as being named a MIT Technology Review top young innovator and recognized as one of the 23 most powerful women engineers in the world by Business Insider.

In 2013, she also founded Zyrobotics as a university spin-off and holds a position in the company as Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Zyrobotics, LLC is currently licensing technology derived from her research and has released their first suite of mobile therapy and educational products for children with differing needs.

From 1993-2005, Dr. Howard was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, where she was a Senior Robotics Researcher and Deputy Manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist. She has also served a term as the Associate Director of Research for the Georgia Tech Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines and a term as Chair of the multidisciplinary Robotics Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech.

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