Roboticist Ayanna Howard On The Future Of Human-Robot Interactions

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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 the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Professor and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing. She also holds a faculty appointment in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering where she functions as the 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.





In an interview with Forbes’


On people’s fear of robots:

“I understand those fears. We roboticists don’t talk enough about it. Half of it is the way people understand robotics. Like with any technology, there’s a bad part. But if we do robotics right, the benefits will outweigh the negatives. The internet has negatives, too, but it’s also helped to equalize access to information. Robotics will equalize access to jobs and work and training. Robotics will allow people to be empowered to do other things that don’t require an engineering degree.”


On robotics in education:

“Robotics is really tightly tied to education. It’s going to be as common as math. It’s going to be one of the Rs. “Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic and Robotics. Robotics is about understanding sequences; about computational thinking; about how stuff works in the real world. And kids are able to see the results of their thinking in it.”


On the growing role of robotics in agriculture:

“Robotics has been in some aspects of agriculture for a while. Caterpillar has had driverless tractors for a long time. The new robots we’re seeing there are geared towards harvesting crops and things like that – the harder parts. Even local family farmers are pushing robotics in order to keep up. Automation in agriculture has been there – but now it’s getting pushed more and more.”


On the future of people working with robots:

“Robotics is going to reshape the economic landscape. It used to be 90% of people were farmers, but now that percentage is very small. Jobs will get redefined. 65% of jobs that exist now won’t exist when our kids grow up. So we need to think about retraining so that when people lose jobs in one area, we need to focus on getting them to learn different skills. Some companies are already starting to think about that, but we need to be more deliberative about it.”


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