Ayanna Howard: From the Bionic Woman to robots on Mars

18 Aug 2015

Ayanna Howard at TEDYouth 2012. Photo via TED Conference/Flickr

Ahead of HybridConf’s first staging in Ireland, the founder of Zyrobotics and one of the conference’s speakers, Dr Ayanna Howard, talks the future of robotics and why they might not be the best interstellar travellers.

There has been much excitement within the tech community in Ireland ahead of the arrival of HybridConf, which has become known as one of the most inclusive, friendly and fascinating design and development conferences around.

With 15 speakers lined up from a variety of different backgrounds, many will be incredibly interested to hear the words of Dr Ayanna Howard, the founder of Zyrobotics, a company aimed at increasing the knowledge of STEM and robotics for children.

With her accolades including being named in MIT Technology Review’s list of the top innovators in the world under 35 in 2003, Howard is a leading authority on robotics – not just in what we can build here on Earth, but what we can take to the stars.

At the age of 18, Howard managed to score her dream internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a role in which she stayed while continuing her studies in electrical engineering as she advanced her skills in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

Letting robots rule the roost on Mars

And it was here in NASA’s JPL that Howard developed what would effectively lead the way for much of what we have discovered on the surface of Mars as she led the Safe Rover Navigation Task.

With her guiding hand, NASA was able to develop advanced AI algorithms for the rovers to travel across the Martian surface without the need for every task to be controlled by humans.

This technology eventually led to what would be seen on the subsequent Mars rovers including the current Curiosity rover.

Ayanna Howard Georgia Tech

Ayanna Howard at her research lab at Georgia Tech. Image via Georgia Tech

However, speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Howard says that her interest in robotics stemmed not from dreams of exploring the solar system but, like most kids, started from what she saw on TV.

“Since middle school,” Howard says, “I’ve always been interested in robotics. At that innocent time of life, my desire was to build the Bionic Woman [the popular 1970s series] and help solve all the problems of the world.”

And trying to help to solve the problems of the world she certainly did. Following her stint with NASA, which ended in 2005, Howard went on to teach at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), where she gained worldwide attention for her work on the SnoMote project.

With her robotics and AI expertise, she and fellow engineer Stephen Williams developed drones that could traverse the incredibly harsh environments of the Arctic and analyse samples of glaciers to monitor climate change.

Fears of AI running amok

With esteemed individuals like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking coming out with criticisms of the growth of AI, it must be tough for people like Howard, whose life’s work is to advance robots and their future intelligence.

According to Howard, before we start blaming robots, we have to look at ourselves.

“With every technology that improves our quality of life, there will always be individuals who will turn good into harm,” she says.

“That is not the fault of robots but of us. It’s the reason why these conversations should happen – not to stop development but to ensure that when we create new and revolutionary technologies we are also mindful of their impact, both positive and negative, on society.”

Where she doesn’t see robots completely fulfilling the role of human beings is, surprisingly, where she spent years of her life developing robots and AI: space.

“If we had the technology to send humans to more planets, I would actually advocate for the humans… I do not think that our inherent human curiosity to explore should be curbed. As such, I would advocate for advances in designing more intelligent robot partners, since humans will need that support as they explore other planets.”

Ayanna Howard at NASA

Ayanna Howard with the Safe Navigation Rover during her time at NASA. Image via NASA

3D printing to change future of robotics

In her current role at Zyrobotics, Howard is living her childhood dream of helping solve one particular problem in the world: to create accessible technologies that engage and empower children with disabilities to enhance their quality of life.

One area in particular that she sees incredible promise in is 3D printing, which, as we have seen in the past, has given children with disabilities their life back using largely inexpensive materials.

“The progress in affordable 3D printing and the evolution of maker spaces over the last few years has been amazing,” says Howard.  It has already had an impact on promoting STEM education for students and in the area of homegrown robotics, such as prosthetics.

“In fact, some of the most inspiring efforts are the various programmes that pair up volunteers who use their 3D printing resources to build prosthetic hands for children and other individuals in their community.”

For those looking to catch Howard speaking at HybridConf in Dublin from 20-21 August, they will be treated to her talking about how various robot technologies can address real-life needs to improve our quality of life now and in the future.

What is becoming abundantly clear is that robots aren’t some distant future concept, but have already become a part of our society and, in some cases, an integral part.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Eircom, Fidelity Investments, ESB, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Main image of Ayanna Howard via Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic