Ayanna Howard, Rubber Band Robots, and the Humanoid Ambassador of Knowledge

Ayanna Howard. Courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology  

Georgia Tech robotics engineer Ayanna Howard builds robots that can handle glaciers, the rocky surface of Mars, and the sudden moves of inquisitive children.

What’s the biggest challenge?

“With a kid, you have to figure out how to get it to survive in a home, which I will argue is more difficult!” she said.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Howard worked on the Mars Technology Program, with robots designed to act like scientists—collecting data and measurements in dangerous places millions of miles away.

She says there’s a different approach though, when creating a humanoid robot that has to engage, instruct, and respond to a child.

“Some of the underlying control theory, how do you do movements, or perception, or how do you recognize objects; that fundamental theory is the same. What is different is the human aspect. So, my glacier robots don't have emotions,” said Howard.

At Georgia Tech, in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Professor Howard’s office is filled with awards, framed stories about her achievements from Time Magazine and USA Today, and, predictably, a “Robot Power” poster.

Howard is Chief Technology Officer for Zyrobotics, a Georgia Tech VentureLab startup company. It is geared toward providing robots for children with motor limitations and with special needs, including cerebral palsy, autism, and Down syndrome. “You improve rehabilitation outcomes with robots: They are very good at repetition, they don't get bored, they don't get frustrated at people, and so it allows you to have this long-term engagement in the home,” she said.

For her wide array of robotic creations and educational outreach, she was included in Business Insider’s 2015 article “23 of the Most Powerful Women Engineers in the World.”

And, as a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador, she wields that influence to foster innovation from middle school students to policymakers.

“As an ambassador, one of the goals is to expose the public to the novelties and the reasons for innovation in the first place,” she said.

For established business people, that goal may be to translate that innovation into new jobs and new businesses. For young minds, it is convincing them they can turn an idea into reality.

Howard has spoken to audiences including the Small Business Administration’s “Small Business Innovation Research,” which encourages companies to engage in research and development that has potential for commercialization. Other outreach includes entrepreneurs focused on the social good of technology and innovation. However, she also finds value in visiting schools where putting a human face on an inventor can be encouraging to inquisitive young minds.

“A lot of the schools I go to, they haven’t necessarily seen a female inventor, and they definitely haven’t seen a minority female inventor,” she said.

And they’ve most certainly never seen her humanoid visual aid. Howard often takes her robot with her on those visits. She explains that scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs merge fun and creativity with math and science. That revelation leads to plenty of raised hands and cries of: “I have an idea!”

She then encourages them to proceed with the steps they must take to turn their ideas into inventions.

But she reminds them that in an information-driven world, inventors don’t necessarily have to invent “a thing.”

“You can be doing data analysis and assessment and retrospective studies. You are inventing new knowledge, but not necessarily inventing something tangible,” she said.

Howard also works with the National Science Foundation’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering program. Its aim is getting undergraduates, including those at colleges without a research focus, to apply for graduate school in STEM fields. Much of its success is in confidence building.

“So one of the biggest a-ha moments I've had interacting with students is when they said ‘I didn't think I could do it, but now I did.’”

“They create something, they build a little robot with rubber bands and they let it fly and it falls apart. And they say, ‘I thought I did it so well.’ So that’s a perfect time to talk about forces, and friction,” she said. “And what happens is, when kids get stumped, or when they become curious, they start asking questions. And that's when they are primed for learning.”

Building things, and observing successes and failures, provides an opportunity to introduce concepts that may be hard to grasp just in a textbook, whether it is comparisons, measurements, programming, or Gaussian distribution.

Her interaction with children convinces her kids are remarkably tech savvy. “I truly believe we could teach a three year old some of the basics of programming,” she said.

While she cautions her students that there are pitfalls and inequality in the science world just like everywhere else, Howard says for the most part, “Society does respect innovation. They do respect intelligence.”

Meet More AAAS Members