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Ayanna Howard Makes the Case for Companion Robots

Ayanna Howard pictured with a robot
Ayanna Howard, Ph.D. Photo credit: The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering.

Long before she became an award-winning roboticist, Ayanna Howard, Ph.D., was a Star Wars fan. While she loved watching Luke Skywalker’s battles with Darth Vader and Han Solo’s sharp commandeering of the Millennium Falcon, it was the futuristic technology that really captivated her. Characters like C-3PO and R2-D2 — Luke Skywalker’s companion robots who helped him try to restore peace to the galaxy — fascinated her the most.

“Watching those movies as a kid, I knew that what I wanted to do was create some of the creatures and robots I saw on screen,” says the 2021 AAAS Fellow.

Today, the accomplished roboticist and dean of The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering leads projects that design robots to help rehabilitate humans here on Earth. Howard is the co-founder and president of the board of directors of Zyrobotics, a non-profit company that develops mobile therapy and AI software that helps children with a range of special needs, including Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy.

A Zyrobotics robot toy or game can translate a range of movements from a child with limited mobility into gestures on a tablet or turn life-changing therapy into games that engage kids with learning disabilities and teach them important STEM skills. 

Zyrobotics’ goal is to level the playing field. The technologies it offers its users are examples of the important role that robots can play in rehabilitating humans of all ages, from the elderly all the way down to pre-term babies.

Ayanna Howard in a lab
Howard (right) speaks to student (left) in her lab. Photo credit: The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering.

To tackle developmental challenges in the latter group, Howard’s lab is currently working on an infant robot mobile. The robot mobile is designed to encourage preemies to form kicking motions that are essential for their development, rewarding the behavior by making sounds and movements that the baby likes. The mobile is a toy, but also a tool for rehabilitation, something that Howard says robots excel at facilitating.  

“Rehabilitation often requires a lot of repetition,” she explains. “Robots are really good at that. They don't get bored. Not only that, but they can be customized to your individual needs.”

Some might consider the idea of a companion robot programmed to learn and cater to their specific needs unnerving. Scores of science fiction movies have branded robots as foes, not friends — but in the real world, they improve human lives, says Howard.

“At the end of the day, we’re designing robots to help people,” says the roboticist, adding that real-world data shows that most humans, while they might not say it outright, seem to trust robots.

“People want a higher quality of life and more efficiency in their lives. Robots fill those needs. They make us better people, and once we start using them, we don't want to go back to what it was like before.”

Back when Howard decided she wanted to create robots like the ones she saw in her favorite movies, robotics had yet to become its own, autonomous field. That’s why, after high school, Howard attended Brown University for an undergraduate degree in computer engineering, a field through which she developed her love of algorithms, circuits, and programming.

She began realizing that dream she had forged years before through her work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she spent 12 years innovating robots that make the lives of scientists easier. Those machines included SmartNav, an autonomous space robot designed to help scientists collect data on Mars, and, later on, SnoMotes, a group of toy-sized snowmobile robots that autonomously explore icy terrain for understanding climate change.

All the while, Howard was pursuing her master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, graduating in 1999. She would add three more letters to her title in the spring of 2005, earning an MBA from Claremont Graduate University and leaving NASA that same year to join the faculty at Georgia Tech as an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. There, she founded the HumAnS lab, a lab that focuses on embedding human cognitive capabilities like reasoning, problem solving, and planning into robots and other machines.

Ayanna Howard speaking to students
Howard became dean of The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering in 2021. Photo credit: The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering.

Howard is a former AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador and one of Forbes magazine’s America's Top 50 Women In Tech list. Today, she is the first woman to lead Ohio State’s College of Engineering and the college’s second Black dean. And while artificial intelligence (AI) technology has advanced astronomically over the last few decades, representation within it has fallen behind, she says.

In 2021, Howard published "Sex, Race, and Robots: How to Be Human in the Age of AI," an audiobook that explores the implications of the racial and sexual biases of the tech world carrying over into the next generation of AI. Throughout her decorated career, Howard has worked to diversify the engineering profession for women, underrepresented minorities, and individuals with disabilities.

Looking forward, she advises we need to ensure that no one gets left behind — that our robots and AI systems reflect who we are as a global population. It’s a fight, she says, that starts with prioritizing diversity and inclusive excellence among the people who program them.

“Everyone has to be part of the conversation,” she says. “It's in everyone's best interest.

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Jade Prévost-Manuel