Women in STEM with Ayanna Howard
The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Women in STEM, with Ayanna Howard (Ph.D.), Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Professor and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
As a faculty appointment in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Partnership on AI and Autodesk, Dr. Howard’s career focus is on intelligent technologies that must adapt to and function within a human-centered world.
We are humbled to have had the opportunity to discuss technical interest, career growth, and the impact of IEEE Computer Society with Ayanna Howard.
What is your current technical field and what made you choose that particular area of interest?
My current technical field is in robotics and artificial intelligence. More specifically, I focus on research at the intersection of human and robot/agent interaction. Through this lens, I’ve worked in applications ranging from pediatric robotics, examining trust and bias in AI systems, assistive technologies, and science-driven robotics. I became interested in robotics quite early, in middle-school to be exact. Why? Because, inspired by science fiction, I was drawn to the possibility of blending our human skills with robotics in order to develop technology that could impact the world and make our lives better.
What’s been your greatest challenge and your greatest reward in your professional career?
My greatest reward currently has been seeing how the technology I’ve developed provides value to children with special needs, both in therapy and in educational settings. Through Zyrobotics, a social impact company which was founded in 2013, we have engaged over 750K parents, clinicians and children in using our accessible software, designed to make STEM accessible for young children with diverse learning needs.
My greatest challenge has been navigating the inclusion and diversity space to ensure all voices are heard when designing technologies that impact the entire world, not just a segment of it. I take to heart that intersectionality issues, if not addressed properly, can easily steep into the technologies that we design – as evidenced by the biases currently found in deployed AI systems that impact our civil liberties, whether it’s facial recognition software or medical diagnosis systems. The challenge is in personally overriding our training as engineers and computer scientists in solving complex problems by pausing to remember that real people are impacted by every gadget we design and every decision we make as developers.
What have you found rewarding about being an IEEE and/or Computer Society member and/or volunteer?
I’ve been an active member of IEEE for 29 years now. Given that robotics/AI is my intellectual home, I value the community of thought leaders that I regularly interact with through IEEE, IEEE Computer Society, IEEE SMC and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.
How did you decide to pursue a career in your current professional sector (academia vs. industry vs. government)?
I’ve worked in multiple professional sectors throughout my career – government-funded research lab (NASA JPL), academia (Georgia Tech), and in the industry/startup sector. My decision to pursue each opportunity has been motivated by three fundamental questions – Do I think I can learn new things that enable me to grow professionally and/or intellectually? Do I think I can make a bigger or better difference in the world? Do I think I can be happy (where the definition of happy is measured quantitatively as – Do I think I can stay in that job/sector for at least 5-years)?
What’s your best advice for women who have become discontent with their careers yet are afraid or reluctant to make a change?
If you are not able to bring your whole self to the job, you are doing yourself a disservice. Change is risky, uncomfortable, and is not easy. But I truly believe that taking calculated risks, taking a chance after you’ve carefully thought through those elements that are in your control and developed contingency plans for those that aren’t, leads you to a path of fulfillment. Following a dream that is then realized is a risk worth taking over forever living with regret.
Ayanna Howard, Ph.D. is the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Professor and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She also holds a faculty appointment in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and serves on the Board of Directors for the Partnership on AI and Autodesk. Dr. Howard’s career focus is on intelligent technologies that must adapt to and function within a human-centered world. Her work, which encompasses advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), assistive technologies, and robotics, has resulted in over 250 peer-reviewed publications in a number of projects – from healthcare robots in the home to AI-powered STEM apps for children with diverse learning needs. To date, her unique accomplishments have been highlighted through a number of awards and articles, including highlights in USA Today, Upscale, and TIME Magazine, as well as being recognized as one of the 23 most powerful women engineers in the world by Business Insider and one of the Top 50 U.S. Women in Tech by Forbes. In 2013, she also founded Zyrobotics, which develops STEM educational products to engage children of all abilities. Prior to Georgia Tech, Dr. Howard was a Senior Robotics Researcher and Deputy Manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She has also served as the Associate Director of Research for the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, Chair of the Robotics Ph.D. program, and the Associate Chair for Faculty Development in ECE at Georgia Tech.