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Ayanna Howard

Electrical engineer Ayanna Howard was born on January 24, 1972 in Providence, Rhode Island. After graduating from John Muir High School in Pasadena, California, she earned her B.S. degree in engineering from Brown University in 1993. Howard continued her studies and received her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in engineering from the University of Southern California in 1994 and 1999, respectively. Her final dissertation was entitled, “Recursive Learning for Deformable Object Manipulation.”

Throughout her studies at the University of Southern California, Howard worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. She held a number of positions working with the organization until 2005, including computer scientist, information systems engineer, robotics researcher and senior robotics researcher. Howard continued her education by attending Claremont Graduate University and earning her M.B.A. degree in 2005. That same year, Howard was offered a position at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she started her own laboratory while working as an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her research group, the Human-Automation Systems (HumAnS) Lab, has focused on how to enhance the autonomy of robot functionality.

Howard’s work in robotics and engineering has garnered considerable attention. In 2008, her SnoMote robots were internationally recognized for their ability to study the impact of climate change in such remote areas as the Antarctic ice shelves. She has published more than one hundred academic papers, and she has been the recipient of several prestigious awards including the 2001 Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Early Career Award in Robotics and Automation in 2005, and the National Society of Black Engineers Janice Lampkin Educator Award in 2009.

Howard is married to Jose Torres. She has one son and two stepsons.

Ayanna Howard was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 15, 2011.

Accession Number

A2011.017

Sex

Female

Archival Photo 1
Interview Date

4/15/2011

Last Name

Howard

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

MacCalla

Occupation
Schools

Charles W. Eliot Middle School

Brown University

University of Southern California

Claremont Graduate University

John Muir High School

Loma Alta Elementary School

Search Occupation Category
Archival Photo 2
First Name

Ayanna

Birth City, State, Country

Providence

HM ID

HOW02

Favorite Season

Fall

Sponsor

National Science Foundation

State

Rhode Island

Favorite Vacation Destination

Hawaii

Favorite Quote

Dream bigger and do better than your predecessors. Challenge yourself to move forward. - William Faulkner

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Georgia

Birth Date

1/24/1972

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Atlanta

Country

USA

Favorite Food

French Fries

Short Description

Electrical engineer Ayanna Howard (1972 - ) was the creator of the SnoMote robots and the founder of the Human-Automation Systems Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Employment

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Georgia Institute of Technology

Main Sponsor
Main Sponsor URL
Favorite Color

Magenta

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Ayanna Howard's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Ayanna Howard shares her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Ayanna Howard talks about her mother's side of the family

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Ayanna Howard describes her mother's upbringing in Monroe, Louisiana and her university education

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Ayanna Howard talks about her father's side of the family

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Ayanna Howard describes her father's upbringing in Bridgeport, Connecticut and his university education

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Ayanna Howard tells the story of how her parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Ayanna Howard talks about her parents and her brother

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Ayanna Howard describes her childhood in Altadena, California

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Ayanna Howard talks about her parents' computer business

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Ayanna Howard recalls the advantage of having educated parents and the resulting exposure to information

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Ayanna Howard talks about her media influences as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Ayanna Howard talks about her interest in popular culture

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Ayanna Howard describes the influence of religion in her family

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Ayanna Howard discusses the history of African Americans in Pasadena, California

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Ayanna Howard talks about her elementary school experience

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Ayanna Howard recalls the influence of movies and sci-fi characters during her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Ayanna Howard describes her middle school experience

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Ayanna Howard talks about traveling with her family

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Ayanna Howard talks about her high school experience

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Ayanna Howard talks about her interest in engineering and her high school academics

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Ayanna Howard discusses the political orientation of her family

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Ayanna Howard talks about her summer position at California Institute of Technology

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Ayanna Howard talks about her introduction to robotics

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Ayanna Howard explains her decision to attend Brown University

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Ayanna Howard talks about her adopted brother

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Ayanna Howard talks about her experience at Brown University

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Ayanna Howard talks about her preparation leading up to college at Brown University

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Ayanna Howard describes the engineering department at Brown University

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Ayanna Howard talks about her academic progress at Brown University

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Ayanna Howard describes her job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during graduate school

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Ayanna Howard talks about her graduate school experience at the University of Southern California

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Ayanna Howard talks about robotics in the 1990s and the difference between robots and animatronics

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Ayanna Howard discusses the role of robots in popular culture

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Ayanna Howard describes her University of Southern California mentors and her graduate thesis on robots manipulating deformable objects

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Ayanna Howard talks about working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory while studying for her Ph.D. degree

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Ayanna Howard talks about being a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Ayanna Howard recalls becoming a full-time employee at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory after earning her Ph.D.

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Ayanna Howard talks about robots on Mars

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Ayanna Howard describes the sensory component of robots

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Ayanna Howard discusses the commercial uses of robots

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Ayanna Howard recaps her career highlights at Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Ayanna Howard talks about her awards and accolades

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Ayanna Howard recalls her decision to go back to school for her MBA degree

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Ayanna Howard explains her decision to leave Jet Propulsion Laboratory for academia at Georgia Tech

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Ayanna Howard talks about her work at Georgia Tech

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Ayanna Howard talks about robotics research in Asian countries

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Ayanna Howard talks about advances in robotic cars

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Ayanna Howard talks about designing robots to go into glacier fields

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Ayanna Howard describes her project that uses robots to help children with disabilities, part 1

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Ayanna Howard describes her project that uses robots to help children with disabilities, part 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Ayanna Howard talks about her 2010 appointment to the chair of the robotics Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Ayanna Howard talks about prospects for robotics in the future

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Ayanna Howard explains the 'uncanny valley,' a common problem with humanoid robots

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Ayanna Howard talks about how people respond to robots

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Ayanna Howard explains the laws and ethics of robotics

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Ayanna Howard predicts the future of robotics technology

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Ayanna Howard expresses her hopes and concerns for the African American community today

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Ayanna Howard reflects on her life's decisions

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Ayanna Howard discusses her goals for the future

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Ayanna Howard reflects on her legacy and her parents' pride in her

Tape: 6 Story: 12 - Ayanna Howard talks about her husband and children

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Ayanna Howard describes an image from Mars and says how she would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$5

DAStory

3$1

DATitle
Ayanna Howard describes her University of Southern California mentors and her graduate thesis on robots manipulating deformable objects
Ayanna Howard recaps her career highlights at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Transcript
Okay. Now, what was your thesis in graduate school?$$So, the title of my thesis was, 'Recursive Learning for Deformable Object Manipulation.' So that was the title, which, you know, kind of sounds kind of fancy. But basically what I was doing is--the motivation was: At the time there was starting to be a scare of needles. If you remember, this was when there was--drug usage was going up. AIDS [autoimmune deficiency syndrome] was becoming this dominant thing. And they were worried that in the hospitals nurses and assistants would start getting stuck by needles. You know, they didn't have--you know, nowadays you, you do a needle and it has these special compartments. Then, you know, you do a needle and get thrown in the trash can. So my thought was, well, what if we had robots actually handle the bags--basically, be your, your trashcan delivery. So they would pick up the bags that would have needles and then deliver it. So, that would save human lives, and you wouldn't have to worry about it. And so one of the issues with robots still is that they don't know how--this goes with the reaction especially in factory automation--trash bags deform. So, when you pick them up, they change shape. So that means you can't have a preprogrammed kind of way of grabbing the bag because as soon as you grab it, it shifts weight, it changes. And so you have to be able to react. And so I designed a methodology that one, learns how to pick up bags. So it looks at a bag and it figures out where the best place is to pick it up. And then, as it's delivering, if it starts to shift, it changes it's--it either changes the force that it's applying or changes its position so that it doesn't drop the bag. And so it has this learning component as well as this reactive component.$$Okay. And it actually worked out.$$Yeah, so I built a, a mini prototype. So I had a small manipulator arm. And it had these little bags of--and I put different stuff. So I had a bag of sand, I had a bag of cotton--just things that had different deformation characteristics so that I can test that you can look at it as you grabbed it. How can you react even if you don't know what's inside the bag? 'Cause sand deforms differently than, say, a bag full of the pillows 'cause it's actually going to the laundry room. So, yeah, so that was, that was a nice experience.$$Okay, now was there any mentors in graduate school? Were any of these teachers--$$Oh, yeah. So I had two professors. One was my main advisor who was a guy named George Bekey, Professor George Bekey. And he is one of the--which of course I didn't know before I got there--he's one of the fathers of robotics in the United States. So, now he's in his, he's hitting eighty [years old]. But he was one of the early pioneers in robotics.$$Okay, how do you spell his last name?$$B-E-K-E-Y.$$Okay. All right, and who was the other one?$$Professor Kenneth Goldberg, G-O-L-D-B-E-R-G.$$Okay. All right. Okay. Were both of these, these professors--$$It also--the story is that Goldberg was my first advisor. And after my first year there, maybe my second year, he left USC [University of Southern California, Los Angeles] and went to Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley]. And so I wanted to stay at USC and so I had to find another advisor.$$Okay.$$So that was the--but I still--in fact, I keep in touch with both of them to this day.$All right, okay, all right. Well, so you were at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California] for five--until 2005, right?$$Until 2005.$$Two thousand five [2005]. And what are some of the highlights of what you did at JPL.$$So, a couple things--was coming up with a scheme for evaluating a terrain from a robotic perspective to determine traversability, or grades of traversability. And a robot is both mobile, so on the ground as well as aerial, so robotic spacecrafts as well. So that's the, I would say, the biggest claim to fame is coming up with methodologies that were human inspired. So whole concept is is that if scientists could go to Mars, you know, most of them would be first in line. And so because they can't right now, the robot should mimic as much as possible how they would operate if they were on Mars. And so having a robot that's human inspired, which means that it, it seems to do the same stuff that a human would do given the situation it's in, gives the scientist the ability to transplant and have this virtual presence in that realm. So that's, that's really the claim to fame is coming up with methodologies and approaches that allow that to happen.$$Okay. So, so at JPL what was your, I guess, most, I guess, important project at JPL? Or was there such a thing or is, was just a--$$Yeah, so that, so the project in terms of terrain traversability--that was a good five years, at least, coming up and refining it and then adding and continuing so that it was robust enough that I can put it in any scenario--and in theory I could put it on any planet and it would be able to navigate. And so that was, in terms of the theoretical contributions, that was the most important. One of my, I guess, more of my favorite contributions--'cause, you know, as a scientist you work on other little projects. And while I was there I had received award--was called the Lew Allen Award for Excellence. And what that allowed me to do is it basically gave you as a condition of the award it gave you a mini grant to do anything that you want. So it's like--be creative. Do anything that you want. And I decided that I wanted to do a educational software package to teach students about intelligence concepts for robotics. So basically a learning game, which is totally different than anything else that I'd been doing, but I just thought it was important to in terms of a education to basically figure out, you know, all this stuff that I'm doing--how can I make it so that it's understandable to kids so that they can say, oh, now I understand when she talks about, you know, neural networks. Oh, this is what it really means. You know, I talk genetic algorithms--oh, this is how it, what it really means. And so I used my little mini grant--I hired basically two folks to work on it, to program it. And so it had graphics, and it had a little games. So it would walk you through a tutorial. And at the end it would have this little--one was a robot navigation game and the other one was a "Guess My Age," which was a neural network. So you had to--I gave a little figure and you had to guess the age and then it would take that data and learn different things about you. And then I had a genetic algorithm that would figure out what is the best path to go from planets in the solar system. So if you wanted to go from Earth to Mars--Earth, Mars, Saturn--which planet should you visit first in order to minimize fuel. So that was my, my package, which I was pretty proud of, pretty proud of.$$Okay, what's the name of it?$$It's called the AI Toolkit.$$AI Toolkit. Okay, all right.$$And so now, I mean, since I stopped monitoring, but I know as of--I think the last time I monitored it was like 2007. At that time I had about six hundred users internationally that had downloaded and, you know, commented on its use. So now I have no idea.