Ayanna Howard slates her interview and shares her favorites. Howard’s mother, Johnetta MacCalla was born in the 1940s in Monroe, Louisiana. She was the third-generation of her family to attend college. Howard’s father, Eric Conway MacCalla, was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, also in the 1940s. His ancestors were of Jamaican descent. His father worked for the United States Postal Service and his mother worked as a nurse. Johnetta and Eric met as students at Brown University. They both went on to study at Stanford University and then University of Southern California, where they earned their Ph.D. degrees in engineering. Howard was born on January 24, 1972, the first of two children. She and her brother grew up in Altadena, California, in a quiet neighborhood near the San Gabriel Mountain. Howard’s parents were involved in her education growing up, although they were busy with their business, Automated Switching and Controls.
Ayanna Howard describes her childhood home in Altadena, California. Her family often did not have the latest commercial appliances, but they always had the supplies needed to build and fix them since her parents were in electrical engineering and computer programming. Her family was Catholic. Howard recalls her elementary school years at Loma Alta Elementary School, where one of her favorite teachers was her fourth and fifth grade teacher. During this time, she enjoyed watching “Bionic Woman,” on television. She then attended Elliott Middle School, where white students from Sierra Madre were bused in to her school, and her parents pushed the school to let Howard take algebra and geometry early. At John Muir High School, Howard was respected as “the smart one,” and her physics teacher convinced her to consider a career in physics, particularly after Howard did not enjoy her biology class. Howard graduated as salutatorian in 1989.
Ayanna Howard recalls working at the California Institute of Technology during high school and a high school science project. Following her high school graduation in 1989, she decided to attend Brown University. Howard notes that this was the first year of Brown University’s need-blind admissions and about a hundred black and Hispanic students were admitted, although only about six black students graduated with their B.S. degrees in engineering in 1993. Amongst her participation in other student groups, Howard served as president of the school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. Howard recalls her transition to college and her determination to catch up academically with her peers. She explains that her hard work at Brown University prepared her for her graduated studies at the University of Southern California. During college, Howard worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she gained experience in computer programming and artificial intelligence.
Ayanna Howard discusses the role of robotics in the early 1990s and the general fear that robots would take working-class jobs. After explaining the difference between animatronics and robots, Howard discusses her graduate project at the University of Southern California, where she designed a robot that could pick up garbage bags with unknown contents and respond to shifts in its weight. Howard earned her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in 1993 and 1999, respectively. Throughout her graduate studies, Howard worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and continued to work there after her graduation from the University of Southern California, when she began to develop navigation methods for robots in Mars explorations. Howard explains the process of sensing, thinking and acting in robotics, and reflects on how sensor technology has improved and become more readily accessible to the public within the last twenty years, citing the X-Box Kinect as an example.
Ayanna Howard discusses her research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with the Mars Rover navigation systems and terrain traversability. During her time at JPL, Howard was involved in educational outreach programs and also earned her M.B.A. degree from Claremont Graduate University in 2005. Due to cuts in funding for robotics, Howard left JPL in 2005 to pursue a career in academia, establishing the Human Automation Systems (HumAnS) Laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology. She compares the different focuses of robotics technology in the United States and Asian countries, emphasizing the push for adaptive learning in the United States. She also considers the ethics involved in robotics in conjunction with the automated car produced by Carnegie Mellon University. She then discusses her current research projects in robots to work children with disabilities and the SnoMotes, robots designed to study the melting glaciers.
Ayanna Howard concludes her remarks on designing robots to work with children with disabilities. She then discusses her appointment to serve as chair of the robotics graduate program at Georgia Institute of Technology in 2010. Looking toward the future, Howard emphasizes access to information as a key area of advances in robotics. After describing the “uncanny valley” in robotics and “robot trust”, Howard describes the “laws of robotics,” which were derived from Isaac Asimov’s books. She then talks about her belief that robots will be integrated into society and the fear that robots will replace human workers. She expresses her concern for the African American community in education, particularly in math and sciences. In terms of her future, Howard hopes her robots will make a difference in the lives of people and will be recognized by the Academy. Howard talks about her parents, her husband and her children.
Ayanna Howard describes a picture from the Mars Rover landing in 2004, which is the background for the interview. She then describes how she would like to be remembered-as someone who changed the world with her research and innovation, and someone who changed with world with her wisdom.