It’s safe to say, Ayanna Howard has never created a robot she didn’t like, or couldn’t tweak.
The Georgia Tech professor and roboticist is also co-founder and chief technology officer of Zyrobotics, a Georgia Tech VentureLab spin-off. Its mission? To create accessible technologies that engage and empower children with disabilities.
She builds the robots to engage kids with motor disabilities – cerebral palsy – for example, or children with autism. It turns out, the robots appeal to all children.
Howard has more than 13 years of R&D experience. Her work includes projects supported by agencies such as NSF, NASA, Procter and Gamble, ExxonMobil, and Intel. Her robotics and assistive technology research have resulted in more than 200 publications and numerous patents.
Through lessons learned building robots that assist children with special needs, Howard has observed first-hand the elements of intelligence, trust, and emotional empathy robots are emulating. Most of the robots she has created look like stuffed animals.
As a professor, she encourages her students to do their part to make the world a better place.
“If you want to change the world, and usually students who take my course and work with me are ones who want to have an impact,” Howard said in an interview with journalist Rebecca Knight at the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration in October.
“If you want to change the world, your science, engineering is the only way that you can,” Howard tells her students. “If you don’t get involved in this then the world is not going to change.”
In 2015, Howard founded and now directs the $3 million traineeship initiative in healthcare robotics and is the lead investigator on the National Science Foundation undergraduate summer research program in robotics. Before she joined the faculty at Georgia Tech, Howard was a senior robotics researcher and deputy manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.