August's "Machines" STEM Star: Ayanna Howard


Today we officially kick off the month of August and we couldn't think of any better way of doing that than by introducing our August STEM Star! 

Our theme for August is Machines! We use all different kinds of machines in our daily lives! They are an essential tool that help us in so many different ways!

While there are many different types of machines out there, there are a few that we think stand out! One of those is... robots!!

Our STEM Star for this month is Ayanna Howard! Ayanna is an educator, a researcher, an innovator and most importantly, a roboticist! 

Ayanna is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the chief technology officer of Zyrobotics, a company that she founded that designs smart mobile technologies for educational and accessible play. But don't let us tell you about her, why not hear it from our July STEM Star herself! 

 

 What is your current position? Besides Zyrobotics. 

At Georgia Tech I am a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and, on the company side, I am the chief technology officer of Zyrobotics. The company is actually a GA Tech spinoff. It uses technology from GA Tech that comes out of my lab.

 

How did you get involved with robotics in the first place?

So, I was interested in robotics almost all my life. Throughout undergrad I took robotics courses, I did robotics research and I worked in the summer at JPL (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) doing robotic AI related stuff. I wanted to do robotics ever since middle school when I saw The Bionic Woman, so that was my inspiration of life. I didn’t know exactly what robotics was, or what it meant, but I knew I wanted to do something with these machines that can interact with people and help people in their daily lives. So, I just kept pushing that, pushing that, pushing that. When I first started doing robotics it was of course with NASA, so my work was focused on Mars, and mobility, and getting robots to be smarter when they went to other places, other planets. Now I focus on designing robots to assist with child development, both with education and therapy in the home.

 

 Where do you think the field of robotics is going in the next 10 years?

So, I think in the next 10 years, I can confidently say that robotics; and it might just be the components of robotics because people may not think that it is robotics; but these elements of robotics will be part of our daily lives. It’s just like smart phones. If you look back 10 years ago, I remember getting the first IPhone, you know? And that was like, what! You don’t have a smart phone? What’s wrong? I think robotics is going to be like that, and it might be these specialized systems. People will have some of these features that we call robotics in their daily lives, and I think that is what is going to happen. 


Are there any misconceptions you think people have about working as a roboticist?      

I think that there are some misconceptions that robotics are going to totally take over jobs. That they are going to make our lives completely miserable as a society. I think that is a big misconception. It’s a real fear of course, because technology always misplaces jobs. If you look back in the days during the time of the Industrial Revolution, there has always been opportunities. There’s different types of jobs, and there’s different ways of educating people. The quality of life is much better overall, and I think that’s the good part.

 

Out of all the robotic creations you have created so far, what is your favorite?

So, I would say my favorite is now. Which are robots for rehabilitation and therapy. I think that’s my favorite because it’s much more socially interactive. I’m learning a lot more about humans, and how they behave, which challenges me, but I find it interesting because I like to learn.

 

Why did you decide to found your own company?

One of the problems that I had with my lab work was that I could only push it so far. So, we do experiments and subject testing with the technology, but I couldn’t work on getting the technology to be robust enough, because that doesn’t give student degrees. So, in order to mature what I say from lab to commercialization, you can’t do that in a university lab. It’s just impossible, because our mission is to educate students and to translate technology so that it is robust, it can work in the while, but it’s kind of a little bit anti our mission as professors. So the company basically had to exist because I knew that the technology we were developing had a bigger goal than what we were doing in the lab.


What advice would you give to kids who love to create?  

I would say be creative and be okay with what I call failure—when things don’t work, because failure is only a failure if you don’t learn from it. So, be okay to experiment. Things are not going to work, guaranteed, but eventually you’ll get it!

 

 What are some resources you would recommend for kids and adults to check out, if they want to learn more about robots?

Actually, there are a couple of things. So, there is websites like coding.org or Scratch, where you can go and code. They actually have modules where they allow you to connect with robots. Also, maker spaces! There are a lot of communities now that are designing maker spaces. Whether it is in a library or the local community college, these spaces are open to the public. They’re all open and nice environments that allow you to go in and just try stuff out. 

 

To learn more about Ayanna and her mission, you can visit her biography website or the Zyrobotics website

 

 

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