Black History: Special Delivery!!

Dr. Ayanna Howard (1972 – ) has some impressive credentials. She is a noted expert in the area of Artificial Intelligence. She is often referred to as an “old school Blerd” (Black Nerd). Her motivation to pursue a career in the sciences was fueled by watching TV shows such as, The Bionic Woman, Star Trek, and Wonder Woman” as a child. Since 2005, Dr. Howard has worked as a roboticist and Motorola Foundation Professor at Georgia Tech’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines. She received a bachelors degree in Engineering from Brown University and a masters degree from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. Her research has centered on artificial intelligence (also known as humanized intelligence).

In 2003, Howard was named to the MIT Technology Review TR100 as one of the top 100 innovators under age 35 in the world. In 2008, she garnered world wide press for her “SnoMote” robots which were designed to study the impact of global warming in the Antarctic. The robots were remote control snowmobiles that aided scientists in collecting climate data. These robots made data collection possible without forcing scientist out into the harsh elements. The robots were programmed to work together and to monitor targeted areas. They were mounted with sensors and cameras to collect data including temperature and barometric readings.

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Dr. Ayanna Howard pictured with the “SnoMote” robots she designed to collect climate data in the Antarctic


Prior to joining the faculty of Georgia Tech, she worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab where she conducted research on a variety of robotics projects which included a lot of computer programming. There are very few women of color in these types of STEM careers. She is excited about the advancements being made in the area of artificial intelligence. Howard feels that the term “artificial intelligence” is rather outdated and refers to it as humanized intelligence. She feels that this terminology really stresses that the science focuses on “learning” and enhancing quality of life. Howard describes artificial intelligence (humanized intelligence) as, “centered around the concept of humanized intelligence, the process of embedding human cognitive capability into the control path of autonomous systems.”

In reflecting on the differences between how businesses versus consumers use artificial intelligence, she has seen many businesses who are receiving investments are doing so because of their emphasis on data mining. Netflix is a great example. They are customizing their service delivery to learn about their customers preferences so that they can deliver better content.  They are doing so by using artificial intelligence technology which uses sophisticated algorithms and computer programming to determine customer preferences. This is just one example. There are many others. Technology leaders such as Bill Gates and Steven Hawking have spoken out about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Using the military as a example, they are concerned that the possibility of replacing human soldiers with robotic soldiers could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Howard, acknowledges their concerns but she doesn’t agree with them. Her belief is that artificial intelligence is no more harmful or dangerous than any other technology. With any technology there are individuals that will seek to use it for both good and bad. For Howard, restricting the use of this sort of technology keeps it away from those can use it to have a positive impact.

Reflecting on how artificial intelligence will be used in the future, Howard feels that its use will only continue to grow in products such as appliances, cars, phones, hardware, etc. There will also likely be an increase in smart technology being built into homes. Howard also feels confident that the numbers of people of color going into STEM related careers will continue to increase. Dr. Howard is poised to pave the way for further technology advancements through her innovation and research efforts. Her accomplishments will likely inspire other women and men of color to consider careers in STEM fields.

Check out this informative TedTalk conducted by Dr. Howard. She shares how technology, and the study of human behavior are being combined to produce innovations in the technology of artificial intelligence.


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