Ayanna Howard is an electrical engineer who has made major advances and contributions to the field of robotics. She was born in Providence, Rhode Island and graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena, California. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Brown University and her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in engineering from the University of Southern California. She also holds an MBA from Claremont Graduate University.
Her graduate dissertation was entitled, “Recursive Learning for Deformable Object Manipulation,” which drew on her work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and focused on humanized intelligence, which allows human cognitive capability to be embedded into the control path of autonomous systems. During her time at the laboratory, she helped develop the next generation Mars Rover, which uses artificial intelligence to be capable of exploring Mars’ terrain through independent thought rather than programming.
After her work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Howard was offered a position at the Georgia Institute of Technology as an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. While there, she has started her own laboratory, the Human-Automation Systems (HumAnS) Lab, which focuses on how to enhance the autonomy of robot functionality.
Howard has won considerable acclaim for her work. Her SnoMote robots have been internationally recognized for their ability to study climate change in remote areas, and she has published over one hundred academic papers. She has also won several prestigious awards including the 2001 Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research, 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. She was also named one of the Top 100 Young Innovators of the Year in 2003 by MIT Technology Review and received the Engineer of the Year Award in 2004 by the Los Angeles Council of Engineers and Scientists.
Howard says that her inspiration for her career came from the TV show “The Bionic Woman,” which features a women who gains extraordinary powers from bionic limbs after being injured. Howard became interested in robotics after deciding not to attend medical school. She has shared her knowledge and skill by developing a math and science mentoring program for middle school girls and also by volunteering as a computer tutor at a shelter for battered women.