Ayanna Howard

Digital Library

ACM Athena Lecturer Award

USA - 2021


For fundamental contributions to the development of accessible human-robotic systems and artificial intelligence along with forging new paths to broaden participation in computing through entrepreneurial and mentoring efforts

Dr. Ayanna Howard is a leading roboticist, entrepreneur, and educator whose research includes dexterous manipulation, robot learning, field robotics, and human-robot interaction. Her doctoral research on dexterous robotic manipulation of deformable objects proposed some of the first ideas on the modeling of deformable objects via physical simulation, such that they could be robustly grasped by robot arms. This work also demonstrated how neural networks could be trained to extract the minimum force required for subsequent deformable object manipulation tasks.

At NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Howard introduced new ideas in robot learning for the (then-emerging) problem of terrain classification of field robots. Terrain classification is critical for many robots operating in unstructured natural field environments, including navigating the arctic or determining safe landing locations on the surface of Mars. Her work introduced fuzzy logic methods to model environmental uncertainty that advanced the state of the art in field robotics, including finding evidence of never-before-observed life on Antarctica's sea floor.

At Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Howard studied the ways in which socially effective robots could improve the access and scalability of services for children with special needs, as well as potentially improve outcomes through the engaging nature of robots. This work aimed to understand how pediatricians and educators work effectively with children, then encode such social behavior into humanoid service robots. In adapting her contributions to real-world settings for assistive technology for children, her work has also provided first-of-its-kind computer vision techniques that analyze the movement of children to devise therapeutic measures. In 2013, she founded Zyrobotics, an assistive technology company that develops mobile therapy and educational products for children with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries and other disabilities.

Dr. Howard is a preeminent leader in studying the overtrust people place in robots in a variety of autonomous decision-making settings, including conversational agents, emergency response scenarios, autonomous navigation systems, child-robot interaction, and the use of lethal force. Her work introduced human-robot interaction algorithms that, for the first time, quantified the impact of robot mistakes on human trust in a realistic, simulated, and very high-risk scenario. This work has led to more understanding of the biases and social inequities underlying AI and robotic systems. Her audiobook, Sex, Race, and Robots: How to Be Human in the Age of AI, created public discourse on the implications of AI ethics.

In addition to her stellar research record, Dr. Howard has a strong record of service that demonstrates her commitment to advancing the field and broadening participation. She has served on various editorial boards and conference/program committees. She has also created and led numerous programs designed to engage, recruit, and retain students and faculty from groups that are historically underrepresented in computing, including the IEEE Robotics Ph.D. Forum and CRA-W Graduate Cohort Workshop for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Leadership Skills (IDEALS).

Dr. Howard earned a B.S. in computer engineering from Brown University and a M.S. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering (Minor: computer science) from the University of Southern California. She currently serves as the dean of the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University, the first woman in that role. She is the author of over 250 publications in refereed journals and conferences, is a (co)author/editor of more than a dozen books/book chapters, has been awarded four patents, and has given over 140 invited talks/keynotes. She is a Fellow of the IEEE and AAAI.

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