For five years, Ayanna Howard led the NASA team that installed artificial intelligence capabilities in the un-manned rovers that would explore the far off world of Mars.

Now, she builds bots for children with disabilities back on Earth.

Howard marries science and social good in creating robots that deliver in-home physical therapy for children. One in six children in the U.S. is born with at least one disability, Howard said. Many of their families lack the means to pay for the services of a human therapist.

“When you work on initiatives that are accessible to the diverse learning needs of children ... it means you’re working on something that works for everyone,” said Howard, the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Chair Professor of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in a video interview with TechCrunch.

Howard will explain how recent advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have positioned early intervention with robots to aid children in her lecture, “Pediatric Robotics – A Journey from the Lab to a Child’s Home,” at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 15 at the Maury L. Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke.

The series of free, public lectures is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the value of bringing speakers to share their leading-edge biomedical and health science research to Roanoke.

The lecture will be accessible via Zoom. Attendees should register online in advance. Details are available on the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website.

“Dr. Howard is a proven groundbreaker as a roboticist, whether developing technology to explore other planets or aiding children with disabilities in leading their fullest possible lives,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Next-generation robotic technology is a new field of smart health care that goes directly to the homes and lives of patients and their families. Members of our campus and our broader communities will be able to see the tremendous benefits the future has in store during this installment of the popular Maury Strauss lecture series.”

Howard advocates for diversity in science and often mentors students and trainees from underrepresented communities. She was raised by a mother who majored in mathematics in college and a father who was an engineer, but it was a 1970s television show that piqued her interest in the field she would come to lead.

“When I saw ‘The Bionic Woman,’ I was totally fascinated,” Howard recounted in the TechCrunch interview.

The show was about a tennis star whose injuries from a skydiving accident were repaired with technology that gave her super-human strength, speed, and hearing. Howard was drawn not only to the technology in the series, but the social impact of a woman saving the world.

Howard didn’t dream of becoming the bionic woman. She wanted to build a bionic woman.

At 27, she became the first Black woman to lead a project for NASA. Howard and her team created the robotics and AI for the Mars rover.

After five years, Howard left NASA and founded the Human-Automation Systems Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As the lab’s director, she and her team develop robotics and artificial intelligence for medical applications, including assistive devices and technologies to help children overcome impairments. In 2013, she founded Zyrobotics L.L.C., a commercial spinoff of her research for which she remains chief technological officer.

Howard will discuss remaining challenges for health care robotics, such as developing interfaces for clinicians to communicate with their robot counterparts, ensuring the robot can provide feedback to the parent and health care provider in a trustworthy manner, developing learning methods to design robots with the ability to playfully interact with the child. 

She stresses that robots must integrate human characteristics and designs to exhibit characteristics that would be interpreted by humans as empathy, thus serving to encourage children during therapy. Howard is also mindful of bias in robot development and advocates for diversity among scientists who develop the technology.

“If my robots are supposed to work with the world, that means they are supposed to work with the entire world,” she said.

Howard has been a presenter at the National Society of Black Engineers, blackcomputeHER, and Society of Women Engineers conferences and is a board member of the Computer Research Associations Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research.

Howard earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Brown University, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. In 2018, Forbes Magazine named her one of the Top 50 U.S. Women in Tech.