Pick any superhero. What comes to mind? Maybe, Superman. Or Spider-Man or Iron Man. Chances are, though, it’s a man.
Ayanna Howard is a superhero of sorts, too. More Iron Man than Superman, she is a preeminent robotics scientist that honed her skills at NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, before using technology to enhance the limits of the human body. In an alternate universe, she could have been Tony Stark, if she had distant parents, a tragic, life-threatening event and a billion dollar multinational corporation. But as it so happens, she grew up during the ’70s, in a loving, well-adjusted family, watching the “Bionic Woman” on television.
The Bionic Woman could read like a ’70s feminist reimagining of Iron Man: like Stark, schoolteacher Jaime Sommers gained her superhero powers through science and engineering, instead of cosmic forces or radioactive arachnids. But unlike him, scientists “rebuilt” her from robotic parts after she suffered a horrific skydiving accident, giving her the ability to bend steel with her bare hands, jump across buildings in a single bound and even see and hear things no normal human could.
Sommers would also join a top-secret government organization, but instead of thwarting nefarious villains, like Obadiah Stane and The Mandarin, she was assigned a smattering of odd missions, from fighting bizarre henchmen, including one who ran a hair salon and gave truth-serum shampooings, to more mundane affairs, like rescuing American diplomats from an island run by a gang of terrorists.
It was 1975, Saigon had fallen and America was forced to withdrawal from Vietnam and Cambodia. But in households around the nation, millions of impressionable, young girls, like Howard, would tune in to watch the Bionic Woman’s blend of action, science fiction and California glamour — and become inspired by the concept of a scientific super heroine using technology to save the world.
Howard doesn’t have any mechanical limbs, but she created robots to plunge the depths of the Arctic, launch to the outer limits of space and roam the hostile terrain of the Martian landscape. On Earth, her robots teach children with disabilities to move around. Her work enhances their natural powers, showing that superheroes aren’t simply heroic for having talents and abilities, but also a desire to give back to the community.
Howard was born in January 1972, to an engineer father and a mother who majored in math. They met at Brown University, but raised Howard and her brother in the ethnically diverse suburb of Altadena, outside Los Angeles. Howard describes her family as one with “middle class values.” They didn’t struggle, but she said they also didn’t have the latest and greatest of everything. Instead of brand-new Barbies, for example, she played with “Sunshine Family” dolls.
To draw out her natural talents, her parents exposed her to a wealth of activities, ranging from gymnastics to acting to debate, refusing to believe in separate interests for boys and girls. “My parents believed in equal opportunity,” Howard told me. “They scoured the local newspapers, and anytime something interesting came up, they’d ask if we were interested.”
In middle school, they pushed the principal to let her enroll early in algebra and geometry classes, and even took her to RadioShack to buy a soldering kit. Soon, she discovered she had an aptitude for science, after joining a computing project hosted at the local Boys & Girls Club. “I brought along a basic, step-by-step book that my parents gave me,” she said. “And we all sort of explored the basics of computing.”
Meanwhile, up the road, in the town of Pasadena, the looming influence of JPL reminded her of the superpowers of technology. During World War 2, it gathered the brightest minds to design and launch rockets into the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, extending to today, where it still serves as the nerve center of space innovation.
A couple of months before Howard’s birth, for example, its Mariner 9 spacecraft orbited Mars, capturing never-before-seen photographs of the strange, red landscape. The probe also discovered that water once ran on its surface, raising questions whether the now-frozen landscape was ever warm enough to sustain liquid water — and possibly life.
When Howard heard of the missions at JPL, she had an unusual vision and conviction of what she wanted to do early in life. “I knew by about middle school that I wanted to be part of space,” she told me. When her teacher asked students to fill out a profile to help them decide on a career path, she wrote down “cybernetics engineering.”
Today, she chuckles at being so specific at such a young age, but she credits the orbit of JPL’s space achievements as an early influence in her drive. Coupled with a family that valued hard work, creativity and opportunity, she would graduate from high school and intern at JPL for a summer, before attending Brown University, giving her an Ivy League experience that would set the stage for a career in robotics.
“I didn’t know we didn’t have money until I went to college,” she said, joking about learning about the world around her as a young college student.
While she appreciated Brown’s liberal approach to computer engineering, she decided to pursue both master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In the laboratory, she merged her knowledge of electronics with biology, tinkering with robotics to explore ways to mimic human movement and thought, and designed a robot to pick up garbage bags of unknown contents, and respond to shifts in their weight.
Eventually, she found herself back at JPL, where she worked to improve the navigation of the Mars rover, using vision, “fuzzy logic” and neural network methodologies.
When we give driving directions, she told me, we use terms like, “veer to the left” or “take a hard right at the corner.” While our brains can interpret the meanings of these invaluable instructions, robots can’t. “These linguistic ‘fuzzy terms’ aren’t exact measurements,” she said, so the challenge given to her was to translate our imprecise human language into concrete commands that robots can accurately respond to.
She made these robots to think more like human pilots, too, by evaluating the terrain, deciding where to land, and then figuring out what to do. This was no simple task. Howard and her team had to analyze human behavior and visual images, and then match them to navigation instructions to give to the rover. Only then could the robots navigate the unpredictable Martian landscape, using a “neural network” to mimic the way we make decisions to climb over rugged terrain, stop short of steep cliffs or accelerate through straightaways.
“Being adaptable to change is very important, but it is also very difficult because all paths don’t necessarily work,” she told JPL in an interview. “You have to be open to change, be able to take input from other people and be flexible.”
In 2001, Howard’s hard work paid off, and JPL awarded her the Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research, its highest honor in recognition of leadership and innovation. She became known in larger circles, as well, as dozens of articles and museum exhibitions began to feature her work in autonomous control and assistive robots. In 2003, for example, MIT Technology Review named her one of its “Young Innovators Under 35,” and a year later, Time Magazine ran a profile of her, titled “Rise of the Machines.”
Yet with all the media attention, she looked at ways to combine her knowledge of robotics, not just to serve space exploration, but with her interest in serving the community. That opportunity came when the Georgia Institute of Technology offered to expand her work. “They asked me what I needed to set up a lab there,” she told me. “They were very open to any ideas I had and what I might need to accomplish it.”
In 2005, she founded the Human-Automation Systems, or Humans, Lab, with the aim of using robotics to enhance our lives. Today, she develops robots to give therapy to children with motor impairments — like cerebral palsy, dis-coordination disorders and traumatic brain injuries — by playing games or performing a series of motions, which they can then mimic.
“At younger ages, this therapy can be very important because if you have issues reaching for something, you can improve by doing it over and over,” she said. Since a child’s brain is still evolving, she added, intervening early allows new neural circuits to be paved, since these routes haven’t yet been hard-wired.
One benefit to working with children, she told me, is that they are more forgiving with errors, too. When adults become frustrated, for example, they often say, “Why isn’t it working?” Children, instead, suggest ways to improve it. “It is surprising to me how children can be so much more accepting,” she said.
Howard hasn’t forgotten her love of space exploration, though. She has also expanded her earlier Mars work into a trio of “SnoMote” rovers, used to collect data in extreme regions, like Antarctica and the Arctic, to measure changes in climate and help to combat global warming.
“We equip them with a sensor pack to measure climatologist elements, like barometric pressure, so they are deployable,” she said to me. These rovers are deployed to navigate, monitor and collect data about the hostile terrain, much like on the Martian landscape.
The team is going below the Earth’s surface, as well, working with the Georgia Tech Research Institute to build robots to not only withstand deep, underwater pressures, but also use algorithms to analyze signals to navigate the icy realm. “There isn’t sun and it’s very dark, so the data input is different,” she said. “We are using sonar to respond to that.”
These robots function much the same way as land-based devices, but instead of merely rolling along the surface, they need to flip over — a seemingly simple task that’s actually a logistics challenge. Still, Howard is optimistic the underwater robots can begin to gather data in seven to eight months’ time.
While Howard describes herself as “an engineer with a solution looking for a problem,” with an overriding goal to develop robots to better help us — on Earth, Mars and beyond — at home, much like Clark Kent, she leads a rather normal life. Married to a chef, who she happily points out, “likes to bring his work home with him,” she uses the free time from not having to cook dinner for their three children to teach aerobics at the local YMCA.
“I make time for that and have for three years now,” she said. “Exercise is important, too, and being a teacher requires me to be there — besides it helps clear my mind.”
She also mentors the next generation of young scientists. Every summer, she sponsors a camp for children from under-represented populations in science and technology — young girls, kids from less privileged families and those with disabilities — in hopes of giving them a glimpse of what’s possible with robotics and programming, like what JPL did for her.
“A lot of kids don’t even know these fields exist and they are shocked to learn there are jobs like these available,” she said. “Watching them see themselves master these things is a lot of fun.”
The camps run in cities around the nation — from California and Colorado to Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
What’s next for Howard? Not content to rest on her laurels, she told me she’s fascinated with exoskeleton prosthetics, nerve regeneration stuff and artificial skin, which give us even greater abilities. Think Iron Man’s suit. “I see that and it amazes me,” she said.
Today’s robotic arm may one day regrow nerves or skin, and Howard looks forward to a time when we use prosthetic limbs that can feel the sensation of touch. It would bring the ideas of the Bionic Woman, a favorite childhood show, full-circle.
We don’t have to wait for a suit of iron, or bionic arms and legs, to do extraordinary feats in our own lives, though. Howard has shown that seeds can be planted from anywhere or anything — whether from a TV show, nearby laboratory or encouraging parents. But those sprouts need to be nurtured with hard work and opportunity to thrive and grow — all elements we can strive seek out, and give back, in our own lives, without a need for robotic parts. ♦