Ayanna Howard

A former senior NASA robotics researcher and Mars Exploration research engineer at the space agency’s storied Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), co-founder of a trailblazing ed-tech company, and dean of the 10,000-student strong College of Engineering at The Ohio State University, Ayanna Howard, Ph.D., is a true leader in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics engineering.

According to Howard, AI is poised to enhance every aspect of our professional and personal lives, particularly in such areas as remote work, health care, education, and manufacturing. But she emphasizes we must ensure the ethical development of these increasingly prevalent technologies.

“AI has already enhanced medical care, education, transportation, and so much more. It’s also been groundbreaking in facilitating social interaction, which is so important,” explains Howard, who recently joined the esteemed ranks of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “But we must protect ourselves and others in the process. We need to be able to get the benefits of AI while ensuring broad access and without sacrificing privacy.”

A Diverse Population Requires Diverse Engineers

A globally recognized roboticist, practitioner, and leader, Howard is encouraged by the benefits AI can offer to improve society. But, she warns, a diverse engineering talent pool is vital to ensure AI is able to interact appropriately with a diverse society.

A staunch advocate for creating AI in an atmosphere where different – not divisive – viewpoints are welcomed, Howard urges leaders to identify the strengths of individuals on a team and treat development and programming as a community effort.

“The only way to prevent biases from seeping into the development of technologies is to ensure they are created with diversity of thought,” Howard explains. “That means making sure all genders and ethnicities participate in their creation. Otherwise, organizations not only risk perpetuating biases and offending potential users, but they also miss an opportunity to broaden their reach.”

The Future of AI: Protecting Data and the Need for More Regulation

An advisor to the President of the United States as a member of the National AI Advisory Committee and Stanford University’s long-term AI100 study, Howard points out that the current lack of strict regulations around AI development should be considered in more serious terms.

“AI got into the field without the research that we usually do as scientists,” she cautions. “It’s like putting a drug out without doing clinical trials. Unregulated AI is just as dangerous as unregulated pharmaceuticals.”

Not only concerned with the development process, Howard also describes the need for more stringent regulation and practices around user privacy while keeping AI accessible to all.

“How do you get all the benefits of AI without losing privacy or being manipulated by corporate greed?” she asks. “There’s no solution right now, but we’re trying to take steps to anonymize data, especially statistics like healthcare data and facial recognition. It’s vital for our personal data to be protected.”

An Optimistic View of AI’s Potential

Confident the problem of bias can be addressed and regulations can be developed, Howard – who was named one of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech by Forbes – remains cheerfully optimistic about AI’s capacity to solve problems and improve many aspects of human life, like the potential of assistive applications that improve the delivery of pediatric health care and education. That spirit shines through in her talks, writings – like her bestselling audiobook, “Sex, Race and Robots: How to Be Human in the Age of AI” (2020) – and her 2021 appearance on the ABC’s The View.

By ethically developing and deploying innovative, AI-driven products, new efficiencies can be created that will improve the lives of users in the workplace, at home and in society. In the process, Howard helps developers avoid building biases into the AI they create so these transformational technologies can be useful and trusted learning partners, empathetic sounding boards, and relatable companions to the widest possible range of unique users.

“I’m an optimist,” proudly proclaims Howard, winner of the 2023 AAAI/EAAI Patrick Henry Wilson Outstanding Educator Award. “I believe in AI. I believe in robotics. I believe in the benefits just like I believe in education and the limitless potential of the next generation of diverse engineers.”