Ayanna Howard is Professor and chair of the school of interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology and a self-proclaimed “roboticist extraordinaire.”
She has been working in the field for at least 20 years, specifically in the domain of human robot interaction. “My purpose is to take what I know about humans and information and make sure that my robot understands that.” Her robots engage with children with special needs to assist them with education, healthcare, therapy and exercise.
“Technology is not perfect and these robots will not be either.”
Howard said she feels it is important for people to manage their expectations when it comes to robots as many have the view that they should be infallible. “Somehow we believe that robots will be smarter than they are and not have mistakes but how many times have you had to reset your phone or your computer? Technology is not perfect and these robots will not be either.”
Howard made clear that robots inherit flaws from the humans who create them and the data they are programmed with. “We train these robots based on human values, human concepts, human data, human understanding but it also means that all of our historical biases are put into the machine,” she
As a programmer of the robots, Howard collects data and looks at how things are done in terms of healthcare and models clinicians and doctors. “If the historical data is wrong and I’m doing it right then my robot is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. It has that inaccuracy but if the data is wrong because we as humans have been doing things wrong, my system doesn’t know,” said Howard.
This statement sounds almost like a call to get more domain expertise into the programming stage so that biased, erroneous or problematic data can be highlighted and eradicated or counteracted before it is programmed into the robot. This could happen through the roboticists embedding with the clinicians and doctors to get a thorough understanding of what good looks like and bring that back to the lab. Alternatively, a clinician could work with the roboticists in the lab to highlight and correct any errors or mistakes that they see.
Howard also called on the public to keep roboticists and programmers in check by pushing back on questionable or problematic developments. She gave the example of one robotics company that proclaimed to come out with a robot that would teach children manners. However, there was a strong reaction from parents who made it clear manners are imbued with values and it was not the place of a commercial company to instil values in their children.
Overall through, Howard said robotics is an exciting area to work in because there is a universal fascination with robotics and everyone from the very young to very old has an opinion about robots and most has their favourite one. That could be Wall-e, iRobot or Terminator. In case you are wondering, mine is Johnny 5 from the 1986 film Short Circuit.