Sex Race and Robots by Dr Ayanna Howard

In the movies, robots can be terrifying. In reality, thinking machines are disrupting the world in ways that are even more disturbing than in Hollywood fantasies – but they also have the potential to change our lives for the better.

In this stirring, visionary work, acclaimed roboticist Dr. Ayanna Howard explores how the tech world’s racial and sexist biases are infecting the next generation of Artificial Intelligence, with profoundly negative effects for humans of all genders and races.

Drawing on cutting-edge research, and her own experience as one of the few Black women in the field of robotics, Dr. Howard shares how she navigated bias in her own coming-of-age as a roboticist. She also reveals how the world of engineers and computer programmers, which largely lacks women and Black people, is producing thinking machines that too often think like their flawed creators.

The danger of bias in our AI-powered machines has never been greater. Governments are using supercomputers to track COVID-19 patients. AI is being employed to monitor Black Lives Matter protests. Voice recognition systems have been rolled out that can’t hear female voices. Dr. Howard delivers a stirring warning about the risks of AI and robots – but also offers an uplifting message about empowerment and where we need to go next.


Learn a bit more about Ayanna: 

Dr. Ayanna Howard is an innovator, entrepreneur, leader, and international expert in robotics and AI. Currently, Dr. Howard is Professor and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Partnership on AI and Autodesk.

 

Prior to Georgia Tech, Dr. Howard was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where she held the title of Senior Robotics Researcher and Deputy Manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist. Her research encompasses advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), assistive technologies, and robotics, and has resulted in over 250 peer-reviewed publications. At NASA, she worked on designing advanced technologies for future Mars rover missions. Now, she works on projects ranging from healthcare robots to developing methods to mitigate bias and trust in AI.  In 2013, she founded Zyrobotics, an education technology startup, which designs AI-powered STEM tools and learning games for early childhood education. 

 

To date, Dr. Howard’s unique accomplishments have been highlighted through a number of awards and articles, including highlights in Vanity Fair, USA Today, Upscale, Black Enterprise, and TIME Magazine, as well as being recognized as one of the 23 most powerful women engineers in the world by Business Insider and one of the Top 50 U.S. Women in Tech by Forbes.  She regularly advises on issues concerning robotics, AI, and workforce development, including functioning as an AI advisor on the YouTube Future of AI documentary series produced by Robert Downey Jr. and Evaluator for the Google $25M AI for Social Good Challenge.

 

Dr. Howard is a frequent speaker and media expert source for venues such as CNN and NPR. She regularly gives invited talks at venues such as the Smithsonian Design Museum, TED talks, Science Museum of London, Detroit Science Museum, and the National Security Agency.  She has also been featured in various interviews and podcasts hosted by places like PBS, Discovery Channel, BBC, Fox News, Huffington Post, and VIBE.   


Join Us For a Sit Down With The Author:

What are some of the things people should be doing now to create a positive future for AI?

I think there are three elements to this. One is at the society level, one is at the developer level, and one is at the consumer/user level. As a society, we should demand certain things from our systems. We demand things from our government officials, and we demand good, moral acts from corporations. I think that we also need to do the same thing as a society for AI. 

 

As developers, we need to start thinking beyond what we can do and start thinking about what we should do.  I know a lot of the time, we as developers just want to build cool stuff. When our work wasn’t directly impacting society, it was fine. Now, the whole world is looking at us. We need to be more responsible with what we do with our algorithms, and think more globally about it. We need to be thinking deliberately about our technology, be responsible about what we put out there, and make sure that it doesn’t exclude certain classes of people.

 

As consumers, we don’t need to be blindly trusting of companies. It’s the same with AI. If something that an AI says doesn’t sound quite right — in that if a human said it, we would question them — then we need to have the same response to that AI as we would to a human.

 

Why did you decide to focus this book on addressing the bias in AI?

We’re getting to the point where every decision in our lives is going to be based on an algorithm – from which loan you get, which school your kids get into, which medical condition you’re diagnosed with. The problem is that when there is bias within these systems, it is going to impact each and every one of us. Long ago, I chose this field of robotics and AI because I wanted to make a positive impact in the world.  I therefore decided that it was important to speak up.  I’m not going to let this technology be used for evil.

 

How did you become interested in Robotics and AI?

I first became interested in robotics as a young, impressionable, middle school girl. My motivation was the television series called The Bionic Women – my goal in life, at that time, was to gain the skills necessary to build the bionic women. I didn’t realize you couldn’t actually do that at the time. I figured that I had to acquire combined skill sets in engineering and computer science in order to accomplish that goal. With respect to AI, I became interested in AI after my junior year in college, when I was required to design my first neural network during my third NASA summer internship in 1992. I quickly saw that, if I could combine the power of AI with Robotics – I could enable the ambitious dreams of my youth.

 

What is your favorite Robotics or AI-related movie or book and why?

My favorite robotics-related movie is the Matrix. What fascinates me about the Matrix is the symbiotic relationship that exists between humans and intelligent agents (both virtual and physical; robotics and AI).  One entity cannot seem to exist without the other. 

 

Robotics is one of those fields where you simply don’t see many, if any, women of color. Do you feel like an anomaly, and if so, how do you deal with that? 

 

What are some of the things people should be doing now to create a positive future for AI?

I think there are three elements to this. One is at the society level, one is at the developer level, and one is at the consumer/user level. As a society, we should demand certain things from our systems. We demand things from our government officials, and we demand good, moral acts from corporations. I think that we also need to do the same thing as a society for AI. 

 

As developers, we need to start thinking beyond what we can do and start thinking about what we should do.  I know a lot of the time, we as developers just want to build cool stuff. When our work wasn’t directly impacting society, it was fine. Now, the whole world is looking at us. We need to be more responsible with what we do with our algorithms, and think more globally about it. We need to be thinking deliberately about our technology, be responsible about what we put out there, and make sure that it doesn’t exclude certain classes of people.

 

As consumers, we don’t need to be blindly trusting of companies. It’s the same with AI. If something that an AI says doesn’t sound quite right — in that if a human said it, we would question them — then we need to have the same response to that AI as we would to a human.

 

Why did you decide to focus this book on addressing the bias in AI?

We’re getting to the point where every decision in our lives is going to be based on an algorithm – from which loan you get, which school your kids get into, which medical condition you’re diagnosed with. The problem is that when there is bias within these systems, it is going to impact each and every one of us. Long ago, I chose this field of robotics and AI because I wanted to make a positive impact in the world.  I therefore decided that it was important to speak up.  I’m not going to let this technology be used for evil.

 

How did you become interested in Robotics and AI?

I first became interested in robotics as a young, impressionable, middle school girl. My motivation was the television series called The Bionic Women – my goal in life, at that time, was to gain the skills necessary to build the bionic women. I didn’t realize you couldn’t actually do that at the time. I figured that I had to acquire combined skill sets in engineering and computer science in order to accomplish that goal. With respect to AI, I became interested in AI after my junior year in college, when I was required to design my first neural network during my third NASA summer internship in 1992. I quickly saw that, if I could combine the power of AI with Robotics – I could enable the ambitious dreams of my youth.

 

What is your favorite Robotics or AI-related movie or book and why?

My favorite robotics-related movie is the Matrix. What fascinates me about the Matrix is the symbiotic relationship that exists between humans and intelligent agents (both virtual and physical; robotics and AI).  One entity cannot seem to exist without the other. 

 

Robotics is one of those fields where you simply don’t see many, if any, women of color. Do you feel like an anomaly, and if so, how do you deal with that? 

 

Yes, many days I have felt like an anomaly, more so when I was growing up. The fact that there are so few women and women of color in robotics had an impact on my psyche growing up. When you go into a room and there is no one in there that remotely looks like you, you start questioning yourself. And then when you get both direct as well as subtle questions from others such as “Are you supposed to be here?” – it becomes even easier to feel like an anomaly. It becomes easy to slide into thinking, “Maybe there is a reason why I am the only one here.” Fortunately, as my mom always said, I was so very stubborn. Telling me I couldn’t do something was also the best way to get me to try and figure out how to get it done.

 

Do you have a favorite quote that you find inspirational?

Actually, I have two. One quote is by William Faulkner – “Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” This quote keeps close as a reminder that as long as I’m challenging myself, I will continue to grow into the better me. The other quote is by Maya Angelou – “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” If you read the book – you’ll fully understand.

 

So, is diversity really that important in this field of AI?

The biases of the world at large appear to have crept into artificial intelligence. Intelligent though these algorithms may seem, they maintain some of the same biases that permeate society and, in so doing, emphasize and reinforce these biases as global truth. For example, biases found even in non-intelligent machines, like the original crash test dummies, which were originally modeled from a 6-foot, 180-pound man, led to women being under-protected during accidents. There are a host of examples like this that are discussed in the book with respect to AI and robotics. Now, if robots are programmed with bias, could these machines act in unpredictable ways? We design out of your own experience—it’s what makes us human. Therefore, it’s crucial to have diversity in robotics. Diversity is all of the parameters that make our experiences unique and different. 


Find Ayanna and the Book at:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/robotsmarts 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ayanna.howard.7

Book Purchase Link: https://www.amazon.com/Sex-Race-Robots-How-Human/dp/B08DSMYYNC

 

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