Dr. Ayanna Howard Wants You to Ask the Hard Questions About 'Sex, Race & Robots'

Acclaimed roboticist Dr. Ayanna Howard is on a mission to combat racial and sexual bias in AI and change the future of our world for the positive.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly. 

Abby West: Hi, Audible listeners. This is your Audible editor Abby West, and I'm here with noted roboticist and researcher Dr. Ayanna Howard, who is also the author of our new Audible Original, Sex, Race & Robots which I've been personally excited about for a while now. I can't wait to talk to her some more about this. Welcome, Dr. Howard.

Ayanna Howard: Thank you. I'm excited to be having this conversation.

AW: I heard about this project about a year ago and the idea that we had A, not only a Black female roboticist—which you get into this in your book, that a lot of us aren't really aware of the numbers in the space—but then getting into the issues that go on in there, the things that we would expect, and then the ideas around robots, which we all have a lot of misinformation about, shall we say?

AH: Yeah, it's true.

AW: Yeah. What made you want to write this book?

AH: One of the things is that I've been doing robotics all my life, and I started seeing the things that we were doing in the lab getting out into society. We were becoming the cool kids, but because we were also the cool kids, we weren't necessarily trained to think about the impact that our technology has.

So, that was one thing. Things were coming out that I was like, "Oh my gosh. That's actually pretty bad for society if it goes in that direction." And then we started seeing this whole aspect of people just kind of accepting the technology. And I said, "Okay, I got into engineering and computer science because I believed I could change the world, but I wanted to change it for the positive." I felt it was time to really put the words down so that it could be expressed.

AW: You came to this career quite honestly, with an engineer father and the ideal setting growing up in Pasadena with technology as a base. It's hard to ask someone, "How is that different for you?" This is not the norm for everyone. When did you realize how impactful that was for you?

AH: I didn't realize it honestly until I was an adult. I didn't realize that I had been shielded from a lot of things in life. And when I say adult, I mean 18, because my parents never said that I could not. I went to an integrated high school, so it was never that I was the only one.

...You're going to be in many, many, many, many places where people make you feel like you don't belong, but girlfriend, you belong. That is your right. It is your responsibility to take your rights back.

I mean, there were some issues, but I was never the only one. In fact, I was the geek. It was like, "Oh, she's the smart kid." That was my reputation. And I embraced that. And so I never knew it was something that was strange or different until I then went into the real world. It's like, "Oh, this is what it's like."

AW: I love that you had, I don't know if it was necessarily a statistic, at least anecdotally [you gathered] that a lot of female engineers have an engineer in their family. That speaks to the expectation of the conversations that happen. Like you said, your father was always interrogating—or not so much interrogating, but allowing you to interrogate the world in a way that a lot of people don't.

AH: Oh no, no. He would interrogate. It would be like, "Why is that? Explain to me." It was just always like, "Use your mind, use your intelligence to explain." You can't just say, "Because I want to." No, no, no, no. Explain why. He taught me how to argue at the end of the day. Argue intelligently.

AW: Exactly, the critical thinking part and the expectation of being challenged, which I think—and a sweeping generalization coming here—a lot of women aren't allowed to have that setup, that expectation of being challenged and being okay with continuing to push through and argue their point.

AH: Right. Even a lot of times when women that do that, they get labeled bossy or aggressive, right? Because you're not sitting down, you're not just being quiet, accepting the norm. But I think when you're growing up where that is what you're supposed to do, even though you still get that label, you're like, "Yeah, but this is who I am. I can't do anything else but this."

AW: Right. And that journey for you of finding your voice like you said, and adding to the positive. You knew going through college, in your early work, you were always clear that you wanted to affect the world, and knowing it took your career to see the arc of things, since adding the positive part, it was important to the complete picture.

AH: I think that's what makes engineering and robotics much more important now, is that positive aspect. We don't have a choice, honestly.

AW: One of the things I found interesting and really appreciated in your book is how you took that same critical thinking when you would stop and realize you were having a microaggression happen against you or feeling racism in a way. You were trying to understand, “What is this feeling? How am I handling this?”

Not so much that you were putting it on you, but you were really interrogating, “Where did this feeling come from?” Because it's not how you were raised to be. I'm particularly thinking of your first team meeting and having someone dismiss you as a secretary who wandered in and how you had to steel yourself to have that moment. I love the way that you present it here. It's just so hard to think about you, as accomplished as you are, going through that in that moment. What advice do you have for anyone who has to do that?

AH: It's not the emotions that are wrong, because we are human. The emotions are going to come: the anger, the fear, the sadness. It's not that. The wrong thing is what we do with them. We can't be captured by the emotions. That's the thing. When you have a microaggression or someone says something that might be sexist or racist… They’ve shown studies. There's actually things that go on in the brain and you go into this fight-or-flight mode. There are things that cause you to have the emotions. So, that's not wrong. It's basically saying, "Okay, I know I have these emotions. How do I get over these emotions in order to get to the next level? Because I can't be captured, I can't be bound by my emotions," because other people also have emotions and they're going to derail you sometimes, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.

AW: It seems like you were working through that even through your time at Brown, which you said was kind of like The Hunger Games where they first classified your class as a mistake, which I don't even know how you start to operate in the space when you're labeled a mistake. But then you had to prove your worth every step of the way and always feel like you were coming up lacking. What do you think that experience taught you?

AH: One of the things about this whole aspect of going into a place where you don't feel like you belong is that a lot of times you don't realize it until later on. Even the fact that we were the mistake class, at the time was kind of a joke, like, "Oh, you made it through."

Your experience as, say, a black female and your experience as a white male together build a better technology than just one working on the technology for both.

We didn't realize that that actually shapes you in a way that will continue to shape you throughout your life, and you don't think about those ramifications of “You're here and you're not supposed to be here.” You thus probably aren't supposed to finish and you're reviewed based on that lens. It impacts you.

What I think about and how it shaped myself and a lot of my classmates that made it through and got through is that you're going to be in many, many, many, many places where people make you feel like you don't belong, but girlfriend, you belong. That is your right. It is your responsibility to take your rights back.

AW: Finding your community, then knowing that just because one group doesn't accept you doesn't mean that you can't find a place to belong: How important that was in A, getting through that time, but then also what you took with you moving forward? Is that something that you try to communicate to young people where you are right now in your current world?

AH: I do. I one hundred percent believe that community is what gives you sanity. Even now I try to build new communities when I'm like, "Okay, there is a deficit here and I have a role in trying to help build something." Because I think what happens is that when you have those feelings and you are trying to figure out how to get over [them], and if you don't have someone to just listen to you or to give you advice, you're going to think that it's just you.

When it's just you, one, it's very lonely, and it's very easy to then give up. Whereas when you have a community, it means you can go and you can give. I loved my community because I was the engineer. They'd be like, "Girl, you are so smart." I was like, "Oh yeah, that's right. I am smart." I needed that. That was my ego booster. You choose communities that give you that boost when you really need it. There's an old saying about [how] you need a village. That's really what community is. You do. You need a village to assist you. It's not that you can't do it alone, but it helps. It helps a lot.

AW: You need the hype machine, but also the ones who will check you.

AH: Exactly.

AW: It was funny when you were talking about coming into this space and noting, what would we have done if certain people had not pushed through? If we didn't have Katherine Johnson, if we didn't have Alice Augusta Ball, who I had not known of? And thank you for telling me about the African American chemist who developed the most effective treatment for leprosy during the early 20th century. We should know about more of these people, plain and simple.

AH: We don't.

AW: Not just Black people. What would we have done as humanity without their work? What do you think is possible for us to get that next generation of young women, particularly young Black women, minorities, to see this as an option for their lives and be able to impact it and not feel othered in this space?

AH: The difficulty is that you'll have the naysayers and sometimes it's hard to get through the next level. I will use gender. Half the world consists of women. If you look at Black females and not just in the US, but if you look at the entire world, there's a large percentage of Black and Brown girls and Black and Brown women. If everyone's not contributing to the world or finding solutions, it means you're not going to come up with the solution that works. We have examples of this. We have a responsibility in order to make sure that not only do we have a better life, but our sisters and our brothers and our communities and at some point our children also have the life that they deserve, that is their right.

AW: When you're talking about sex in particular, so much of what is built is biased. You talk a lot about bias in so many forms that exist for everyone, but it really gets baked into our technology because it's predominantly white male engineered and based on that perspective, even down to the voices or the tone and coloring of visual. The idea that female AI or robots in a female form are often depicted in a sexualized manner is both laughable and yet not surprising and painful. I can't imagine what that means for you to see that developing over and over again in TV shows and movies and pop culture.

AH: You see it and sometimes you're like, "Wait, hold it, it's not 1999. It's 2020." And sometimes it baffles you that things come out and it's the same mistakes, but sometimes I sit back and I think, “I can’t expect—” and this is one of the reasons why we need more women and underrepresented minorities into this field—"anyone who doesn't have the same learned experience to design technology based on that experience.”

It’s not going to be the Terminator that kills everyone. It’s going to be the Terminator that convinces you that you need to kill someone. That's what I fear and I think we have the power to change that.

I can't expect it. I can't expect someone who's not a Black female to understand what it's like to be a Black female. And so, for me to expect that, I think it means that I'm not addressing the true problem, which is why don't we have more individuals like myself in the room? And therefore, your experience as, say, a black female and your experience as a white male together build a better technology than just one working on the technology for both.

AW: Have you found that even just being in the room is enough to have your voice be heard? Does it take more to make your voice be heard?

AH: It takes a little bit more. Being in the room, it starts a conversation at least. But I find sometimes the problem is that you're still the one that's speaking up and then it becomes a, “Oh, it's a you issue,” because you're the only one. So what has to happen is that there has to be more than one, and when there's more than one 30% is a good number. Then others start to see that experience.

And they start to... It's like being in a classroom. Once you keep hearing it over and over and over again, it starts framing your own reference and state of mind. And then the one doesn't have to be there because someone else is like, "Oh, this is what Ayanna would say." And they just kind of start channeling. I've seen this happen, but it has to be more than just the one.

AW: I love the questions that you leave people with here. The idea, as we bring these systems into our lives, that it is up to us to ask, “Are they really making our lives better?” I don't think I've ever really... I mean, certain things I maybe asked, but I am definitely your target audience who is seeing the creepy robot that opens the door and thinks, "Oh my God, we're all dead now. It's a wrap."

But you've been very clear that we're overestimating the genius level or the ability of AI, artificial intelligence, to take over our world. I'm definitely a Terminator generation person.

AH: One of my favorite movies is The Matrix and one of the reasons is because there's AI that's there, but at the end of the day, people believe they have autonomy, right?

AW: Yeah.

AH: But their autonomy is driven by the AI. That's my worst fear. And that's what I actually see. It’s not going to be the Terminator that kills everyone. It’s going to be the Terminator that convinces you that you need to kill someone. That's what I fear and I think we have the power to change that. I truly believe we have the power.

AW: I’m a geek in another way in that I'm an Asimov fan. And so yes, the idea of the three laws is hard-baked into sci-fi. You bring up a different way of looking at it where you're asking us to ask different questions and to hit it a different way. You said that you want AI to approach humans more in a parent-child relationship. What does that mean to you?

AH: I'll explain that. Think about just a parent and child—and a good parent—but a parent-child relationship. The parent has full control. They have full power. They can make a child's life miserable or not. But yet what they do with it is they work with the child to teach them how to be better people, morals, what's wrong, or what's right. They allow the child to have autonomy to make decisions. And they also listen to the child for their needs. So when the child cries, what happens? The parent doesn't let them starve. The parent comes, says, "Okay, what's wrong?" 

But most of all is that a parent wants to always protect their child. This is even when children become adults. A parent always wants to protect their child. And so, the things that they do, the things that they think about, the choices they make has that underlying theme of, “Is this best for my child's future?”

Think about designing AI where the system is out there and it's interacting with us as people. Fundamentally, the AI says, "If I tell this person this or if I do this, or if I encourage them in this way, is this for the best and will it lead to a more positive future?” So I think it's a good example.

AW: My question and fear is who gets to decide what's that best future? What is informing the AI's decision on what is the best future to steer or not steer someone toward?

AH: Yeah, and this is why we need a lot more voices in the room, because I think where that steering comes from has to address the different types of cultures. It has to address the different types of upbringings. The steering in the US, it probably does not apply to the steering in, say, Africa or in Japan. And it shouldn't. But yet, if all the steering comes from the US, that's what's going to happen. And so, that's why you have to have different voices in the room.

AW: I found so much completely new to me and fascinating in your book. And I love hearing your lived experience as well. The world is going to come to know all of this through the voice of Amandla Stenberg, which is kind of amazing.

AH: Yes.

AW: What did you think when you first heard that? What are you thinking?

AH: I will tell you I was totally geeked at the beginning. One is Hunger Games. I remember watching and I was like, "Oh my gosh, who is this beautiful young lady that's in it?" I was star struck from there. And then when she did the piece which was actually pretty powerful, The Hate U [Give], that was an extremely powerful piece, especially since I have sons.

And so when this came, I was like, "You know what? That is the perfect blend," because it's the blend of the fact that I love sci-fi, I'm a geek at heart, Hunger Games, and then the blend of her understanding, with her role, the social impact of what it's like in this world. Those were the two extremes of me and I was like, "That is a perfect blend."

AW: I love it. It seemed to make quite the sense for me when I first found out as well… Again, I'm particularly struck by the questions that you leave with your listeners. For the folks who are going to be listening to this, what is the biggest takeaway you want folks to have from this?

AH: Honestly, I want people to question. That is the power that we have and it's questioning everything. It's questioning, “Why is this working the way that it's working?” It's questioning, “What can I do to make the world a better place?” It's questioning, “Can I actually have an influence on the AI that's being created?”

When we start to question is when we then come up with solutions. The other thing about questioning is that it also allows us to have a conversation with others. If you're questioning and I'm questioning, it means that we understand each other, at least where we're coming from. And then we can have a conversation to come to an agreement of some sort.

AW: Well, you've definitely left me with a couple of questions and I can't wait to have other people listen so we can have the same conversation and ask the same questions of each other. So, Dr. Howard, thank you so much for meeting with us today and talking to us about Sex, Race & Robots.

AH: Thank you.

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