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Women Figures in Robotics

Robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning continue to be male-dominated fields. Women have always been massively underrepresented in robotics and while we’ve certainly come a long way in the last few decades, women still make up only 19% of the robotics workforce….

Marcelina Krowinska
Marcelina Krowinska

Robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning continue to be male-dominated fields. Consequently the workforces of these fields still don’t reflect the society they are bound to change. Women have always been massively underrepresented in robotics and while we’ve certainly come a long way in the last few decades, women still make up only 19% of the robotics workforce.

While these statistics are quite bleak, in this article I chose to enact an optimistic outlook and focus on women who are at the forefront of the latest robotics technology, making impactful contributions to the field, and dedicating their careers to advancing the industry with their knowledge, research, innovations, education, advocacy, and more. This list is comprised of CEOs, entrepreneurs, professors, and big dreamers with some truly impressive resumes! They are paving the way for women in robotics today, making it easier for others to envision themselves in the field one day.

Without further ado, here are the girlbosses that are blazing trails in robotics today.

Aicha Evans

We all know about self driving vehicles and you may even own one yourself. Even if you don’t you might find yourself catching a ride in one to pick you up form the airport or take you to your hotel in a big city. Aicha Evans is heading that possibility as the CEO of Zoox, an autonomous ride hailing service.

Born in Senegal, Aicha showed an aptitude for math, physics, and building things early on as her parents prioritized her education. She grew up traveling between and studying in Senegal and Paris, during which she was exposed to a technological contrast between different parts of the world and learned a lot about what technology make possible. As computers began to take off in popularity, Aicha came to the US to study at The George Washington University.

After various positions in the industry, Aicha landed a job with Intel where she worked her way up to Chief Strategy Officer and was a self-described “change agent”. But eventually she decided to take the leap from one of the most established tech companies to a startup.

In 2019, Aicha Evans became the CEO of Zoox, a startup developing a fleet of autonomous robotaxis for ride-hailing, providing Mobility-as-a-Service. As Evans describes it, Zoox is not building a car, but rather transforming ride hailing as we know it. Shortly after she became CEO, Zoox was acquired by Amazon as a subsidiary for $1.3 billion. The Zoox vehicle is an entirely new type of autonomous vehicle “built for riders, not drivers”, following the idea that a retrofitted vehicle is not optimized for autonomy. Recently the vehicle has passed critical tests satisfying safety requirements that make it almost ready to fully use on public roads.

Serving as the top woman at Zoox, Evans permeates the white male dominated tech environment, bringing a perspective that nobody has and striving for an inclusive environment. In an interview, when asked why she believes it is important to have a woman in the room and people of different races in the room, she answers with an anecdote about when Zoox was discussing pick up and drop off of passengers and she was the only woman in the room. Occasionally being a wearer of high heels, she brought up the fact that a passenger using the vehicle in San Francisco on a Friday night for example, may be wearing high heels. She said looking at it from this standpoint and considering pickup ranges was important because having a passenger climb the hills of San Francisco in high heels is probably not a favorable idea. Evans shows us that by including the minds and voices of minorities in the conversation, whether it be about robotics, healthcare, financial technology, etc., we are able to create more inclusive technology because minorities in these positions keep in mind and advocate for those that are still left out.

Evans draws inspiration from other extraordinary women like Marie Curie and many French philosophers and mathematicians. Her best advice for your 20s is “take a chill pill, it’ll be okay”, and for your 40s: “enjoy the journey, you’ve made it”.

Aicha Evans is on the road to making Zoox a global mobility giant. Personally, I’m excited at the prospect of one day hailing myself a ride in one of her vehicles after just what I saw of Zoox’s thrilling website.

Elena Garcia Armada

Elena Garcia Armada is a Spanish roboticist, researcher, and business founder, who developed the world’s first bionic exoskeleton for children.

Born in 1971 to a mother who was a doctor of physics and father a professor of electromagnetism, Garcia was always taught the ‘why’ of things. She says her parents never restricted her to gender-normed toys so she had the freedom to choose playing with both dolls and machines. This exposure to tech at a young age led her to the Polytechnic University of Madrid where she studied engineering and became attracted to robotics because she liked the aspect it involved of creating something from nothing and programming it. After earning her PhD in Robotics Engineering in 2002, she joined the Center for Automation and Robotics (CAR) where much of her professional work in robotics stemmed from.

Her most notable line of research and robotic development began in 2009 when she met a young girl named Daniela who had become quadriplegic, lacking the ability to move her arms or legs on her own, due to a traffic accident. At this point, although exoskeletons for adults had been available for quite some time, there was no solution for children yet. Garcia recognized the need for such technology was vital, as young wheelchair users are at risk of early-age muscle degradation and spine deformation. The challenge though was not as simple as resizing the adult exoskeletons to fit a smaller body. The pediatric exoskeleton had to be able to adjust its function to the symptoms of a particular child since children with neurological conditions have complex symptoms in terms of joint motion. Garcia shifted her entire focus to developing the necessary solution and led the group that created the world’s first exoskeleton that allowed children with tetraplegia or muscular atrophy to walk.

The first prototype of the ATLAS skeleton was an aluminum and titanium frame with various motors, cables, and sensors that would perceive a child’s intended movements and assist them to make these movements. After successful tests with Daniela in 2013, Garcia was all in on making devices aimed at improving the mobility of children suffering from degenerative neuromuscular diseases. The diseases are degenerative so everyday for the children counts, but these robotic exoskeletons take a lot of time and money to develop, says Garcia. So to continue making progress toward better solutions and to share with society the results of research on robotic aids of locomotion, she founded Marsi Bionics.

With Marsi Bionics came the development of more ATLAS models. The ATLAS 2020, which is the most awarded project in the field of children’s exoskeletons, is equipped with intelligent joints that allow for a more agile movement, since they interpret the child’s movements detecting which are desired and which are unwanted. Tests in 2016-2017 showed how a series of motors in the joints successfully imitates the function of the muscles and provides the child with the strength they lack to stay standing, walk, and even perform activities like jumping, dancing, shooting darts, and playing ball games.

After ATLAS 2020 Garcia’s next mission was to develop an exoskeleton that children could use at home to carry out daily activities which manifested itself in ATLAS 2030. At the end of the first month of tests, an improvement in the mobility of the arms, neck and legs of the three children was found. Additionally, muscular strength had increased by 100% and joint contractures had been reduced in all cases; in some they had even disappeared completely. ATLAS 2030 received clearance to be used in EU rehab centers and hospitals in 2021.

What Garcia emphasizes about her work is that this technology allows children with these degenerative diseases to undergo much more intensive therapies than in conventional therapy and achieve impressive and more impactful results. And in a life that is full of doctors appointments, intensive treatments, and rehabilitation work, having some freedom of movement reinstilled gives the kids a chance to just be kids. Garcia’s great love for children paired with her intelligence, tenacity, and leadership are a source of optimism and it is truly moving to watch it embodied in the kids smiles when they take their first step with the help of one of her exoskeletons.

Joy Buolamwini

In our digital era, society sits at the intersection of two crucial questions: What does it mean when artificial intelligence increasingly governs our liberties? And what are the consequences for the people AI is biased against?

Backed by two Master’s degrees from the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as well as a Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Georgia Tech, Joy Buolamwini is a poet of code on a mission to fight the “coded gaze”— her term for algorithmic bias. In her TEDTalk she explains that the coded gaze can spread at a rapid pace on a massive scale if it is not curtailed. This term is a product of her time as a student at the MIT Media Lab where she created a mirror that would project aspirational images onto her face. Definitely a cool project but with one problem: the software didn’t recognize her face until she wore a white mask. This issue sent her into further discovery of algorithmic bias, and it was everywhere. The systems she used in her research worked well in detecting her lighter skinned friends faces, but when it came to her face it didn’t do so well. She tested different facial recognition algorithms on her face, two of which didn’t recognize her face at all, and the other two misgendered her. The culmination of these facial recognition failures resulted in her MIT Thesis: Gender Shades. Her methodology uncovered large racial and gender bias in AI services from companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Face++.

In today’s world, AI systems are used to decide who gets hired, the quality of medical treatment we receive, and whether we become a suspect in a police investigation. While these tools can be helpful, they can also amplify racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination if they are trained improperly and unregulated. Buolamwini founded the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL) to create a world with more equitable and accountable technology. AJL’s mission is to raise awareness about the impacts of AI, equip advocates with empirical research, build the voice and choice of the most impacted communities, and galvanize researchers, policy makers, and industry practitioners to mitigate AI harms and biases. Through ALJ, anyone who cares about fairness can help fight the coded gaze by reporting bias in technology for example.

Buolamwini takes advantage of her voice and her beautiful way with words to bolster her fight. Spoken poetry is part of her “quest to tell stories that make daughters of diasporas dream and sons of privilege pause”. ‘AI, Ain’t I A Woman?’ is her most popular piece which highlights the ways in which artificial intelligence can misinterpret the images of iconic black women like Oprah, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Shirley Chisholm. Buolamwini is also a renowned international speaker and has championed the need for algorithmic justice at the World Economic Forum and the United Nations. She serves on the Global Tech Panel convened by the vice president of European Commission to advise world leaders, policymakers, and technology executives on ways to reduce the harms of AI.

Buolamwini is leading an important movement for the future of AI and robotics. If the coded gaze prevails in these fields, we will potentially be losing so much of the civil progress the world has made. Clearly, as she is found on notable lists including Bloomberg 50Tech Review 35 under 35,  BBC 100 WomenForbes Top 50 Women in Tech (youngest), and Forbes 30 under 30, she has already made quite an impact on a scary situation. If you’re still not convinced that what Buolamwini is fighting is a danger to society, I encourage you to watch the Netflix documentary Coded Bias which features Buolamwini and her work and is a real wake-up call and a call to action.

Avye Couloute

Now just 14 years of age, Avye Couloute has already spent half her life coding, starting at the young age of 7!

Avye grew up conjuring up contraptions out of unwanted objects like recycling. She got her family involved in her projects like a time machine (not a real one) that went from having fake dials, levers, and old electronic devices glued all over, to having working bulbs, buzzers, and switches that brought her dreams closer to reality. Ignited by these small sparks, Couloute went on to discover components like motors, sensors, and the micro:bit that would help her bring her creations to life and nurture her blooming passion for STEM.

Throughout her young childhood Avye attended (and continues to attend) any STEM workshops, classes, events, and competitions she could and used them to fuel her growing passion for STEM. She loved these events so much and was so inspired that she began leading her own workshops for Coder Dojo at Kingston University under the guidance of two mentors. After noticing that most of the attendees at these workshops were boys, she dedicated herself to creating opportunities for young girls to engage in STEM activities through hands-on physical computing, coding, and robotics workshops. From this rose her social enterprise, Girls Into Coding (GIC).

Through Girls Into Coding Avye is able to share her skills and experience with other girls and motivate a new generation of young leaders in tech. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Avye continued her mission by designing and manufacturing a range of robotics kits suitable for remote workshops which were sent out to girls homes to give them everything they needed to participate in live online workshops led by herself and her team of dedicated mentors.

On top of running this successful organization and creating a global impact in the tech fields, Avye dedicates a lot of her spare time to exploring and learning more about coding and technology. Recently she was awarded the 2022 UK Young Engineer of the Year award for her impressive air quality pavilion project aimed at providing healthy indoor air quality solutions. The project was inspired by the major health concerns related to indoor air circulation during the pandemic. The pavilion reacts to CO2 levels inside of it and activates different features like shutter walls and sliding sky lights depending on whether the levels are too high or low. After defining the goal of this air quality solution, Avye’s thought process involved thinking about how to measure the CO2 levels in the pavilion, what she wanted the space to do in reaction to certain CO2 levels, what types of motors would be needed to have the features perform the desired actions, and how to program those motors. She used CircuitPython to program all the different electrical components around the pavilion which has sensors to detect CO2 levels and send signals to the main microcontroller that activates the motors of different features. Avye hopes to both scale up the pavilion for use in real life and scale it down even more to use as an educational tool at her GIC workshops.

Part of the GenArm2Z program, which enables young people to talk to tech leaders about how technology is being used and shaped for the future, Couloute is decidedly a leading force for the young generation of women in robotics, and technology in general. Keep an eye on her!

Afghan Girls Robotics Team

They say there is strength in numbers, and that is definitely the case for this group of young women from Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the world’s most inhospitable places for female education. Most girls never learn to read or write, and very few have succeeded in STEM fields. But the Afghan Girls Robotics Team is leading a fight to change this and serving as an example of hope, happiness, and a sense of pride for the Afghan community.

The team became well known in 2017 after being denied visas to attend an international robotics competition in Washington DC. Since being founded by Roya Mahboob, the first female CEO of a tech company in Afghanistan, in 2017, the team has been widely praised as a shining example of the potential of women’s education in Afghanistan. The team participates in competitions around the world, with the aim of helping young Afghan women become interested in and developing their skills in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Before the Taliban’s arrival to power, the young women used their interest in robotics to build ventilators from used car parts as the coronavirus pandemic spread through their country. The Afghan Dreamers’ journey in developing the ventilator seemed insurmountable, but their hopes and courage remained alive. The girls went through numerous ups and downs including the unavailability of critical tools and required parts in the country, and most importantly, some team members contracting COVID-19. Yet they never gave up, fueled by their unquenchable drive and motivation to save lives.

Disaster struck in 2021 when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and most of the team was forced to flee to Qatar. The team was unfortunately split up, some landing in Mexico, some in Qatar, some left in Afghanistan. The Qatar Foundation, in collaboration with the Qatar Fund for Development, offered the young women scholarships to continue their education at the foundation’s secondary schools and pre-university programs. This allows the girls to continue their education in a safer country that offers their desired programs of study. But the robotics team members are eager to return to their home country. They plan to finish their education and go back to Afghanistan to help develop different technologies for the people of Afghanistan. The girls’ dedication, courage, and success is changing Afghan views on women in science and technology.

Roya Mahboob said that the girls’ real legacy will go far beyond robotics, and considering their ambition and passion, this isn’t too hard to imagine.

Carlotta Berry

Carlotta Berry sits on a mountain of degrees that led her to her position as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology where she started the first multidisciplinary minor in robotics.

Berry is a valuable asset to women in robotics, using her passion for diversifying the engineering profession by recruiting more underrepresented populations and women to the field. Similar to Aicha Evans, she feels that the profession should reflect the world that we live in order to solve the unique problems that we face. She was inspired to become an engineering educator after observing the scarcity of African American students and faculty in the engineering program at Georgia Tech.

Her research interests are in robotics education, interface design, human-robot interaction, and increasing underrepresented populations in STEM fields. Her doctoral thesis at Vanderbilt University was on human-robot interface development for a mobile robot, specifically the enhancement of the interface through graphical visualization of the robot’s short-term memory.

At Rose-Hulman she helped found the Rose Building Undergraduate Diversity (ROSE-BUD) program and scholarship designed to broaden diversity in the fields of computer science, computer, electrical and software engineering, especially through enhanced participation by women and minority students. She has also started two nonprofit organizations, Black In Engineering and Black In Robotics. They have a mission to bring awareness to systemic racism and inequity in STEM, build community, advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion and connect with allies and sponsors.

Clearly Berry is very accomplished and possesses the experience and skill necessary to educate and empower others in robotics. Berry provides tools and inspiration to bring more minorities into robotics through her blog full of advice for young engineers and stories of her experiences that led her to where she is today.

Although this is just a small snapshot of the pool of amazing women in robotics today, there are thousands more out there doing fascinating work for the advancement of both robotics and women. I hope this article has compelled you to discover and support more of these women and to let them inspire you.

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