By Jel Santos
Dr. Ayanna Howard, an American roboticist, on Friday revealed that there is a big market for assistive technology, saying that there are more than 150 million children with disabilities worldwide.
“The World Report says currently there are 150 million children diagnosed with a disability. We know for a fact that’s higher because some countries don’t necessary record it correctly, and some parents don’t basically say that they have a child with disability,” she said during a forum at MAAX Bldg., Mall of Asia Complex in Pasay City.
“Yes, there is a big market for assistive technology,” Howard said when asked for affirmation by one of the guests on wheelchair.
The forum was dubbed “Robots for Helping the Human World.” The forum was made possible by the US Embassy and SM Cares.
Howard, the guest speaker, is the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith professor and chair of the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and holds a faculty appointment at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
She obtained her BS in Engineering from Brown University, and her MS and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California.
Her career focuses on intelligent technologies that must adapt to and function within a human-centered world. Howard’s work covers advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), assistive technologies, and robotics, has resulted in over 250 peer-reviewed publications in a number of projects – from healthcare robots in the home to AI-powered STEM apps for children with diverse learning needs.
According to Howard, she changed the perspective of engineers by relating their bodies to future disabilities.
“As an engineer, the way you look at disability is a change in normal function, which basically applies to everyone. It means that if you grow old enough, you will have a change in normal function. You can’t walk or run as fast as when you were four.”
Howard said she tells students/engineers they are doing technology basically for themselves 40 years from now.
“If you live long enough—for 70 hopefully, you will have eight years of classical disability, which of course, freaks them out, because visual impairment just happens, other disabilities because that comes along with old age. You just have to deal with it,” she said.
The current works of the American roboticist focuses on robotic technology that helps improve the functions of people with disabilities, especially children.
One day, Howard narrated, she met a girl who was visually impaired at a robotic camp of NASA. “I realized how I can make science and technology available to every child, “she said.
After feeling she was not directly impacting the people, she decided to leave NASA.
“I want do more; I want to be the person who creates the engineering tools directly to someone. I thought about what I enjoy and what is the thing I want to do,” Howard added.
Howard said they “gamified” therapies for children so that they will enjoy it as their functions improve.
“We ‘gamified’ therapies, change the aspect of therapy. We made them fun and engaging…In the end, they improve their function,” she said.
Howard said the therapy applications they developed are free and are downloadable at Google Play Store and Apple App Store. She said that 400,000 users have downloaded the app.
“The therapy apps are free. All you need is a smartphone, but the robots are expensive. The robots adapt whatever your child is doing due to their artificial intelligence,” she said.