That Thing About Robots Taking Your Job? Jobs Change. Learn New Skills

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz


Most of the jobs we have now didn’t exist 50 years ago.

Every job at some point is going to require some skills in programming, says roboticist and tech entrepreneur Dr. Ayanna MacCalla Howard.

Howard became chairwoman of the School of Interactive Computing in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing in December 2017.

She is the founder and chief technology officer of Zyrobotics, a Georgia Tech spinoff company that creates mobile therapy and educational technology for children based on the concept of freedom through technology. Zyrobotics is licensing technology from Howard’s research.

One of its first products allows children with motor disabilities to access a computer or any device.

Howard is the first Black chairwoman in the School of Interactive Computing.

Dr. Ayanna MacCalla Howard talked to Moguldom about how Hollywood portrays robotics, whether robots will take our jobs, and why children need to learn how to develop technology, not just use it.

Moguldom: You are a sci-fi fan. “The Bionic Woman” TV show got you interested in robotics. Does Hollywood give an accurate portrayal of your profession, and of human interaction with robots?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: Most of the things you see concerning robots and artificial intelligence are more of the evil part of it, which feels like it could be accurate. However, they’re not showing all of it. In fact, it does not even come close to what’s real. I think it makes some people fearful of new technology that’s coming out.

Ayanna Howard with a Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence-Open Platform (DARwIn-OP)


Moguldom: How does the tech industry bring some comfort to people who think robots are taking over the world and will replace them? There are real and current concerns about robotics, especially in communities that are less educated or don’t know how to code. 

Dr. Ayanna Howard: Here’s the thing about humans being replaced by robots. The fact is jobs change. There’s this concept we don’t change our jobs, but we do. If you think about what we used to call a secretary, it’s hard to find people with the title today. I don’t know if you can even buy a typewriter anymore. Things change. It is about redefining the job experience. It’s not about “Oh, now I need to learn how to code.” It is about, “Oh, now I need to learn a different set of job skills.” For example, if I worked in welding on a manufacturing floor and used my hands to do the work, I now need to know how do I work alongside a robot to do some other aspects of the job. Yes, I think these people do have to learn new skills, but it is because jobs are being redefined. Further, it’s not just one type of job. It is pretty much every job. In fact, there are some experts presenting stats that say 80 percent of the jobs we have now didn’t exist 50 years ago, and 20 years from now, more of the jobs that we have today are not going to exist. We must be willing to change.

Moguldom: Do we now focus on the younger generation or do we take that time to spend with the older generation to get them job-ready?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: I think it’s both the up-and-coming generation and the older population. Twenty or even 30 years from now, (a 40-year-old will) still be working. The job he had at 40 doesn’t exist at 60. Learning new skills will be needed. Twenty years is not that long for the entire ecosystem to evolve.

Moguldom: You focus on 3-to-7-year-olds with your educational tech company, Zyrobotics. What is needed to get the younger generation job and tech ready?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: It is about how do you make kids who are already comfortable with technology to be not just users, but also developers so that it becomes a part of their DNA.

Moguldom: What is Zyrobotics doing for kids?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: Zyrobotics is a Georgia Tech spinoff, and one of the first products we licensed was a device that allows children with motor disabilities to access a computer or any device. For example, if I had a child who had difficulty using their fingers, they can use a joystick to complete commands so they can then play a game on a tablet or computer. Think about your phone. You have to touch the screen and swipe it to make commands. You must have excellent control of your motor functions. So that was the first device we licensed. From there we focused on creating technologies for kids of all abilities. We focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to help level the playing field. So, it’s not about “my child is a genius in math.” I think every child can be a genius in math. They just need the tools and the materials very early on to be comfortable with the concept.

Moguldom: What are some of your goals as the chairwoman for Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: I have three primary goals. First is redefining the human experience of computing to get my faculty and students to all think about the intersection of computing and people. I see my role as promoting this message to influence others in our industry. I want every computer scientist to be thinking about the person behind the software that is using whatever it is that they’re designing, and it’ll make them think a little bit more about the things that they do.

Second, I want computer scientists and engineers to be more ethical. Third, an overall objective of the entire college is to figure out how to democratize computer science. I think that computer science is going to be more than just math.  Even a lawyer will find themselves as a computer scientist in some part of their role. They will need to go through case files and to do so they will need to put a little bit of script together to save time. I think every job function at some point is going to need some skills in programming.

Moguldom: As the first Black women at Georgia Tech to lead the School of Interactive Computing, what is one of the lessons you’ve learned so far?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: I think one of the lessons is every person, no matter their background, wants to be valued. It is about interacting with people and ensuring that everyone knows they are valued for whatever difference they have or for whatever opinions they have, and for their thoughts and efforts.

Moguldom: The industry is struggling to find and engage more women, especially women of color, in robotics and engineering. How would a teen or college student find a road into research and development?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: Undergrad students can do research. In fact, most faculty have undergrads working on research for them during the school year. If they find their university doesn’t have research opportunities, they can come to us and seek out education research experience. As a college student, it is straightforward to find opportunities to do research. Now, if they’re in high school or middle school, getting involved in things that allow them to think beyond the school day? Clubs at school, online academic activities, or programs like Summer of Code, which is an initiative that if you want to do coding for social causes, you can volunteer your efforts there. Just being aware of what’s around can help.

Moguldom: How do you think we, as the African American community, can prepare our kids to go down a path of research, academia or tech development?

Dr. Ayanna Howard: Getting kids involved in computer science and engineering. I worry that if we raise kids that only use technology versus developing the technology they are using, the whole world is going to pass by them.