Ayanna Howard: Human-Robot Interaction & Ethics of Safety-Critical Systems | Lex Fridman Podcast #66 | Summary and Q&A

January 17, 2020
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Ayanna Howard: Human-Robot Interaction & Ethics of Safety-Critical Systems | Lex Fridman Podcast #66


Robotics professor and AI expert Ayane Howard discusses the importance of trust and bias in human-robot interaction and the challenges of creating robots that can adapt to humans' needs and preferences.

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Key Insights

  • 🤖 Key Insight 1: Ayane Howard believes that people often project their expectations onto robots, which can lead to anthropomorphization and emotional attachments to them.
  • 🔬 Key Insight 2: While perfection in robotics is often associated with accuracy and following rules, Ayane Howard argues that robots need to be adaptable and able to interact with humans, rather than striving for 100% accuracy.
  • 🤔 Key Insight 3: Ayane Howard emphasizes the importance of considering ethics in robotics, as developers have the power to influence and impact human lives with their creations.
  • 🚗 Key Insight 4: Ayane Howard discusses the challenges and limitations of self-driving car technology, highlighting the need for controlled environments and the coexistence of human drivers for successful implementation.
  • 🚘 Key Insight 5: While autonomous vehicles have made significant progress, Ayane Howard believes that fully autonomous driving in complex, unpredictable environments with human drivers is still a difficult problem to solve.
  • 💡 Key Insight 6: Ayane Howard argues that a responsible approach to robotics and AI involves considering ethics, accountability, and human values throughout the development process.
  • 🌐 Key Insight 7: Ayane Howard believes that public trust in AI can be built through transparent and collaborative approaches, where companies openly acknowledge and address biases and actively involve the community in finding solutions.
  • 💪 Key Insight 8: Ayane Howard encourages the use of robotics and AI as tools to aid decision-making rather than replacing humans completely, highlighting the value of human judgment and accountability in crucial situations.


the following is a conversation with Ayane Howard she's a roboticist professor Georgia Tech and director of the human automation systems lab with research interests in human robot interaction assisted robots in the home therapy gaming apps and remote robotic exploration of extreme environments like me in her work she cares a lot about both robots a... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How does Ayane Howard define trust in human-robot interaction?

Ayane Howard defines trust as the behavior exhibited by an individual that demonstrates their reliance and acceptance of a robot's decisions and actions.

Q: What is the role of bias in robotics, according to Ayane Howard?

Ayane Howard explains that bias can unintentionally be encoded in algorithms used in robotics, leading to disparities and unfair outcomes, particularly in healthcare settings.

Q: How does Ayane Howard suggest addressing biases in robotics algorithms?

Ayane Howard suggests systematic approaches to identify and correct biases in robotics algorithms, including open collaborations where individuals can identify biases and receive compensation, similar to bug finders in software development.

Q: How does Ayane Howard describe the future of human-robot interaction?

Ayane Howard envisions a future where humans and robots work in partnership, with robots providing advice and assistance to human decision-making processes, particularly in areas like healthcare and education.


In this conversation, Ayane Howard, a roboticist professor, discusses various topics related to robotics and artificial intelligence. She talks about the concept of perfection in robotics and how it differs from what humans actually want. She also discusses the challenges of achieving full autonomy in self-driving cars and the importance of considering ethics in the development of AI algorithms. Additionally, she explores the topic of biases in robotics and algorithms and proposes possible solutions for addressing them.

Questions & Answers

Q: Who is the most amazing robot you've ever met or had the biggest impact on your career?

While Ayane has not personally met her, she grew up with Rosie from the Jetsons. Rosie was the perfect robot who was socially engaging, adaptive, and caring. She believes that people project their own desires onto robots, making Rosie an iconic figure.

Q: Why don't people want their robots to be perfect?

Ayane explains that people want robots to enhance their quality of life, and that is usually linked to functional capabilities rather than perfection. For example, in self-driving cars, people are fascinated because they dislike driving and see robots as a way to improve their commute. Perfection in the sense of accuracy is not necessary for robots to function effectively with humans.

Q: How would you define perfection in robotics?

Perfection in robotics is often associated with accuracy. It refers to the ability of a robot to complete a task with 100% accuracy and zero errors. However, Ayane highlights that perfection in human-robot interaction is more about adaptability and how well the robot can meet the needs of individuals.

Q: Can you give examples of how perfection in robotics differs from what humans actually want?

Ayane mentions that Rosie from the Jetsons, although not perfect in terms of accuracy, was perfect in how she interacted with people and adapted to their needs. Humans want robots that can adapt to their preferences and behaviors, rather than robots that blindly follow rules and regulations.

Q: How difficult is it to achieve full autonomy in self-driving cars?

Ayane explains that achieving full autonomy in self-driving cars is a challenging problem. While many companies are investing heavily in this area, the progress has been slower than initially expected. The presence of human drivers on the road poses a significant challenge, as it is difficult to predict human behavior and account for unpredictable scenarios.

Q: Can fixed environments with limited human interaction be a viable solution for autonomous vehicles?

Ayane believes that deploying self-driving cars in closed, controlled environments with limited human drivers, such as closed campuses or dedicated lanes, can be a practical solution in the near future. This would allow for smoother integration and data collection while minimizing potential risks and accidents.

Q: What are some successful examples of autonomous vehicles in the automotive industry?

Ayane mentions that Tesla's autopilot feature, which allows for autonomous driving on highways, has been a successful implementation of autonomous vehicles in the hands of real people. While there are still limitations and issues to address, it shows the potential for increasing autonomy in vehicles.

Q: What is the experience like when using autonomous driving features in your Tesla?

Ayane describes her experience using the autonomous driving features in her Tesla as fascinating but also hyper-vigilant. She is cautious and ready to take over control if needed. As a roboticist and expert in human-robot interaction, she is both fascinated and wary of relying completely on the technology.

Q: How do you explain the trust issues surrounding autonomous vehicles on the highway?

Ayane explains that the concept of trust is complex when it comes to autonomous vehicles. As a developer and user, she doesn't fully trust the technology but still uses it. She believes that trust should be built gradually over time with improvements in safety and usability.

Q: Do you think it is feasible for self-driving cars to achieve full autonomy in the near future?

Ayane acknowledges that achieving full autonomy in self-driving cars is a moving target. While there were initial claims of achieving it within five years, the timeline has been extended due to the challenges involved. She believes that success will likely be seen in closed environments and at lower speeds before reaching full autonomy on public roads.

Q: How can biases affect various robotics systems, especially in the medical domain?

Ayane explains that biases, both conscious and unconscious, can affect the design and performance of robotics systems, particularly in the medical domain. Historical biases and disparities in healthcare can be perpetuated if not actively addressed. For example, biases in medical trials and data collection can influence the design of algorithms and decision-making processes in healthcare.

Q: What are some possible solutions to address biases in algorithms?

Ayane suggests two paths to address biases in algorithms. Firstly, there needs to be a systematic approach to identifying and correcting biases rather than relying on ad hoc research. Secondly, companies can incentivize finding biases by offering rewards to those who identify ethical issues in their algorithms. Additionally, she highlights the importance of open and continuous discourse to address biases and improve fairness.

Q: Do you have hope for companies like Twitter and Facebook to address biases in their algorithms?

Ayane believes that there is hope for companies like Twitter and Facebook to address biases in their algorithms. While these companies often face criticism for bias-related issues, she acknowledges that they are actively working to improve their algorithms and respond to feedback. She emphasizes the power of data-driven approaches and open discourse to drive positive changes.

Q: Do you have a hope for AI to take on roles in politics and decision-making processes?

Ayane believes that AI can play a role in assisting political leaders by providing advice and insights. Instead of AI holding positions of power, she envisions AI being part of an advisory team, similar to how experts provide insights on various topics. However, she also emphasizes the importance of human decision-making and the need for people to be ultimately responsible for the outcomes and decisions.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Ayane Howard discusses the concept of perfection in robotics and how striving for perfection can hinder a robot's ability to function effectively in human environments.

  • She emphasizes the importance of trust in human-robot interaction and explains how over-trust or lack of trust can lead to suboptimal outcomes.

  • Ayane Howard highlights the role of bias in robotics, particularly in healthcare, and the need to address biases in algorithms to ensure fairness and equity.

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