9 Women Changing the Future of Robotics

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL. Image Credit: Jibo/Indiegogo
CYNTHIA BREAZEAL. Image Credit: Jibo/Indiegogo / CYNTHIA BREAZEAL. Image Credit: Jibo/Indiegogo

If the list below is any indication, the future of robotics looks bright. These women have moved the field forward in some major ways, including developing robots that can traverse treacherous terrain, hold conversations, and act like part of the family. Look to these nine brilliant ladies for an idea of what to expect from the robots of tomorrow.


Cynthia Breazeal believes that the robot of the future will have excellent social skills. In 2014 she launched a crowdfunding campaign for Jibo, a home robot designed to interact naturally with humans. The project was fully funded and in April Jibo received a Popular Science 2016 Invention Award. When Breazeal isn’t designing robots that give Pixar characters a run for their money, she’s teaching media arts and sciences at MIT. In 2010 she gave a TED talk about her robot-related ambitions, citing Star Wars as a major inspiration.


Before a robot can accomplish such important tasks as analyzing Martian dirt and taking pizza orders, it needs to be able to move properly. That’s where Dr. Lydia E. Kavraki comes in—the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science and Bioengineering at Rice University is known for her work planning paths for robots. She’s the developer of the Probabilistic Roadmap Method (PRM), a system that uses randomizing and sampling-based motion planners to keep robots from crashing. Praised for its simplicity, the PRM was a game changer in the field of robotics. Her book Principles of Robot Motion explains the subject in depth. She’s also the recipient of numerous accolades, including an ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, an NSF CAREER Award, and a Sloan Fellowship.


It’s hard to talk about the future of robotics without mentioning artificial intelligence. One of the women currently shaping the field is Fei-Fei Li, an associate professor at Stanford’s computer science department and director of the university’s Artificial Intelligence and Vision laboratories. According to Li, the key to designing a useful, effective AI system is to enable it with smart vision. That means building a robot capable of recognizing and reacting to images instead of just recording them like a camera. Vision is one of our most complicated cognitive processes, and Li has already made strides towards applying it to machines. In 2014, she and her students created a computer vision model capable of describing the images it was shown with human-like sentences. Li believes this technology could one day be applied to everything from healthcare to self-driving cars.


Fifty years ago, The Jetsons promised viewers a future where tedious household chores would be taken care of by robot maids. That reality has yet to fully arrive, but Andrea Thomaz is working on it. The Georgia Institute of Technology professor is developing robots that complete tasks in response to verbal instructions rather than programming. This would allow users of all technical skill levels to program personal robots to do almost anything. Her work with charming social robots “Simon” and “Curi” has been featured in Popular Science, The New York Times, and NOVA Science Now.


What does a conversation between two robots sound like? If your answer involves a lot of “beep-boop-bops,” you’re on the right track. A few years ago, cognitive scientist Ruth Schulz led her colleagues at the University of Queensland to develop a pair of “lingodroids.” Rather than communicating with people, the robots are designed to “talk” with one another. The discussions never get too complex—the bots invent words on the fly to share spatial concepts like where they currently are and where they want to go. “The important part is that they are forming these concepts, they are starting to really understand what words mean and this is actually all up to the robots themselves,” Schulz told ABC Science in 2011. She’s currently doing research into human cues for robot navigation at the University of Queensland.


Ayanna Howard boasts quite the resume: She’s served as a scientific consultant on Robocop (2014), was named one of MIT Technology Review's top young innovators of 2003, and she’s co-authored enough papers to earn an Erdős number (that number being four). Some of her most prolific work was done at NASA, where she worked with Penn State scientists to engineer a fleet of toy-sized snowmobiles. The “SnoMotes” were built to cover Arctic and Antarctic terrain too dangerous for scientists studying climate change to venture onto on foot. She told NASA in 2008, “Essentially, the robots could act as ‘mobile weather stations,' able to travel to capture real-time data at the spot where change is occurring." Today Howard is an award-winning professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


Ayorkor Korsah wants to share her passion for robotics with an entire continent. In 2012 she co-founded the African Robotics Network, an international community of institutions, individuals, and organizations that share robotics resources and support each other’s work. The group regularly hosts projects, meetings, and events in Africa and abroad. Another way Korsah is making an impact on Africa’s next generation of roboticists is through her work as a teacher. She’s a professor at Ashesi University in Ghana and head of the computer science and robotics department there.


Many robots come with arms, legs, and a face, but something they usually lack is skin. Smart skin for robots is Professor Stéphanie Lacour’s area of expertise. She’s dedicated much of her career to developing an electronic skin that can not only sense subtle pressures but can stretch without losing its effectiveness. One of the most exciting applications of such technology is prosthetics: The hope is that amputees will one day be able to use artificial skin to regain the sensation of touch in lost limbs. Lacour is currently continuing her research into soft bioelectronics at the School of Engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.


Marita Cheng kicked off her robotics career as an undergrad at Melbourne University in Australia, where she was one of five women in a class of more than 50 men. There, she co-founded Robogals. The aim of the organization is to get young girls involved in engineering and robotics by hosting student-run workshops around the world. After helping launch the successful nonprofit, Cheng didn’t slow down. Five years later she founded 2MAR robotics, a company focused on helping people with disabilities. One of their early inventions was a voice-activated bionic arm called “Jeva” designed to aid quadriplegics. Their latest tool, Teleport, is a rolling video screen meant to help people with mobility limitations communicate.