Ayanna Howard may never set foot on Mars or lead a mission to Jupiter, but the work she's doing on "smart" robots will help to revolutionise planetary exploration nonetheless.
As a project scientist specialising in artificial intelligence at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Ayanna is part of a team that applies creative energy to a new generation of space missions -- planetary and moon surface explorations led by autonomous robots capable of "thinking" for themselves.
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Nearly all of today's robotic space probes are inflexible in how they respond to the challenges they encounter (one notable exception is Deep Space 1, which employs artificial intelligence technologies). They can only perform actions that are explicitly written into their software or radioed from a human controller on Earth.
When exploring unfamiliar planets millions of miles from Earth, this "obedient dog" variety of robot requires constant attention from humans. In contrast, the ultimate goal for Ayanna and her colleagues is "putting a robot on Mars and walking away, leaving it to work without direct human interaction."