Black in Robotics, the new organization founded to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the robotics industry, has launched a regional chapter in Boston. Boston, the world’s leading robotics cluster, is the organization’s first regional chapter and home to many top robotics institutions.
Black in Robotics co-founder Ayanna Howard, who also is the chair of the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, told The Robot Report Boston is the organization’s pilot chapter. “[This chapter will allow us] to figure it all out,” she said. “We’ll then expand [to] where there is both a large population of industry as well as feeder colleges and universities.”
Based on the location of other robotics clusters throughout the U.S., Colorado, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley, among others, would be targets for future Black in Robotics chapters. Amazon Robotics is the primary sponsor of the Boston chapter. It will provide financial support for events and other activities in the Boston area, as well as meeting and event space in its offices in Cambridge.
“We feel it makes sense to start in Boston because of the large robotics community that exists there, and because there are a large number of students there attending regional universities,” Howard said in a statement. “It’s an ideal location to start because we can reach out to the students and reach engineers there, and establish a presence, and a blueprint for how we can build communities elsewhere.”
She added, “If you’re an underrepresented minority student at one of the area colleges and universities, you might be only one of two or three people who look like you in your classes, and if you’re a professional working in industry, you might also be only one of two or three roboticists who look like you in your organization. So this chapter is about building community, and helping students and professionals develop a network, and avoid the isolation they might otherwise feel.”
Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer, said it’s important to define the future of robotics with a mindset of diversity and inclusion. “Why do I say that? Three reasons,” Brady said. “First, we become more creative with diverse viewpoints and perspectives, which ultimately leads to better robotics. Second, diversity is the answer to adversity. By that I mean, teams become stronger when they’re diverse; they bring more opportunities, more experience, and more viewpoints to the challenge of tackling hard problems.
“And third, we can source talent from a much larger pool of talent. We’re constantly seeking the best and the brightest to help us reimagine the future, and that means including others than yourself. We really need to grow the talent pipeline in computer engineering generally, and robotics more specifically, and this is a great opportunity to do that.”
Education and community outreach will be another focus of Black in Robotics’ mission. Monroe Kennedy III, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and founding member of Black in Robotics, said the Boston chapter represents the deep commitment industry and academia have to increasing the number of underrepresented minorities within STEM professions.
“We are really driven by the fact that we need to be the change we want to see,” Kennedy III said. “African Americans especially, but minorities in general, are underrepresented in STEM, and in robotics. As members of the robotics community, we recognize how valuable being a member of the community is to every aspect of our lives. So our objective is to make that opportunity available to more underrepresented minorities.
Black in Robotics’ first event in Boston is scheduled for January 2021.
Howard and Kennedy III recently were guests on The Robot Report Podcast. They shared their personal journeys, challenges they overcame throughout their careers, and what can be done to level the playing field for minorities in robotics and engineering fields. You can listen to the podcast below.