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Feb 12

Why I Became a WahJay STEM Board Member – Emmanuel Johnson

As we move to a more connected and automated world, it is imperative that students develop the skills necessary to compete on a global scale. One of the places that has been missing in the conversation, due to limited access,  is african, more specifically, Liberia. WahJay STEM seeks to address this problem by developing the capacity of Liberian youth in the emerging and important field of Robotics. Before I dive into why I decided to get involved with this organization, and why such organizations are critical to the success of Liberia and the greater continent, let me introduce myself and provide some context.

My name is Emmanuel Johnson and I am currently a PhD student at the University of Southern California. I was born in Liberia and migrated to the US at the age of eight during the heat of the civil war.  My research is generally in the space of artificial intelligences(AI). Our goal is to design AI systems that can help teach people how to negotiate and improve their interpersonal skills. I hold an NSF fellowship and I am working at the Institute for Creative Technologies. Previously, I completed a masters at the University of Birmingham in Robotics through a Fulbright Fellowship and an undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technology State University.

I began my journey in AI and robotics as an intern at the University of Michigan’s April robotics lab and my interest has led to multiple opportunities domestically at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, NASA,  and most recently Intel and internationally at places such as AIST in Japan and Cardiff University. I have worked on a variety of robots, and autonomous systems(see links below) . These different opportunities have granted me irreplaceable experiences. I now have the confidence to take my research to unchartered territory in hopes to help the evolution of society. I am one person who can speak to these experiences. There is no telling what the effect of affording similar opportunities to an entire generation of youth would have.

One of the things I started to notice a few years ago as I got more involved in artificial intelligence is the lack of papers and research coming out of Africa. What it showed was that Africa, and Liberia specifically was not prepared to compete in the 21st century as citizens were not developing the skills necessary to be competitive on an international level. I don’t mean that Liberia does not have the talent or capacity to become leaders in this space but rather it seemed those who had the experience were not invested in Africa generally or Liberia specifically. The reasoning behind this is still up for debate but that is not the intent of this essay. As I followed developments in Liberia and saw some of the changes made by the previous administration, I felt that Liberia had the potential to develop into a hub for robotics and artificial intelligence and I wanted to help make that a reality.

When Giewee, the founder of Wahjay STEM, and I spoke about two years ago, she shared her vision for Wahjay STEM, and I saw no better way to do my part in helping develop Liberia’s talent than through this organization. Over the year that I’ve been involved, the success of the robotics curriculum and national competition, as well as our team at the Vex Robotics competition has support my views that these students are as just as talented as their international counterparts which provided access and the right resources. Organizations like WahJay STEM are pivotal to the success of Liberia. A recent report projected that most jobs in the coming years will be replace by automation and thus the demand for engineers will increase. Wahjay STEM and others are critical for the viability of Liberia in these changing economic times. We are equipping students with the tools needed to participate in the jobs and economies of tomorrow by investing in their training and education today. It is for this reason that I am proud to be a board member and contribute to the development of Liberia’s STEM talent.

Links to some of my work:

  1. NASA Project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu1mE2LpGaY&t=17s
  2. PhD Work: https://news.usc.edu/98036/how-lying-computers-could-help-train-next-generation-negotiators/
  3. Project conducted at AIST through PHD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqR_ln6PF1w

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