Dr. Williams' Blog

Technology Equity and Access on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

On the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday I made a surprising discovery when talking to potential customers during our NSF I-Corps L project about the lack of equity and access of even the most basic learning technology for children from underrepresented or low-income backgrounds.  How is it that all children today in the U.S. do not have some sort of computing device such as a Google Chromebook and basic Internet access at home so that they can use online learning and research tools at home?  As the recent movie, “Selma”, reminds us, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., our parents and grand parents marched for basic voting, busing, and housing rights even though they were sometimes confronted with hostile opposition.  Shouldn’t we be marching so that every child in our country can have access to the countless volumes of educational knowledge that is accessible to those who have a basic computer and Internet access?

As I listened to an assistant principal explain to me that teaching children that come from low income families may mean that they may not have a computer or internet access at home.  Often reading and math scores suffer as a result.  If a child has internet access and a PC at home, they can go online to sites such as Khan Academy and watch instructional videos on almost any subject while using Google or Duck Duck Go to find information on research articles.  Yes, there are libraries that they can go to but if they don’t have consistent, safe transportation to the library, how are they going to get the books they need or use the public PC’s and internet access.  I am not saying that having a PC and Internet is necessary to have an effective education but it can be an amazing vehicle to broaden a child’s horizon to what’s beyond their world in their local neighborhood.  It would also provide them the opportunity to use their computers to learn how to code and maybe someday create the next version of the Internet.

What would Dr. King think and do if he knew children were going without the basic PC and internet technology in their schools and homes that could accelerate their learning and make them more productive citizens and contributors to today’s economy?  I think he would get us to march and contribute our resources to make it happen.  He may ask us: What can YOU do to help provide all children and schools with computers and basic internet access regardless of a child’s background or socio-economic status?

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Dr. Williams is the author of, “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”.

Reboot your Life: Begin 2015 with a new life operating system

It’s been a while since I owned a Window’s computer.  I remember when I was in graduate school I had the difficult choice of buying a Mac or a PC.  At the time, PCs were much cheaper and Mac’s seemed to run slower when running Microsoft Office.  I went with a PC.  When we got our next PC, I started noticing that it was slowing down.  I thought I was pretty good at catching viruses but then I discovered that it was spyware that was slowing my PC down.  It was very annoying.  I made me think of a similar analogy related to life.

I was asked to teach a Sunday school class titled, Reboot Your Life.  As I thought about it, I realized that rebooting a robot had lots of similarities to “rebooting” one’s life.  Each day, we have to hit the “power” button as we wake up each morning and our thoughts are “loaded” into our brains, similar to computer programming instructions, and off our bodies go, following the instructions that are in our memory and “central processing unit”. We then act based on the sensor readings we face throughout the day via speech, vision, sound, smell, and touch.  If I have a robot that has no power or the wrong instructions, then it will not perform at all or it may perform well or badly depending on how it’s programmed.  You can tell what kind of program a robot has inside of it by observing it’s outside behavior.  Similarly you can tell what kind of program instructions a person has, or the ideas and beliefs they have, by observing their behavior.

I have since made the switch from the PC operating system to the Unix-based Mac operating system because I’ve found the extra cost is worth the less hassle I spend dealing with viruses and spyware.  In Sunday School, I pointed out that the Apostle Paul in his letter to Ephesus talks about how people can have two “operating systems” in them, one called the “old nature” and one called the “new nature”.  The old nature is referred to has our natural human nature and the new nature is referred to as the spiritual nature that is “downloaded” to us from God’s Spirit.  Just like my Mac can use virtualization software to have more than one operating system running on my computer, my life can have two “operating systems”.  I have to choose which operating system I boot up in each day and what kind of program instructions I load into my memory and then execute.  I spend time reading the Scriptures to learn life principles and operation instructions for my life, load them into my memory, and execute them.  I don’t always succeed at this but I’ve found this is the best way to rid my life of viruses and bugs that can slow down or wreak havoc on my life performance.

“But they delight in the law of the Lord,
    meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
    bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
    and they prosper in all they do.”  Psalm 1:2 | NLT

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Dr. Williams is the author of, “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”.


By |January 19th, 2015|Spirituality, Technology|0 Comments

Know Pain, Know Gain: The Joy of Customer Discovery in a Lean Startup

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Innovation Corps for STEM Learning (I-Corps L) workshop in San Francisco to learn about the pains and gains associated with Customer Discovery in a Lean Startup. We followed Steve Blank’s advice to “Get out of the Building” to talk to potential future customer’s of our product, a low-cost humanoid robot for STEM and CS learning. We were able to talk to customer’s that included venture capitalists, entrepreneurs that are already attracting more than 10 million customers to their site, professors and graduate students at Stanford, STEM specialists at Berkeley, teachers at continuation, or alternative, and charter schools in Berkeley, Palo Alto, and Oakland.

With each interview of a “customer” we find out the pains that the customer’s are experiencing in trying to teach science, technology, engineering, and math in a variety of teaching environments including online learning.  We were able to mine the wealth of knowledge these educators and entrepreneurs have amassed as they follow their passion to teach STEM.  Once again, we were able to see that anyone can “belong” in technology as we interviewed people from different genders and backgrounds.  We are looking for common pains that these people are experiences and what kinds of gains they might be able to experience using our product.

This approach of understanding the potential customer’s pains is counter to the traditional engineer’s perspective of building a product with as many bells and whistles as possible and expecting someone to buy it.  Also, this approach allows us to iteratively test and discover various hypothesis that make up our Business Model Canvas.  Thank you NSF for providing this hands on education to university professors so that we can in turn use it to provide educational innovations that can have a lasting impact on our society and economy.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Dr. Williams is the author of, “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”.

How to Ignite the Passion for STEM & CS in Kids

I recently received a letter from a parent who saw my TEDx talk Belonging in Technology, What I Learned from Steve Jobs on the National Society of Black Engineers website. She was encouraged by it and wanted suggestions on how to cultivate her children’s interest and knowledge in STEM and robotics. This is what I wrote to her:

“Dear [Parent],
Thank you for your email. That’s exciting to hear about the interests and achievements of your children at an early age. Keep believing in them and letting them know they belong in technology. Keep looking for opportunities for your children to be exposed to and learn about STEM, robotics and Computer Science. There may be day camps or longer summer programs that would teach your children about robotics and STEM, particularly at nearby college or university. I recently met the co-founder of Tynker which is a website that lets kids learn how to program through games. Have your children try it out.

FIRST Lego League robotics is another opportunity. However be aware that sometimes there are not as many of our children that participate in FIRST but don’t let that deter you or your children. You may consider starting your own FIRST Lego League robotics team with children and parents from your child’s school. But be careful to balance your child’s passion and energy with the opportunities available. Reading lots of books, drawing, doing math-based puzzles, building things with Legos and clay, paper, or other readily available materials can be just effective as anything else. If your child has access to a computer, see if he (and you) can learn to write programs in a language like Python.

There are other free software tools like Alice from Carnegie Mellon and Scratch from MIT. Keep learning fun and creative. There are now things like Arduinos and Raspberry PI’s that children can learn about computer programming and building robots and they aren’t very expensive . I just met with a Computer Science professor at a top university who bought his child a Lego robot kit to spark his child’s interest.

I am working on a new low cost humanoid robot so hopefully one day it will be available for your kids to play with and learn from.

Also, consider opportunities for your children to learn about and participate in Design, particularly product or industrial design. This really cultivates the creative side of making things.

Above all keep praying for your children. If they have strong character and faith, anything is possible.


– Andrew”

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Dr. Williams is the author of, “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”.

By |January 19th, 2015|Education, STEM, Technology|0 Comments

My Startup Searching for a Repeatable, Scalable Business Model

Have you ever felt an epiphany coming on?  You just knew that you were on to a very big “aha” moment, one that could change the world, or at least a significant part of the world you care about.  Well, I feel a big one coming thanks to Steve Blank’s Startup Owner’s Manual and Lean Launchpad course taught by the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps for STEM Learningprogram.  In order for you to understand, let me share some basic concepts I’m learning.

A startup is a temporary organization in search of a repeatable, scalable business model.  This is very different from an established company with an established product or service and customer base.  We, as the HEIR (Humanoid Engineering with Inexpensive Robots) Corps startup, are just three people, Joshua Panka, our entrepreneur lead, or E-Lead, Jeff Snell, our I-Corps Mentor, and myself, the Principal Investigator.  Together, we are searching for a repeatable, scalable business model by first attempting to understand potential customer needs.

A startup, in general, and more specifically a technology startup as HEIR Corps is, uses a business model canvas, as opposed to a traditional business model to test our hypotheses for several areas in order to find our repeatable business model.  And we test these hypotheses, or guesses, in several areas by talking to customers. Customer is a bit of misnomer because we don’t even have a finished product yet. Why build a product if you don’t really know what a potential customer needs first? The “Build it and they will come model” from the Kevin Costner Field of Dreams movie doesn’t work for startups.

The areas we develop hypotheses and experiments for are listed in our business model canvas (read Steve Blank’s Harvard Business Review article, “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything”.) The areas we create hypotheses for include: value propositions (what meets the customer’s need that they are willing to pay for), customer segments, channels, key resources, key partners, etc. Don’t worry, if you don’t understand what they mean, you can read the glossary in Steve Blank’s, The Startup Manual, and you’ll see that these concepts really are concepts you already understand but didn’t know what name to place to them.

When we began this I-Corps L program, I didn’t know we were actually launching a technology startup until we began the course. As a professor, I understand scientific, engineering, and educational research. But in order to become a participant in educational innovation, I have to learn what it means to startup a company, i.e. searching for a repeatable business model, before I can make a lasting impact on our national economy that also makes a positive impact on our low-income communities. And the small part of my epiphany so far is, if you invite people who live with needs that you care about to talk to you have a wealth of knowledge they can share as potential customer for your startup if you will only actively and intently listen to them.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Dr. Williams is the author of, “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”.

By |January 19th, 2015|Uncategorized|0 Comments

A Recipe for Unleashing Creative Design Thinking in Your Teams

Want to hear a recipe for unleashing creative design thinking in your teams to make solutions and products that will work effectively, delight customers while meeting their needs and solving problems? Listen to what GE, MU and MIAD did together recently.

Professor John Caruso from MIAD and I had the privilege of helping GE’s Megan Wimmer, organize participants, plan, and participate in the GE Menlo Innovation Lab’s Design Thinking Bootcamp at GE Healthcare in December 2014. The real work of organizing, planning, and facilitating was done by GE while we just helped find willing participators and a date that worked for everyone. We (Marquette and MIAD faculty and administrators) were hosted by fantastic engineering designers led by Bob Schwartz, GE’s GEM for Global Design and User Experience and his team of world class designers and training facilitators led by renowned GE designer, TEDx speaker and parttime Stanford dSchool instructor, Doug Dietz.  Their team included Megan Wimmer, Emil Georgiev, and Mark Ciesko along with other GE volunteer training facilitators.  Since this summer, I’ve had the honor of working with talented Professor John Caruso, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) faculty, Neil Hoffman, President of MIAD, and our Dean Kris Ropella, Marquette University College of Engineering, on developing our joint program in Design and Engineering between MU and MIAD.  Bob Schwartz and his team set up a one day Design Thinking bootcamp to introduce faculty and students from both institutions on the philosophy, tools and techniques for Design Thinking that we could use to implement our new projects.  It was not a day of boring lectures but a very hands-on interactive flurry of fun and insightful activity.  Here’s the recipe in a nutshell (note, this is not THE recipe but just an example one that was tailor made for us for one day):


  • Large, open “bowl”, or space, free from electronic device distractions
  • A Mix of Engineers, Finance people, Service professionals, students, administrators, and Designers Diverse in their Disciplines and Point of Views
  • Lots of colorful Post-It Notes, big and small
  • Open minds
  • Magazines, scissors, tape, Darth Vader hats, costumes, and miscellaneous toys
  • Facilitators and facilitators in training
  • Set of freshly picked customers from diverse perspectives, roles, and backgrounds
  • Fresh set of imagination and out of the box thinking

Steps by Step Instructions

  • Introduce the Design Thinking Process
  • Spend time to EMPATHIZE with and interviewing real customers from diverse backgrounds
  • DEFINE the problem from the customers’ Point of View by hearing, seeing, and inferring from their words, body language and thoughts to better understand their needs (use generous amounts of Post-It Notes for this)
  • IDEATE by building on others ideas using “Yes, And…” rather than “No, But..”.  Answer the question of “HOW MIGHT WE” meet the customer’s need and solve their problem.  Use large pad to draw, paste, connect ideas.
  • PROTOTYPE solutions and get feedback (lots of it). Use paper, pens, toys, clay, poster board, costumes, actors, etc. to make low-fidelity models of a product or solution. Repeat (iterate) as many times as possible, learning early from failures often rather than later.
  • TEST the solutions on real customers and facilitate continued discussion.
  • Repeat often as needed until well done.

Cooking Utensils (Tools) Needed (from Bob Schwartz and Doug Dietz)

  • “Yes, And”
  • Accept and Add
  • Go for quantity and defer judgement
  • “How might we” (HMW)
  • If you don’t capture it, it didn’t (doesn’t) happen
  • Everyday creativity (DeWitt Jones, DJ)
  • Perspective changes problem to opportunity (DJ)
  • Don’t be scared to make mistakes (DJ)
  • Break the pattern (DJ)
  • We can do more with less
  • Perspective changes the ordinary to the extra ordinary (DJ)
  • Train our technique (DJ)
  • Put self in place of most potential (DJ)
  • Be ready for decisive moments
  • Show people you care and value them
  • Uptick laddering
  • Move from win-lose to win-learn situation
  • Bring a brick, not a cathedral
  • More than one right answer (DJ)

GE Healthcare has had a wonderful collaboration with Marquette University and MIAD in the past.  This workshop hopes to expand our collaboration as we move towards working together to create a program that will capture the imagination of Marquette and MIAD students that want to learn how to have both design and engineering skills to make products that can change the world.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Beginning the Journey to a Tech Startup

In January 2015, I will lead the Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab I founded in 2012 at Marquette University to begin our search for a tech startup through the National Science Foundations Innovation Corps for STEM Learning (I-Corps L) program.  In this blog, I will focus more on providing the information we learn and sharing the discovery of the tech startup process rather than the specific details of our discovery.  If our nation wants to create more jobs to meet our economy’s vital need for technology workers and to provide high tech job training for all our citizens including women and minorities, we need to share this vital entrepreneurial information and mindset with those who have yet to discover apply this knowledge to starting up a new technology company.

As a robotics, computer science and engineering professor, I’m excited that I will be learning experientially about what is involved in creating a startup using the technology discovered in my robotics research.  What I find very intriguing about the lean startup method that we are going to use, is that it’s based on creating and evaluating hypotheses, a process that is central to my technology research based on the scientific method.  However, I never made the connection between hypothesis driven customer needs research for startups and hypothesis driven technology research for university research.  Stay tuned as I share more on this journey in search of a technology startup that can help kids learn and provide high tech jobs for the poor.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

A Respectful Affirmation of #Christmas to My Non-Christian Friends

Christmas robots

Our Two HEIR Lab Humanoid Robots, Sonny and Rosie, dressed in their Christmas gear

I affirm my mutual respect for friends and others who may have other beliefs and religions than I do or may not believe in God at all.  This essay is for them.  My goal is not to offend or prove that my point of view is more enlightened or better than others.  My goal is to first say what Christmas is not and then what I believe Christmas is.  I hope you will keep an open mind as you read this.

First there is some confusion about Christmas, the “tradition”, and Christmas, the story of the historical Jesus’ birthday.  Christmas, the tradition, is explained on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas .  We Christians, those who profess to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of mankind, often get caught up in some of the secular traditions of Christmas including rampant materialism.  We subconsciously think in order to have a “good” Christmas, we need to get the presents we want for ourselves, our loved ones and our kids.  This often drives us to unnecessarily charging our credit cards to buy things that we can’t afford that often are forgotten in the new year.  Debt and financial pressures can lead to depression or other problems during a season we profess is supposed to be a joyous occasion.  The Christmas season could also be a depressing time because we feel like we are supposed to be happy but that’s not always the case.  Personally, the Christmas season would bring a slight depression for me because December 25 is my Dad’s birthday and he’s no longer with me.  My last memory of my Mom while she was alive was shortly after Christmas and the season would bring painful memories of missing such a loving woman.  Christmas, for a true Christian, is not about buying and receiving gifts.  It shoud be a time of celebration but that doesn’t mean it’s a pain-free time.

Second, we Christians can seem very disrespectful of others who who don’t believe as we do.  I know and have friends who have Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist backgrounds or who may consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or humanists.  I value them and their friendship, intelligence, and the beauty of their personhood just as much as anyone else. They may or may not have grown up in a family that did not celebrate Christmas, go to church, or even know about the historical Jesus.  They may have grown up in a society where believing in Jesus could result in being physically persecuted or ostracized.  I apologize for us Christians that can come across as being arrogant and self-righteous against others that don’t believe in the same things we believe in.  I can relate to those who don’t believe because my Mom grew up in a Buddhist culture and my Dad was a stay-at-home Baptist.  But I loved them and they loved me dearly. I even went through a period in my life when I wasn’t sure if God even existed.

Third, we Christians can sometimes be the meanest, rudest, and most hateful people on earth.  Some Christians in the past tried to justify slavery in America using our most holy text, what we call the Bible.  Even today, what Martin Luther King, Jr. said about the Sunday morning hour in America is still true.  The fact remains true that on the very Sunday morning when “blacks” and “whites” go to church to celebrate Christmas, it will still be the most segregated hour in America.  I rememer as a fifth grader, I did a book report on the Klu Klux Klan, a group that terrorized African Americans in America.  Some of them called themselves Christians.  It pains to me to think that some children were abused by Christian priests who taught the Christmas story and traditions.  If you were or are a victim of abuse by these evil men, please do not think that God was responsible for these evil acts of men.  Do not blame it on yourself either. Please know that the one true God offers healing for you and will offer true judgment for the violators’ evil acts.

Finally, what I believe Christmas is and what I hope it will be for you.  One of my earliest memories of the Christmas season was a nearby church, called the Free Methodist Church of Junction City, Kansas, bringing my family some bags of groceries, a turkey, and some Christmas gifts. Times were financially tight for my Dad, who as WWII and Korean war veteran, either worked as a garbage collector or in a small manufacturing company in Kansas and had to feed and clothe six children.  The members of this all-white church brought these Christmas gifts of food and clothes to our mixed-race family.  I still remember the gift I received was a blue shirt with red trim and a red lamp emblem on it.  I must have been around kindergarten age.  In that church, I first learned the story of Christmas.  The story was simply that God, the One who created everything including people, loved me more than anything else He created, and gave the best Christmas gift He could, His only Son, Jesus, so that I could live forever with Him in heaven, even after I die on earth.  The story is rooted in history and can be traced througout that book that was written by many writers and one Author, what we Christians call the Bible.  Parts of the Bible we share with other religions such as Judaism and Islam.  What my hope is this Christmas season is that in the midst of the gift-giving, depression, times with famiy, times being lonely without family, feasting, parties, or celebration, that there will be a part of you in your heart that will seek the truth about the real meaning of Christmas and your spirit will meet the Person that Christmas is all about.  With this in mind, here’s what true Christians believe why Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, is celebrated: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (New Living Translation)

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor and an ordained Christian minister.  His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv544iQi1GE addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

My TEDx Talk: Seeing the Face of Technology Change in STEM

jonecia and julian

With Apple Engineers, Jonecia Keels and Julian Ross, who I recruited to Apple when and after I worked there

A few days ago, my TEDx talk, “Belonging in Technology: What I learned from Steve Jobs” was put online (click here). I begin by discussing how creativity begins to erode after our childhood and how it’s important not to box in creativity by placing limits on who belongs in technology. I also share my journey from being a baby that slept in a cardboard box to leading the SpelBots and being hired by Steve Jobs. I also chronicle the journey of Jonecia Keels, who in spite of winning a national smartphone app development contest that was previously won by students from Harvard and Stanford, and finishing up on an Ivy League engineering degree, could not get into an internship at Apple (or Google). But a surprising person intervenes for her. You have to watch the video to find out what happens.

I also talk about my interaction with Steve Jobs in a serendipitous meeting at Cafe Macs. He asked me if I had any ideas on how Apple could hire more engineers. He ended up hiring me to help Apple do that. I end my talk showing how Jonecia was an example of a face behind the technology that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a Silicon valley computer or software engineer. My talk discusses the surprising statistics on the number of computer related job openings there are and how they have an uncanny match with the number of unemployed number of African American women. These women and men represent an unseen, untapped gold mine of human potential vital for our U.S. economy and global competitiveness. But if we keep telling people that look like me or Michael Brown that we don’t belong in our society, our society will continue to suffer from the severe shortage of technology creators and workers we are facing for years to come.

“Innovate with People, Not Just With Technology” by Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D.


Today, September 27, 2014, in my TEDx talk I get to tell a story of how God took an African American boy from a cardboard box from the Eastside of Junction City to helping black young ladies and girls see their God-given potential in spite of others telling them they didn’t belong in technology, and meeting Steve Jobs, who with one of his last acts of kindness and caring told an overlooked young African American lady that she belonged.

Today I get to challenge the people of America, in general, and the technology industry, specifically, to stop putting people that look different from them into boxes of low expectations, fear, and ignorance and to instead see the incredible potential and promise of the unseen, untapped human potential in all people regardless of race, economic background, or family situation. This is vital to our nation’s success, economy, and global competitiveness.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is the author of “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”.

By |September 27th, 2014|Uncategorized|0 Comments