A quest to make technology emotionally intelligent – Interview with Rana el Kaliouby of Affectiva


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Today’s interview is with Rana el Kaliouby, CEO of Affectiva, an emotion measurement technology company that grew out of MIT’s Media Lab. Affectiva has developed software to recognize human emotions based on facial cues or physiological responses. She is also author of a new book: Girl Decoded: My Quest to Make Technology Emotionally Intelligent – and Change the Way We Interact Forever. Rana joins me today to talk about the book, her career and research into putting empathy into AI, Emotive AI and her work at Affectiva.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – Purpose is not a luxury and matters more than ever in a crisis – Interview with Professor Alex Edmans of London Business School – and is number 351 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, providing valuable insights, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to both their customers and their employees.

Here’s the highlights of my chat with Rana:

  • Affectiva is on a mission to humanize technology.
  • The book is a memoir and describes Rana’s personal journey about how we can build emotional intelligence into our devices.
  • We need to enable human beings to be able to retain our humanity when we are in the cyber world.
  • This is a quest to humanize technology before it dehumanizes us.
  • Machines are completely oblivious to our emotional and mental states.
  • A lot of our communication is mediated through technology and because this technology is emotion blind, our communications can tend to be emotion blind.
  • Everything changed for her when she read Affective Computing by Rosalind Picard.
  • She was at Cambridge University studying for her PhD and her research proposal was to build a machine that can read and respond to people’s facial expressions. One time she was giving talk to the computer science department and was talking about how hard it is to build an algorithm that can detect our range of different expressions when someone suggested that she should look at autism.
  • Cambridge has one of the top autism research centers in the world. Simon Baron Cohen, the research director (a relative of Sasha Baron Cohen), had built a database for autistic kids that had archived all of the emotions that we can express and he was kind enough to share the data with Rana so she could train her algorithms with it.
  • Failing to read emotional cues ended her marriage but recognising that also inspired her research.
  • Much of technology, particularly when it employees AI, is missing emotional intelligence.
  • Rana set up Affectiva as a spin out of MIT with Rosalind Picard who is a professor there. They use emotive AI in their facial recognition technology.
  • In simple terms, the technology is essentially an algorithm that uses any camera on a device (always with your consent) and it can detect your expressions in real time and then it’s able to take action based on that.
  • One of the first products that they brought to market is a solution that helps content creators and marketers and advertisers understand the emotional engagement that consumers have with their content. That product is deployed in 90 countries around the world and is used by 25% of the Fortune global 500 companies.
  • They have now tested over 50,000 ads worldwide which is allowing them to create all sorts of insights.
  • They realise that they are using very personal data and never operate without permission.
  • They also realised that there are so many applications of this technology. As such they are guided by some core guiding principles at Affectiva which include respecting data privacy, never doing anything without people’s explicit consent and also making sure people get value from sharing their data.
  • So, that has meant that there are some markets and industries that they stay away from. For example, surveillance and security.
  • Any kind of company that is using AI technology needs to develop a set of principles or code of ethics to guide their use. Otherwise, you can easily slip into dangerous territory.
  • There needs to be thoughtful regulation around these technologies.
  • A lot of technology is built with the best intentions in mind but we need to be proactive and think about how it could be mis-used and put safeguards in place to prevent against these situations.
  • There’s huge applications in the CX space for this technology, and it’s very scalable, and it’s also unobtrusive.
  • The best way to use this technology is that it can allow us to empathize with the customer and empathize with the user in a way that may not be possible i.e think digital interactions.
  • However, it’s application may not stop there. It could be used by a business leader who has to work and interact with a geographically dispersed team virtually and how they could use this type of information to build more empathy with their team.
  • Many leaders would love to know if their teams are really stressed right now or not. Now, they can ask them but a lot of people may not share how they really are feeling.
  • Of course, none of this data would be collected without first getting peoples consent.
  • We talked about the idea of building an empathetic sort of musculature for an organization. That means that we have to think about that holistically otherwise the need to build empathy will get reduced down to a training course.
  • Doctors who are more empathetic or perceived to be more empathetic are less likely to get sued.
  • Rana’s Punk CX word: Video verbatims.
  • Rana’s Punk CX brand: Taylor Swift

About Rana

affectiva leadership rana 790x832 1Rana’s life work is about humanizing technology before it dehumanizes us. She is an Egyptian-American scientist, entrepreneur, author and AI thought leader on a mission to bring emotional intelligence to our digital world. She is the co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, an MIT Media Lab spinoff credited with creating the category of artificial emotional intelligence, or Emotion AI. Her memoir, Girl Decoded: A Scientist’s Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology (published by Penguin Random House), follows her personal journey, growing up in the Middle East and moving to the United States to become an entrepreneur, juxtaposed against her work building Emotion AI.

Rana has raised $50M+ in capital from top-tier investors and non-dilutive funding to bring Affectiva’s Emotion AI, built on deep learning, computer vision, speech science and massive amounts of real-world data, to 90+ countries and to several industries including the automotive industry and media analytics. She has a track record of translating technology innovations into products that address the needs of massive international markets and spearhead the application of Emotion AI to mental health, autism, conversational interfaces, robotics and education.

She is extremely passionate about the ethical development and deployment of AI, including advocating for standards to ensure data privacy and mitigate data and algorithmic bias. To help establish best practices and guidelines for AI ethics, Rana is part of industry organizations like the Partnership on AI and the World Economic Forum’s Council of Young Global Leaders.

As one of few women leading an AI company, she cares deeply about her role as an advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech and leadership. To help catalyze change and improve equity industry-wide, she is a member of the Boston Steering Committee for All Raise and a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO). Rana is also a limited partner of the MIT Media Lab E14 Fund, a Board Member of SIMPEDs at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a Board of Trustees member at the American University in Cairo, the leading liberal arts university in the Middle East.

Rana believes in the power of human connection.

Check out Affectiva, Rana’s own site, her new book: Girl Decoded, say Hi to her and the folks at Affectiva on Twitter @kaliouby and @Affectiva and feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


  1. Read ‘the secret life of the brain: how emotions are made‘. Or the Google and Microsoft EMOTIVE AI team talks on YouTube given by Lisa Feldman Barret.

    The deterministic foundation used to train these algorithms is being replaced with more up to date neuroscience showing variation is the norm in expression and has to be factored in to reflect how people actually emotively express themsleves

  2. Hi Martin, thanks for your comment. I, too, am a fan of Lisa Feldman Barret’s work but will certainly take a look at those team talks. Do take a closer look at Rana’s book and work as I think you will enjoy it.
    Cheers, Adrian


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