Interviews, North America

Rana el Kaliouby – Co-founder and CEO of Affectiva

My mission is to humanize technology, and build a world where technology understands people the way we understand one another.

Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D., is a pioneer in artificial emotional intelligence (Emotion AI), as well as the co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, the acclaimed AI startup spun off from the MIT Media Lab.

She grew up in Cairo, Egypt. After earning an undergraduate and masters degree in computer science at the American University in Cairo, she attended Cambridge University where she earned her Ph.D. Afterwards, she joined the MIT Media Lab as a research scientist, where she spearheaded the application of emotion recognition technology in a variety of fields, including mental health and autism. Her company Affectiva now works with more than a quarter of the companies in the Fortune Global 500.

An acclaimed TED talk and Aspen Ideas speaker, Rana has been profiled in The New Yorker, interviewed by Tim Ferriss, named by Forbes to their list of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech, and selected by Fortune for their list of 40 under 40. In 2018 she was the cohost of a PBS Nova series, and in 2019 she appeared in a YouTube Originals Series, “The Age of AI,” hosted by Robert Downey Jr. April, 21 her book “GIRL DECODED: A Scientist’s Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology” came out.

Rana lives just outside of Boston with her two kids.

In a Nutshell: Tell us a bit about your job and what role technology plays in it?

My mission is to humanize technology, and build a world where technology understands people the way we understand one another. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Affectiva, an AI company that has created and defined the field of artificial emotional intelligence, or Emotion AI. Built on deep learning, computer vision, speech science and massive amounts of real-world data, Affectiva’s technology can detect nuanced human emotions and complex cognitive states. There are a number of applications of Emotion AI that can make us happier, healthier and more productive, across industries like media analytics, automotive, mental health, autism, education, conversational interfaces and more.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

My career really kicked off when I went to Cambridge University to pursue my Ph.D. in computer science. It was there that I had my “a-ha” moment. I was living away from home for the first time (my family was back home in Egypt), and I realized I was spending more time with my laptop than I was with any other human being. There were days when I felt really lonely and homesick, but my laptop was completely oblivious to how I was feeling. Then it hit me: what would it take to get our technologies and our devices to understand us in the same way that we understand one another? That started me on my mission to humanize technology.

When I finished my Ph.D. in the UK, the expectation was that I’d move back to Egypt, find a teaching position, and resume life as a “normal” wife and mom. Instead, I got my dream job offer to join my mentor and role model, Professor Rosalind Picard, at the MIT Media Lab to continue my research. I moved to the US to work at the Media Lab with her, and after receiving a lot of commercial interest in our research, Dr. Picard and I co-founded Affectiva, spinning the company out of MIT to explore applications of the technology in the real-world.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

I think one of the most impactful transformations has been the rise of smart phones, and the resulting ubiquity of cameras and sensors that people use to communicate. These devices have opened the door for us to increasingly use technology to connect with one another, whether that’s for work, with family or friends. Even thinking about the situation today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, people are relying on technology more than ever before. And, even people who may have previously been uncomfortable turning on their cameras are favoring video chat to feel connected in this time of social distancing.

The ubiquity of smart phones and people’s comfort with camera-based communication has had a significant impact on my work with Emotion AI. Emotion AI can work on any smart device, so if users opt in to turning on the camera on their device, and consent to using Emotion AI, it can detect people’s emotions for a variety of use cases. That’s really been the gateway to getting Emotion AI into more people’s hands.

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that? Using your own words, why do we need women focused groups in the tech community?

We need to build up the entire ecosystem of women and diverse leaders in tech, starting with having more role models for women to look up to. As a young woman, I was never able to relate to the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world – but when I met my mentor, Dr. Rosalind Picard, I saw proof that women could be leaders and pioneers in technology. Young women need to see examples of people like them, pursuing their passions, so they can be empowered to do the same. And it’s not enough just to have more women in tech – we need more female investors, founders and C-level executives to serve as role models and advocates for other women in all stages of their careers.

And it’s not enough just to have more women in tech – we need more female investors, founders and C-level executives to serve as role models and advocates for other women in all stages of their careers.

I believe that having more women and diverse voices in tech isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also table stakes for technology to work. After all, we build what we know. So if you have a homogenous group of people – from the same background, and with the same mindset – building technology, it will inevitably fail to work for different people. Diverse voices can also propose new use cases for technology, or flag additional considerations to help eliminate biases, that others may not think of.

What skills do you need for a career in tech (aside from the actual tech skills)?

In the AI industry, it’s crucial to understand the business and ethics of AI, and have a well-rounded understanding of its impact, beyond just having technical know-how.

Sometimes people assume that having a career in tech doesn’t require “human” skills. I believe the opposite is true. Soft skills like creativity, collaboration and teamwork are extremely important. Presentation skills also matter – technologists need to be able to articulate and explain tech in a way that’s accurate, while also ensuring it’s understandable for people who may not be experts. Finally, it’s important for technologists to understand the implications and considerations for the technology they’re building. For example, in the AI industry, it’s crucial to understand the business and ethics of AI, and have a well-rounded understanding of its impact, beyond just having technical know-how.

Which was the best decision in your career?

The best decision in my career was taking the leap to co-found Affectiva. That was definitely not the track that I expected for my career. I was always fixated on being an academic, and my goal was to become faculty at a university. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur.

But I realized that, by commercializing Emotion AI, I had an amazing opportunity to evangelize human-centric technology, scale its applications worldwide, and play a significant role in how it came to market. And we’ve been able to do that – Affectiva’s technology is used by 25% of the Fortune Global 500 in 87 countries around the world.

But perhaps what I’m most proud of is the ecosystem that Affectiva has built around Emotion AI. We’ve created this new category within the AI space, and analysts, reporters, investors and even competitors have latched onto it. Today, there is a rich ecosystem of Emotion AI players, and it’s projected to become a multi-billion dollar industry. And we continue to foster that community. Each year, Affectiva holds an Emotion AI Summit to bring together AI visionaries, academics, investors and leaders in industries like automotive, healthcare, advertising and more, to discuss strategies for human-centric AI and applications of Emotion AI. Catalyzing that larger movement across industries has been an incredibly powerful experience, and one that I’m proud to play a role in.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

I still hear the debbie downer voice in my head. But I have learned to reframe the message; it is now my advocate, not my adversary, challenging me to move forward out of my comfort zone.

Embrace the voice in your head. Sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that a “nice, Egyptian girl” can do all of this – to be a single mom in the US with two kids, while being CEO of an AI startup, often jet setting around the world… I still hear the debbie downer voice in my head. But I have learned to reframe the message; it is now my advocate, not my adversary, challenging me to move forward out of my comfort zone. Writing my memoir, Girl Decoded, has once again forced me to be vulnerable but I’ve found that it’s only once you can be honest about your emotions internally, and feel comfortable sharing them with others, that we’re able to unlock truly empathetic communication. 

How different would our world be if more women worked in STEM?

If more women worked in STEM, I think technology would be able to solve more problems for more people. It goes back to the need for diversity of all kinds – gender, ethnicity, age, education and perspective – in technology. As mentioned, people build what they know, so if we want to build technology that works for all different groups of people in the way it’s intended to, it’s important to have diverse teams developing and deploying it. With that view, more women in STEM would drive more innovation, and foster a world where technology benefits more people in positive ways. 

Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D., is a pioneer in artificial emotional intelligence (Emotion AI), as well as the co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, the acclaimed AI startup spun off from the MIT Media Lab.

She grew up in Cairo, Egypt. After earning an undergraduate and masters degree in computer science at the American University in Cairo, she attended Cambridge University where she earned her Ph.D. Afterwards, she joined the MIT Media Lab as a research scientist, where she spearheaded the application of emotion recognition technology in a variety of fields, including mental health and autism. Her company Affectiva now works with more than a quarter of the companies in the Fortune Global 500.

An acclaimed TED talk and Aspen Ideas speaker, Rana has been profiled in The New Yorker, interviewed by Tim Ferriss, named by Forbes to their list of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech, and selected by Fortune for their list of 40 under 40. In 2018 she was the cohost of a PBS Nova series, and in 2019 she appeared in a YouTube Originals Series, “The Age of AI,” hosted by Robert Downey Jr. April, 21 her book “GIRL DECODED: A Scientist’s Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology” came out.

Rana lives just outside of Boston with her two kids.

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