"We need to humanise technology before it dehumanises us"

Rana el Kaliouby, CEO of Boston-based artificial intelligence company, Affectiva and author of Girl Decoded, is on a mission to bring more empathy and compassion between people, facilitated by the technology they use to interact.

"We need to humanise technology before it dehumanises us"

"You know one of the things I’m most excited about?" Dr Rana el Kaliouby was talking to Suzanne Bidlake, Campaign’s commercial editor. "We’ve all been doing these Zoom chats recently. And it’s so hard to know what your audience is thinking. If I were giving this talk in person, I’d be able to see if the audience was engaged or bored, confusing, fascinated or whatever. On a webinar, I have no idea. Wouldn’t it be great if the webinar-hosting app could read the emotions in the audience and tell the speaker if, on aggregate, people were engaged or not?" She was speaking during the fourth, (and second virtual) installment of The Book Club hosted by Zone and Campaign, in partnership with Penguin Business. 

Does she think this technology is imminent? "Not imminent," she replies, "but it’s been massively accelerated by the pandemic." As she talks, el Kaliouby throws off ideas like this in the way a fire crackles out showers of sparks. You very quickly get a sense of the energy and intelligence that got her to where she is today. 

Defying stereotypes
By her own admission, el Kaliouby is a rarity in the world of tech. A Muslim woman in charge. Growing up in a traditional Egyptian family – the daughter of two computer programmers ("My mother was probably one of the first female coders in the Arab world."), she gained both a degree and a masters from the American University in Cairo. Radically, for a girl, it was in computer science. Shortly after, the recently married el Kaliouby made the brave decision to come and live alone in the UK, where she studied for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, arriving just one week after the shocking tragedies of 9/11.

After Cambridge, and leaving a husband and young child back home in Cairo, el Kaliouby joined the famed MIT Media Lab across the pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a research scientist where she spearheaded applications in emotion recognition technology, specialising in mental health and Autism. It was here that el Kaliouby first had the idea of using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse and understand human emotions. "So much of our communications is through dehumanised technologies," she explains. "A lot of the conflict and hostility on the Internet stems from this dehumanisation. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the systems we use could tell us if what we had written made the other person happy, sad, angry or something else?"

Keen to pursue this possibility, she began developing software to do just that, along with her future business partner and fellow MIT scholar Professor Rosalind Picard. In 2009, the pair founded Affectiva — with a plan to develop technology that understands humans, the way that we understand each other. 

"We were very lucky to get some serious early investors," says el Kaliouby speaking of a pivotal deal, in which WPP signed up to a partnership with Affectiva in 2011, to analyse facial reaction to ads. "Millward Brown Kantar (WPP’s specialist media-optimisation agency) gave us an advert about female empowerment, that hadn’t performed well, even though all the other ads in the campaign had. They wanted to know why. So, we played it to our focus groups, using AI to monitor and analyse their facial expressions. What we found was that the images in the ad were too negative, right until the end when the uplifting material kicked in. But by then, it was too late; the mood was set, people were depressed, and they completely missed the brand message."

At first, el Kaliouby served as the company’s chief strategy and science officer. It was only in 2016 that she took on the challenge of becoming CEO. "I think I suffered from imposter syndrome for a long time. But by 2016, I realised I was already doing so much of the role of CEO. A mentor helped me to see that I could do the rest of it, so I decided to take the risk."

A woman with a work ethic that knows no bounds
And the risk has paid off. Alongside its continuing partnership with WPP, Affectivia’s technology is now used by more than a quarter of the companies in the Fortune Global 500, including Mars, Kellogg’s and CBS. In 2019, the company raised a further $26 million in capital, and has begun to expand beyond its initial market working for advertisers. 

Affectiva is currently working with the auto industry to develop AI systems which use in-car cameras to monitor the driver and predict his or her behaviour based on their state of mind. "The system could be used for safety," el Kaliouby explains. "For instance, if someone is becoming agitated or fatigued, it could activate autonomous driving systems to help avoid an accident. And advertisers and content-providers could use it to help tailor the services they offer to the car’s occupants."

Even this is not enough for Affectiva’s restless CEO, who is still in search of new worlds to conquer. During lockdown, while most of the world was trying to figure out Zoom and hide increasingly eccentric hairstyles, el Kaliouby released her first book. 

Girl Decoded outlines her ideas about how AI can be made emotionally intelligent and how we can then use this enhanced AI to make sure that the technologies of the future serve us, rather than manipulate or commoditise us.

"I wanted to tell the story of why we need to understand how technology impacts our communications and what we can do to use emotional intelligence to humanise our interactions with technology — and with each other, through technology," el Kaliouby explains. "And it seemed natural to do that by telling the story of how I came to develop the technology, how my life influenced that process, and where that has led me and Affectiva. One of the things I have learned in the last few years is that sometimes, to make the biggest impact, you must have the courage to be vulnerable. And that’s the approach I took with this memoir."

Order your copy of Girl Decoded here and catch up on the Book Club here.

Zone, a Cognizant Digital Business, created its Book Club series to champion innovation, diversity and creativity in the technology industry, with a specific aim to inspire, educate and inform.