Girl Decoded and Emotion AI — Rana el Kaliouby, Co-Founder & CEO of Affectiva

An interview with Rana el Kaliouby, Co-Founder and CEO of Affectiva, an MIT Media Lab spin-off and the pioneer in Emotion AI. Rana has been recognised on Fortune’s 40 Under 40, as well as RE•WORK’s Top 30 Women in AI list in 2019. Rana holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and a Post Doctorate at MIT. We’ve been very lucky to have Rana as an advocate of our work, and Women in AI over the past few years.

Topics explored include:

  • Latest Work at Affectiva and Its Central Mission
  • The Story Behind Girl Decoded and the Challenges Faced When Writing the Book
  • Tips for Women Looking to Progress in Their Career and Taking on More Senior Positions
  • The Future Goals of Affectiva and How COVID-19 Has Impacted Them
  • Courses and Ways for Women to Get More Involved in the AI Sector

🎧 Listen to the podcast here.

Nikita RE•WORK [1:02]

So thank you so much for taking the time to do the podcast today, it’s great to have you.

Rana [1:09]

I love you guys, so it’s always great to do stuff together.

Nikita RE•WORK [1:13]

Oh, brilliant. That’s great. And I know that you must be super busy at the minute with the launch, so it is much appreciated. So yeah, we can just get started, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time if that’s good for you.

Rana [1:27]

Yeah, let’s do it. I just want to make sure that my setup works fine. Are we good?

Nikita RE•WORK [1:35]

Yes, I can hear you perfectly.

Rana [1:37]

Perfect. Awesome.

Nikita RE•WORK [1:39]

Great. So for those of our listeners who don’t know, it would be great if you can tell us a bit more about your journey into computer science, and also what you were doing before becoming Co-Founder and CEO of Affectiva.

Rana [1:54]

Hi everybody, I am Rana el Kaliouby, I am co-Founder and CEO of Affectiva. My background is, I’m a computer vision and machine learning scientist. I did my PhD at Cambridge University, where I focused on kind of building one of the very first emotionally intelligent machines. So I built a system that can identify people’s facial expressions and map that into a number of cognitive and emotional states. There are lots of applications of this technology, everything from understanding how people engage with content, to automotive, to mental health. And after my PhD, I basically moved to MIT Media Lab and at MIT, I explored some of these applications, which provided the impetus for starting Affectiva.

Nikita RE•WORK [2:46]

Fantastic. And so what would you say is your central mission at Affectiva? And is there anything in particular that you’re really focusing on at the moment?

Rana [2:59]

So our mission at Affectiva is to humanise technology and essentially what that means is, if you look at technology and AI, specifically, there’s a lot of focus on the cognitive intelligence of these things, the IQ, and not much focus on the EQ or the emotional intelligence. And we know from studying human intelligence that both your IQ and your EQ matter and in fact, people who have higher EQs tend to be more likable, and they’re more persuasive, and they just tend to do better in life. And so we believe, fundamentally, that human-machine interfaces need to have emotional intelligence and I actually really, especially in the world we live in and kind of how we’re all working and learning and interacting virtually because it’s all mediated via our devices. It is so critical that these devices are built in a very human-centered way so that our communication incorporates these rich non-verbal signals just the way we would do in a live event or in the real world.

Nikita RE•WORK [4:12]

I think that’s never been more important as well, especially in this current time. So looking further ahead, so your book Girl Decoded, which was released on the 21st of April 2020. So that must have been a hugely exciting project for you to work on, so can you share with our listeners a bit more about what the book is about, and also, some of your reasons for writing it?

Rana [4:37]

The book is called Girl Decoded. It is a memoir published by Penguin Random House. It’s been three years in the making so I’m excited that it’s finally coming out. It’s kind of tough launching a book during a global pandemic but we’re forging ahead with it. I wrote the book for two main reasons. One is I wanted to spark a public conversation around AI and specifically human-centric AI and the need for that, everything from demystifying how you build AI and making it accessible to a general audience, all the way to the applications and the ethical and moral implications. So that’s one big part of the book. But as I started writing it, I also realised that my path to building emotional AI is very unusual. I grew up as a woman in the Middle East, found my way into academia at Cambridge, and eventually kind of went to MIT and started Affectiva and so I’m also one of few females AI CEOs. And so I felt like my story can resonate, and hopefully inspire and motivate a lot of people out there who are also trying to forge their own path. So it ended up being a memoir.

Nikita RE•WORK [5:54]

Definitely, I think more so now than ever people are looking for those sorts of stories that they can really tap into, and that inspirational impact of it, I think, will definitely come through. So did you find anything specifically really challenging about writing the book at all?

Rana [6:14]

Yes. Well, first of all, I made a decision early on to really write very openly and vulnerably, in sharing my story, so I had to do a lot of reflection, just kind of thinking through my early childhood experiences, my relationship with my family, who are both kind of liberal and conservative at the same time. They were very, very pro-education for me and my two younger sisters, but we also had to abide by very narrow gender roles. So I had to kind of navigate and reflect on that. And so it’s just been a very kind of profound experience of self-reflection and trying to find these key moments that I want to share with the world. And in doing that, again, just provide ammo, especially to young people, like young people and young women, who are passionate about a cause but perhaps don’t have the courage to go for it.

Nikita RE•WORK [7:21]

Definitely. And it’s all about role models really, it is so important, especially as a young kind of female and person, starting out in your career is looking for that person that you can really look towards. And I think a lot of people will identify with so many of those themes, especially different family dynamics and challenges, everybody’s got their own challenges to work through. So as you said, you’re a female CEO, which is fantastic and so what would be your main tips for women that are looking to progress in their careers, and possibly taking on more senior positions?

Rana [8:01]

I would say that my number top piece of advice, drawing from my own personal experiences, is don’t wait until you think you check 150% of the requirements, right. So when we started Affectiva, my Co-Founder, Professor Rosalind Picard, and I decided to bring in a business executive to be the CEO. And only four years ago did I realise that I was already doing a lot of the functions and responsibilities of a CEO and basically, I kind of summoned up all my courage and made the case for transitioning into the CEO position. And so I feel like, in a way, I was my own biggest obstacle because I doubted myself when I convinced myself or it kind of shifted my mindset to internalise that I can indeed take this job on. The investors were on board, and my board members were very supportive and the team was very supportive. So I feel like women, in particular, tend to just wait until they have all the criteria and I don’t think that’s necessary. We all learn on the go and so kind of challenge yourself to take on opportunities that you may not otherwise, and acknowledge that it will come with a lot of fear, and that’s okay.

Nikita RE•WORK [9:34]

Yeah, for sure. I think that is so true. I mean, that validation or waiting for somebody to say, you’re ready, or that’s the right thing to do might not happen. So yeah, definitely just putting yourself forward and trying things and trial and error is a huge part of everybody’s job. So I think everybody kind of can take something from that as well.

Rana [9:57]

Sorry, I want to build on that because one thing you said kind of totally resonated with me. Ask, right. I see that, I mean, I’ve done that many times before but I also see that in my female reports. They will not ask for a raise, and they will not ask, they will not self-advocate. Instead, we’ll just wait until somebody does that on their behalf. And there’s always room for, I think there’s a balance, but I would encourage women to ask. If you think you deserve something, definitely ask for it.

Nikita RE•WORK [10:37]

If you don’t ask you don’t get. And so looking more specifically at the work that you’re currently working on that Affectiva, what are you really hoping to achieve over the next five years? I know it’s quite a difficult question at the minute with everything changing so rapidly, I’m not sure if five years is a good timeline to kind of look towards. But are there any specific goals that you’ve been working towards, or that you would like to work towards in the near future?

Rana [11:10]

We are very focused at Affectiva on the automotive industry, so I would love to see our technology deployed in millions and millions of vehicles over the next five years to both increase road safety by detecting driver fatigue and attention and distraction. But also really understand the state of the occupants in the car and reimagine the transportation experience and personalise it. So that’s an area where we’re very focused. I think, given the state of the world and how we have all been kind of parachuted into this universe of working and learning and living our lives online, I believe there’s going to be a huge second-order effect, in a positive way in the adoption of emotion AI, because it will help us quantify engagement during virtual conferences and events, it will help patient-doctor relationships with telehealth, it will help a teacher engage with her students during an online classroom. So I feel like there’s going to be a lot of, in a way, it will accelerate the adoption of emotion AI so I’m excited about that.

Nikita RE•WORK [12:33]

And do you think that acceleration, it’s happening in so many sectors at the minute. I mean, you touched on virtual events and teaching just as two examples, and telemedicine, they’ve all completely been thrown on their heads in the past couple of months. And we’ve all had to quickly adapt and figure out new platforms and everything. Do you think that that will have an impact on your timelines at the company, in how far ahead you look to do things? Or are you still thinking long term, you’ve got long term goals, but you’ve got short term things that you think should be prioritised? With everything that’s going on at the moment?

Rana [13:17]

The honest answer is it’s been it’s an ongoing conversation with our team. We definitely have, pre-COVID, we were very kind of heads down with our product roadmap, and everybody was kind of maxed out building kind of key product features and milestones. With everything going on now, I’ve been encouraging the team to just carve out some amount of timeshare and mindshare to explore these new potential opportunities like online learning and virtual events, and telehealth. I really think there’s a big play for us there and I don’t want us to miss this window of opportunity.

Nikita RE•WORK [13:59]

I think many people are in that same boat. And so, as you mentioned, the AI sector and the technology sector that you’ve worked in for a number of years, has always been rapidly advancing. And I was kind of no exception to that. So are there any things specifically that you have learned on your journey within this space that you kind of would want to share to encourage more women to try to get involved in, perhaps, doing a computer science course online or different ways that they could get involved? Are there any great things that you would kind of share with those in that position at the moment?

Rana [14:40]

Yeah, the good news is the barrier to entry in AI and machine learning and data sciences are pretty low, because I believe that if you’re really passionate and interested in this, you’re absolutely right, there’s a lot of really cool online programmes. For example, Udacity has a degree called the Nanodegree, and it’s a three-part, three-module kind of degree, I teach one of the modules around computer vision. And then Amazon and IBM and others teach various other components of the programme and it’s a great entry into what is machine learning and what are the basics of it, including things like computer vision, which is invoice analytics, which is great. Coursera has a number of classes that are really awesome, and Udemy. I mean, the resources are there, it’s just the motivation and the discipline, I think. So that’s one kind of area of recommendation. The other is the network. There are so many awesome, especially women networks, actually around technology and around data science and machine learning. And of course, you guys have an amazing community too. I know, because I spoke at one of your events, right? So I think that’s a great way to find mentors and peers, and plug yourself into what’s happening. Because once you’re plugged in, opportunities will present themselves, then you’re inside it.

Nikita RE•WORK [16:16]

Definitely. I mean, we ourselves at RE•WORK, we were just about to launch a Woman in AI mentor-mentee programme starting this year, at our London event, which, unfortunately, we had to postpone which was due to take place last month. But on the other hand, it’s given us the opportunity to really take that virtual and that opens up so many more opportunities and possibilities for people that submitted applications that didn’t fit for the location, and now it means that it’s possible. So I think you’re right, it’s all about the opportunities are there, it’s just having that motivation to really reach out and to find them. And once you get involved in that networking space, and you try and make connections, then things will start to happen and you’ll get the support that you need.

Nikita RE•WORK [17:04]

So touching back onto your new book. So congratulations, again, which is being launched really soon. Girl Decoded is going to be fantastic, a great resource for women that are looking for that inspiration. And as you said, a lot of the points I think will resonate with a lot of our listeners currently. So I don’t know if this is too soon to ask, but can we expect any more writing from you, do you think?

Rana [17:37]

Gosh, I actually have been compiling some notes. So there might be another book in the works but right now I’m so focused on just getting this book out. As you know, I had planned an actual book tour in March, April, and May. I was going to actually end the book tour in the UK because I went to Cambridge and spent five years living in the UK and it’s a kind of key part of the book. All of this has fallen apart, rightfully so, and we’ve pivoted to a virtual book tour, which feels very different and we’re all experimenting, but one of the silver linings is I do feel I’ve reached an audience that I wouldn’t have if I was just doing these kinds of live events. So I’m fortunate for that. I’ve done a lot of interviews and podcasts with, you, just this morning, I interviewed with a whole like the women tech community in Bulgaria, which is so awesome. So I’m excited that I’m reaching kind of a broader audience with the book and I hope it resonates.

Nikita RE•WORK [18:49]

I’ve actually listened to and watched a couple of your LinkedIn live interviews, which have been great as well. I think that’s another new platform which is fantastic to open up that audience to new people that might, as you said, have otherwise not come across you, or at your book signings that were originally planned. So there are always silver linings.

Rana [19:09]

We have got so stay positive, right.

Nikita RE•WORK [19:13]

So finally, for our listeners, when and where can they purchase the book?

Rana [19:18]

They can purchase the book right now. We are recording this four days ahead of launch, which is April 21 in the U.S and it launches on April 23 in the U.K and around the world. So, it’s here and you can order it from your favourite book retailer, Amazon, Barnes & Noble or you could go to my website and there’s a number of options there as well.

Nikita RE•WORK [19:50]

Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time, Rana. I can’t wait to read the book, I’m sure it will be really widely enjoyed and a real source of inspiration for all of us that are currently reading books by the day at the moment, so I think it will be great in the weeks and months to come. If we don’t see you at a physical event soon then hopefully we’ll catch you online at one of your book signings or speaking engagements soon.

Rana [20:20]

Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Nikita RE•WORK [20:22]

Thank you. Thanks so much.

Nikita RE•WORK [20:32]

We hope that you enjoyed this week’s episode. Do let us know if there are any topics or guests that you’d like to hear from in the upcoming weeks. I’d also like to mention that we currently have a 7 day free trial on our video hub platform with over 500 hours of AI video content available to watch. Stay safe and speak to you soon.

Are you interested in reading more AI content from RE•WORK and our community of AI experts? See more blogs below:

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