On September 25th, the M. Keith Weikel Speaker Series featured Dr. Rana el Kaliouby, CEO of Affectiva, where she discussed “Breaking Boundaries in Tech from Cairo to Cambridge!” This lecture was facilitated by the UW-Madison’s very own Dr. Enno Siemsen, so we knew we were in for some commentary treats. Dr. el Kaliouby grew up in Egypt and Kuwait and earned her PhD at Cambridge. She moved to the United States to pursue her mission to humanize technology before it dehumanizes us. In this powerful hour of insightful, mind-boggling, unbelievable, way-too-cool information on Emotional AI (artificial intelligence), Rana took us on an intellectual Journey.
Rana spoke of her trek from the media lab at MIT to launching her own business based on the demand of her product. She was sought after by a host of recognized Forbes top-ranked businesses. She turned her research into optimization, and she has been discovering new ways to capture emotions and diversify the data.
Affectiva has been in business for around 10 years, and they employ a lot of fresh research and development graduates. Together they uncover human intelligence and have found that a high emotional quotient equates to longer, happier lives. I think the smile in the Affectiva logo explains it all. Affectiva builds products that have an emotional connection by focusing on timing things correctly. For example, her 11-year-old son requested to play Fortnite for a few more hours “at the right time” when Rana was bound to say yes or have too little energy to say no.
A ground-breaking product that was highlighted in Friday’s conversation featured artificial intelligence in cars. Many listeners wanted to know just how safe this feature is as technology continues to advance. Rana assured us that through their use of algorithms and now having over 30 different expressions known (including levels of drowsiness), we can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride! The software can detect distracted drivers, it knows when a child has been left behind, it can tell how many people are in your vehicle, and it can even read the moods of every passenger.
Affectiva’s software is also used during the hiring process for some companies. In Hire Vue, the algorithms are gender-and racially blind as they sort through skillsets on resumes. Affectiva has also investigated the cultural aspect of AI, where they uncovered how fascinating appearance bias can be. More than 10 million people across 19 countries were studied and Affectiva noticed a need to retrain the software to be more inclusive from a cultural standpoint.
Some of us might be thinking “how effective is Affectiva?” when everyone is wearing masks due to COVID-19? Lucky for us, Rana and her team have been adjusting the algorithms by focusing on the top half of the face. Diversity in data is key and Rana emphasized that a few times in the discussion. Affectiva started with facial expressions, then added vocal inflections, and now is looking into gestures. I really like how Rana posed this question: “What have you chosen to express and how can we capture it in a quantified way?” When you pose a direct question, you know the type of data that you are looking to capture, and I am confident that Affectiva will successfully add to their software repertoire.
One participant asked Rana if her software could be used as a lie detector test. While it’s possible, she prides her software on being Opt-In based, and in using the data for research purposes and not exploitation. The audience echoed “I hope you keep that data safe” and I believe we have Rana’s word; after all, she turned down a $10 million deal to turn over her software for security data.
There’s so much more that I could cover in this blog post, but I’ll do my best to wrap it up by saying you should have been there! It was an evening of head scratching ah-ha moments and Rana made what seems to be a hard topic to grasp, easy enough to understand. There were many questions unanswered due to a lack of time, but Rana is accessible through all social media platforms and she welcomes our questions there. We can also learn more about her work from her book, Girl Decoded. She’s a Ted Talk speaker, a businesswoman, and most importantly, a mother who is leading us into the future of technology and emotional intelligence.
Thank you, Rana, for your time, and we enjoyed having you here at UW-Madison’s M. Keith Weikel Speaker Series.