AI captain! Rana el Kaliouby's bold trek to the final frontier of humanising technology

Egyptian-American founder of Affectiva is on a mission to revolutionise the way we connect with our digital devices, and each other, by building in emotional intelligence

Computer scientist and entrepreneur Rana el Kaliouby has made it her life's work to add emotional intelligence to AI. Photo: Rana el Kaliouby
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The earliest memory that Rana el Kaliouby can conjure is of standing on a tiny blue plastic chair in a romper suit confidently declaring whatever was on her toddler mind at the time.

She is about three years old, revelling in her father’s attention as he dispenses tips – “look at the audience, enunciate your words” – and records the ramblings for posterity with the first commercially available home video camera.

These regular living room sessions led to el Kaliouby going on to give many accomplished public-speaking performances around the world as an artificial intelligence scientist and entrepreneur, most recently this month at the CogX Festival DeepTech Summit in London.

Her big message after decades working in technology is that the final frontier lies at the point where AI can be immersed in emotional intelligence, or EI, to revolutionise the human-to-computer experience.

But it's obvious that the seeds of that life-fulfilling mission were sown more than 40 years ago in her childhood home in Kuwait where she was first encouraged to get to grips with ideas and machines.

“Our family is really big on education, the thing my parents invested in me and my sisters,” el Kaliouby, 45, tells The National.

“And because they were both in tech, we were always exposed to the latest and greatest gadgets. I was a big Atari game player,” she adds, laughing.

El Kaliouby looks back fondly on those clunky old VHS cassettes and hours the family spent playing Pac-Man as examples of the positive way in which electronic devices can bring loved ones together.

Less happy interactions with latter-day technology, however, brought about the realisation that something was missing – all the rich communication signals provided by non-verbal cues were being lost.

An enterprising mission

Her focus ever since has been on developing artificial intelligence that recognises facial expressions so that people can have better connections with their laptops, and, crucially, with each other.

Born in Egypt after her tech guru father, Ayman, met his future wife, Randa Sabry, on a university campus, it seems almost inevitable that el Kaliouby grew up to be a proud geek pursuing a career in computer science.

“It's a cute story,” she says. “My dad was teaching COBOL programming, this obsolete language that nobody uses any more but was the programming language in the 70s.

“My mum, who was a business major, decided to explore this thing called computer science, and he was kind of interested in going out with her. She said, ‘I don't do that. No dating allowed.’ And he was like: ‘Ok, then I’ll propose.’”

Soon after, the newlyweds moved to Kuwait, and her mother became one of the first female computer programmers in the Middle East, until having to flee when Saddam Hussein invaded.

Aiming for the stars

Next stop was Abu Dhabi, where el Kaliouby’s Muslim-Arab upbringing was conventional in many ways, bounded by “lots and lots” of rules that included not making any boy friends while at school.

“I always imagined walking around with a gold star on my forehead. I was a very nice, rule-abiding daughter. I stuck to the strict curfews. I never dated through high school or college and I was always an A student.

“But, at the same time, it was very empowering. I have two younger sisters and the message was always: ‘You can do anything you want in the world.’”

She continued to meet these expectations into her early 20s, earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in Computer Science at the American University in Cairo, and marrying the founder of a start-up, Wael Amin.

Within a year, though, el Kaliouby was undertaking a PhD 5,000km away at Cambridge University despite both sets of parents saying: “Wait a second, you’re married now and you can’t leave.”

Amin, she says, deserves the credit for supporting her daring dream and agreeing to a long-distance relationship.

“It was really unheard of. I did break rules more as an adult as I explored my passions and my quest for being a researcher and an entrepreneur.

“That's how I think I pushed the boundaries and definitely made my parents uncomfortable.”

And then? “I like the wording that my life went off the rails. I think that kind of encapsulates it.

“Cambridge opened my horizons. It's like I discovered the world and it was hard to unlearn that.”

The enthusiasm for her life’s work comes across even through the medium of our Zoom interview, but it’s also clear that this was not an easy time.

El Kaliouby arrived in England a few days after the September 11, 2001, attacks in America, a young Arab woman then wearing a hijab.

“I was visibly Muslim. My parents were very concerned about my safety.”

I would be homesick or even in tears. The best I could do was send a sad face emoji.

The perpetual smile she adopted by way of a peace offering was also something of a mask, hiding the loneliness and separation from those she loved.

Back then, the technological means for staying in contact across the distance was largely restricted to the kind of messaging that proved a barrier to expressing true feelings, making el Kaliouby all the more determined to humanise technology.

“My PhD was centred around building a machine with emotional artificial intelligence, and I recognised at the time that a lot of the ways I was communicating with my family back home, and especially my husband, was through chat.

“We didn't have video communication and it was certainly very expensive to make phone calls so we would use texting.

“I often felt I could hide my emotions behind the machine. There were many days where I would be homesick or even in tears, but I'd never communicate that. The best I could do was send a sad face emoji.”

The personal hardships became a driving force for her work. In a career paved with “what if” moments, el Kaliouby began to ask: “What if we could teach technology to understand us in the same way that we understand each other?”

“It's not even in the choice of words we use. It's our vocal intonations, our facial expressions, our body posture – and all of that was just getting lost via digitally mediated communications.”

Life was about to take another decisive twist as she received an email that the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Rosalind Picard was coming to give a talk on campus.

El Kaliouby had long been an admirer of this trailblazing woman in an almost overwhelmingly male-led field, whose book on designing computers to recognise human emotions she read while still in Cairo.

Life-changing encounter

“I often say this is the moment that changed the trajectory of my life,” she says of Picard’s request to meet some of the students.

So impressed was Picard by this intense young woman that she offered el Kaliouby a post-doctorate place on the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab before their first 20-minute conversation had ended.

“I remember thinking, ‘But I need to go back to Egypt. I have this husband waiting for me.’ And she basically said, 'Just commute from Cairo. Show up whenever you want to.’’’

By then, el Kaliouby had a daughter, Jana, born in the UK, and a son, Adam, arrived in that other Cambridge in the US, but the constant round trips were becoming unsustainable.

“I was just doing that crazy back and forth. I would say it was OK until it went insanely chaotic when I started the company.”

The company was Affectiva, founded with Picard in 2009 with the goal of creating commercial applications for emotion-sensing AI.

Growth was fast and it was an exciting time but there was another, darker side. “I was travelling so much, there was very little presence in anything I did,” el Kaliouby says.

Big lesson learnt

“I feel like I was out of balance. I didn't make any time to sleep well. I would wake up at three in the morning almost every day and fire all these emails to my team. And so these poor people would wake up at six or seven in the morning with a whole slew of notes from me.

“I would go on vacation with my husband and my two young kids, and I'd just be on call all the time. There were zero boundaries, zero balance, and that was a big lesson learnt. There's always time for self-care. There should always be time to spend with family and loved ones and friends. And, I didn't do that, you know?”

By 2016, she was a divorced mother of two young children living full-time in America, and decided to bare that vulnerability in her role as chief executive of Affectiva.

Staff could see on el Kaliouby’s calendar that 3.30pm was demarcated to collect her son from school, and she explained to them that a Zumba class each Friday ensured a happier, healthier leader.

“I think it made for a much more authentic environment,” she says.

The family now lives in what el Kaliouby describes as a charming New England home filled with distinctive Middle Eastern touches and often by the aroma of molokhia soup made to her mother's recipe.

Love for Egypt

“It's very modern but with a lot of Egyptian things, Arab and Islamic inscriptions. I think of myself as Egyptian American, and very Egyptian in a lot of ways. I love Egypt. A lot of qualities – the Arab warmth, generosity and even intimacy – that’s very much who I am and I would say it's the same for my kids.

“But I also have embraced what people would call American values. I'm very ambitious, very driven, very globally minded.”

That ambition and drive has taken her far. Affectiva is employed by brands in about 90 countries for market research, but also helps children with developmental difficulties, such as autism, to better interact with those around them.

More recently, the company has developed technology to make driving safer by enabling cars to detect if a motorist is becoming drowsy or distracted.

It was acquired in 2021 by the Swedish AI giant SmartEye for what was said to be about $73 million, with el Kaliouby becoming deputy chief executive.

She has long predicted that the day will come when all devices have an emotion chip and we won't remember what it was like before screens could comprehend the meaning of us frowning at them.

“When we first started doing this work, we always said this will become ubiquitous and ingrained in every technology. Now, I think it's more true than ever because AI is becoming a lot more conversational and perceptual.

Now it's back to the human connection. How are AI personal assistants and AI technologies going to make us better humans?

“The final frontier is this emotional and social intelligence. Initially, my work was very much around human-to-computer interaction, making machines more intelligent in how they communicate with humans.

“Now it's back to the human connection. How are AI personal assistants and AI technologies going to make us better, more empathetic humans, especially better at connecting with each other?”

Along the way, she has learnt that daily affirmations are as integral to life as algorithms, and celebrating the small achievements, such as growing her own tulips, is as important as publishing a best-selling memoir, Girl Decoded.

Among the accolades amassed, el Kaliouby can cite becoming a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, being listed on the Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech, and receiving the Smithsonian Magazine’s American Ingenuity Award in Technology. Earlier this year, she was invited to ring the opening bell on New York’s Nasdaq exchange as a female pioneer in AI, and was recently made a 2023 Eisenhower Fellow.

"I couldn't have done any of this without my mum. It's not like I suddenly stopped travelling. I still had to zip all around, and she would fly in and be with the kids."

None of the recognition she has garnered over the years seems to have gone to el Kaliouby's head, perhaps because her family does a good job of keeping her grounded.

While giving a TED Talk some years ago, she explained that in emotion science all facial muscle movements are measured as action units with specific numbers for each.

Words from the wise

The night before she walked on stage, her daughter Jana, 12 at the time, helpfully texted: “Good luck mummy!! I’m sure your gonna do awesome. Remember: don’t play with your hair, connect with audience, give them a present, gesture on words, gesture to emphasise.”

The response sent in live time was the old-school :) emoticon but the algorithm that is el Kaliouby's labour of love would have strongly detected action unit 12, the main component of, in this particular case, a very indulgent smile.

From her parting message to readers of The National, it is clear that she won’t rest until the technology responds just as accurately across the whole gamut of social and emotional states irrespective of people’s age, gender or ethnicity.

Going forward, el Kaliouby's watchword is inclusivity, and she has been spending much time investing in early-stage tech startups and scouring the world for up and coming AI founders.

“I’m on a mission to diversify the face of AI. We are living in super exciting times. Used ethically and responsibly, artificial intelligence has the potential to elevate humanity. We need a lot of diverse people being part of it. So this is a call to action to get involved.”

Updated: September 29, 2023, 1:58 PM