Cognitive Business: An Interview with the Co-Founder of Affectiva, an Emotion AI Startup

Dr. Rana el Kaliouby, CEO of Affectiva | Source: Affectiva

In this Cognitive Business interview, we speak with Dr. Rana el Kaliouby, co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, pioneers in Emotion AI. She leads the innovation of the company’s patented emotion recognition technology, built using deep learning and the world’s largest emotion data repository.

What does it mean to you to be a woman CEO for an AI startup?

I also am keenly aware that many of AI startup CEOs are men: this can be difficult to break into the “AI circle” when it comes to engaging with other companies and partners. I do believe I have certain strengths as a female CEO, such as having another level of awareness through emotional intelligence. I very purposely have an open communication culture, where I encourage employees to approach me with their ideas without dominating them. I also am always thinking about and pushing for what’s best for the company, and am not ego-centric when it comes to my needs and my employees’ time.

Why are emotions important to understand?

Emotions Matter. They influence all aspects of our lives, how we live, work and play — from the decisions we make and how we communicate. Emotions also influence our overall health and well being. Research has shown emotional intelligence is a crucial component of human intelligence. People who have a higher EQ (Emotional Quotient) lead more successful professional and personal lives, are healthier and even live longer.

In today’s world we are surrounded by hyper-connected devices and advanced AI systems, we use a lot of smart technology with lots of intelligence — IQ, but no EQ — emotional intelligence is for the most part missing from this all. On top of that our interactions with technology are becoming way more conversational and relational. For technology to be effective it needs to have emotional and social skills, reading human emotions the way a human with strong EQ would.

This is what Affectiva sets out to do — we create artificial emotional intelligence that will provide technology with that emotion brain, with the ability to sense human emotions and adapt to them.

“We create artificial emotional intelligence that will provide technology with that emotion brain, with the ability to sense human emotions and adapt to them.”

What are the trends in emotion recognition AI technology?

First a focus on massive amounts of real world and diverse data captured in the wild, to avoid bias in the algorithms and to ensure high accuracy.

Also, it needs to be unobtrusive. With the exception of human behavior research, the days are gone that folks want to strap on devices and sensors. Reading human emotions need to happen seamlessly in the background.

Tell us about Affectiva.

Affectiva is a Boston area startup. About 6 years ago we spun out of MIT Media Lab. We created the category of artificial emotional intelligence or Emotion AI, the next frontier of artificial intelligence. Affectiva’s mission is to bring emotional intelligence to the digital world with emotion recognition technology that senses and analyzes facial expressions of emotion and soon also speech.

Our patented software uses computer vision, deep learning and the world’s largest emotion database of more than 5 million faces analyzed in 75 countries. Affectiva’s SDKs and APIs enable developers to add emotion-sensing and analytics to their own apps, games, devices and digital experiences. Affectiva is used by one third of the Fortune Global 100 including more than 1,400 brands to gather insight and analytics in consumer emotional engagement.

Affectiva is privately held with backing from the National Science Foundation, and leading investors such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Horizon Ventures and Fenox Capital Ventures. We have raised a total of $25 million in funding.

How does Affectiva work?

When our software runs (either on the cloud or on device) all you need is access to a simple webcam or device camera. Our computer vision algorithms identify key landmarks on the face — for example the corners of your eyebrows, the tip of your nose, and the corners of your mouth. Machine learning algorithms then analyze pixels in those regions to classify facial expressions. For those of you familiar with FACS the Facial Action Coding System, we use that foundationally for how we classify facial expressions or Action Units (AUs). Combinations of these facial expressions are then mapped to emotions.

How does emotional recognition help the B2B space?

Emotion recognition for automotive is a HUGE application area: drunk driving, distracted driving, drowsiness, anger. And that’s not even thinking about self-driving cars or autonomous cars (picking up on anxiety of the passengers, etc). We believe that Emotion AI will play a key role in helping transform the automotive experience. The automotive manufacturers and their suppliers are keenly aware of this as well.

In retail, one of our partners — Cloverleaf — has recently introduced shelfPoint, which is an LCD display with eye-level sensors that recognize joy, sadness, happiness, or disgust in a shopper’s face. In addition to tracking emotional reactions, shelfPoint registers the age, gender, and ethnicity of shoppers and records the amount of time a person spends lingering in front of a display ad. And sensors don’t just record metrics. They also respond in real time. Ads can change if sensors detect that a shopper is displeased by what they see.

In the realm of market research, we actually also recently announced a partnership with Lightspeed, who is adding our emotion recognition technology to their panel. Affectiva’s system measures seven emotions, including the intensity of the emotion and whether it is positive or negative. It allows researchers to evaluate moment-by-moment emotional reaction to ads by age and gender, all benchmarked against norms built on the analysis of more than 24,000 ads.

It’s the next generation of market research solutions that leverages a combination of attitudinal and behavioural data. Marketers are going beyond surveys to connect with today’s consumers, and the introduction of facial coding to Lightspeed’s panel adds a significant new dimension to market research and consumer behavior analysis.

What’s your favorite emotional recognition AI use case?

I am especially passionate about the potential to transform mental health. Today, when you walk into a doctor’s office, you are not asked what your blood pressure is, the nurse just measures that. That is not true for mental and emotional health; Emotion AI can transform how clinicians quantify and track mental health conditions. For example, Brainpower is an organization that is leveraging our tech to help those with autism better understand emotions. The Brain Power System is the World’s First Augmented Reality Smart-Glass-System to empower children and adults with autism to teach themselves crucial social and cognitive skills.

“The Brain Power System is the World’s First Augmented Reality Smart-Glass-System to empower children and adults with autism to teach themselves crucial social and cognitive skills.”

Is there anything we should watch out for?

At Affectiva, we have the vision of bringing emotional intelligence to the digital world. Our interactions with technology are becoming more conversational and relational and we believe that the next frontier of AI is artificial emotional intelligence — what we have begun to call Emotion AI. People express emotions in a number of ways — face, voice, gestures, posture, and even physiology. Affectiva’s current suite of products in the market are face-based, but we know that multi-modal is key and are working on adding speech, etc.

And how do we get more women into AI?

I would challenge women to really find something you are truly passionate about — starting a company or creating something new around AI is never easy, so you have to be truly committed to your idea or cause. Then persevere — you will run into a lot of obstacles and naysayers; don’t be dismayed. Make sure to surround yourself with advocates and champions. One of my favorite quotes is this Chinese proverb “Those that say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it!”

“Those that say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it!”

“Cognitive Business” is an interview series featuring awesome people in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) world. Written by Lolita Taub and written for business people.