Rana el Kaliouby decodes “Girl Decoded,” her memoir about humanizing technology before it dehumanizes us

Steffi Wu
Steffi Wu
Apr 1, 2020 · 10 min read

Dr. Rana el Kaliouby is the CEO and co-founder of Affectiva. We’re proud that she’s one of the leaders of our All Raise Boston chapter. Rana recently published her memoir, “Girl Decoded,” which weaves together her personal journey of self-discovery with her experiences as a founder developing emotional artificial intelligence technology. We caught up with her to hear what inspired her and what advice she has for female founders.

Can you talk about how you realized emotional intelligence was what you wanted to dedicate your studies and your work to?

I’m originally from Egypt — born in Cairo and grew up in the Middle East. I had studied computer science as an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo and then had the opportunity to get my Ph.D. in computer science at Cambridge University, specifically in machine learning and computer vision. At the time I was a newlywed, so it was kind of unusual for an Egyptian young Muslim bride to take on this opportunity! My husband at the time had a software company based in Egypt so he couldn’t leave, but he supported me. I packed up my stuff and moved thousands of miles away to England.

When I got there, I realized I was spending a lot of time communicating with my computer. More time than with any other human being. Yet this machine knew very little about me and my personal experience and my emotions. But I also think I had this “aha” moment that this was the main conduit of my communication with my husband and the rest of my family back home. And I felt like all of the richness of our nonverbal communication was kind of getting lost in cyberspace.

It’s interesting because I feel like we’re back at this moment in time again with everything happening around us today. People are having the same unsettling feeling. You feel isolated. You feel disconnected from the people around you. People are really yearning for connection in this world of social distancing, and it’s kind of the same feeling I had 20 years ago. This set me on a mission to build emotional intelligence in our machines to reimagine what a more human machine interface looks like. But actually, more importantly, to really help connect people in this digital universe.

For those who are less familiar with Affectiva, what can emotional artificial intelligence do for businesses and ultimately people? Can you talk about the use cases and ethics so that people can have a more tangible sense of what it means?

We’re trying to build machines that understand and communicate with humans just the way we do, through conversation, perception, and nonverbal communication, like your facial expressions or vocal intonations. We use deep learning, machine learning,and computer vision and speech analytics to build these algorithms. The applications are immense. At Affectiva, we’re focused on a number of core industries. For example, we work with 25% of the global Fortune 500 companies to help them understand how their consumers emotionally engage with their content and they use this data to make all sorts of business decisions.

We’re also very focused on the automotive industry. My 16-year-old daughter is about to start driving and it makes me really nervous! I would love for the car to understand her state as a driver. Is she focused? Is she distracted because she’s texting on her phone? Is she tired, falling asleep? How many people are in her car while she’s driving? Answering all these questions will hopefully help our roads be safer.

I’ll just highlight one more use case around mental health because I’m very passionate about that — there’s a lot of application in research in autism, depression, Parkinson’s. And the idea is to use our facial and vocal biomarkers to quantify these mental states in a very objective and longitudinal way, enabling clinicians and doctors to make objective decisions on these conditions.

There are a lot of ethical considerations because this data is very personal. From day one at Affectiva we’ve had very strong core values that guide which industries we play in and which industries we don’t. Those values include a commitment to privacy, acknowledging that this is personal data. Consenting and opt-in is really key for us. If we don’t get that, we just don’t play. In areas like lie detection or surveillance, we don’t engage with those industries at all even though it’s probably very lucrative for us as a company. We’re also committed to mitigating algorithmic and data bias.

Do you have a thesis about the relationship between technology and humanity in the future? Will robots take over everything or do you think humanity will prevail?

I think humanity will prevail. This is a partnership and technology, at the end of the day, is a tool that people use to be more productive, to be healthier, to be more connected. Whatever our goal is, we apply technology in service of that goal. So I am not that worried about the existential threat of A.I. taking over.

But I do worry that things like bias in the algorithms are going to further create a divide between the haves and the have nots. I also believe because A.I. is becoming so mainstream, we need to redefine the social contract we have between humans and technology. And it has to be built on mutual trust. At Affectiva we’ve identified a number of tenets that create this social contract. In my book, I dive into how you practically implement ethics into these technologies in a way that serves us all.

“Disobedience” seems to be a theme throughout the book as you wrote about yourself as a daughter, wife, Muslim woman, scientist, and founder. How have you found breaking the rules has helped you break new ground?

I never set out to break the rules. I called myself “a nice Egyptian girl” because I was super obedient growing up, always deferring to my parents for all sorts of decisions. A real by-the-book person. I think the transition for me happened when I found something that I was super passionate about, which is building artificial emotional intelligence. I have this deep conviction that the world is going to be better because of this, so that was the fuel. Once I found that passion, I was very willing to break the mold and challenge cultural and societal norms. So it was never just because I wanted to just break the rules, it was very mission-driven.

After you co-founded Affectiva and served as CTO, you later became the CEO. How did you come to that decision and what did you learn from that?

That is a core part of the book because it was a really defining moment or set of moments for me, so here’s a little bit of context. I was at M.I.T. and we started to get a lot of commercial interests in the technology. My co-founder, Professor Rosalind Picard, and I decided to start a company. We hired a seasoned business executive to be the CEO. A number of years later he decided to leave so there was a question on the table of “Who is the next CEO?”

The obvious candidate was me because I knew the tech, it was like my baby. I knew the company inside out and my role at the time was chief technology officer. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’ve never been CEO before.” I had so much anxiety around taking on this role because I hadn’t done it before, so I didn’t raise my hand. Now, at the same time, our head of sales, who also had never been CEO before, he was like, “Yes, sure, I’ll do it.” I think that highlights something that women do frequently.

Women don’t take on an opportunity or a challenge or a risk unless they’ve checked a hundred and fifty percent of the requirements, whereas guys, maybe they check 30 percent of the requirements and they take it on.

So he took the job. I didn’t. And I continued to be the CTO of the company.

A couple of years later, with the help of a few mentors, I revisited my decision. I did a Google search and created a list of all the functions of a CEO. I quickly realized I was already doing the job! I was raising money for the company (we’d raised maybe $30M at the time) and I was always at the investor meetings and led all of the pitches. I was the face of the company and I was very respected for having been a pioneer in this area.

Coming back took a lot of courage. But once I got through my own kind of mental block, it was a very easy sell. I got our then-CEO on board. My investors on the board as well as our team were very supportive of me transitioning into the CEO role.

It’s been almost four years and what I’d like to share with the All Raise community of women founders, but also women partners and investors:

Don’t be your own biggest obstacle. Negotiate and push back on that Debbie Downer voice in your head that just keeps saying, “Oh, you can’t do that. You’ve never done it before. You’re going to fail.” That’s okay, let that air out but then move beyond it and forge ahead.

This is an exceptionally challenging time. What advice do you have for female founders in this climate?

I have two pieces of advice. First, lead with humanity, empathy, and compassion. Acknowledge that it’s tough times for everybody, where if you’re lucky, then you still have your job and you’re working from home, which is extra difficult if you have kids and older parents to take care of. It’s very challenging times, both from a safety and health perspective, but also an economic one. So I make sure that we make time as a team to connect.

At the same time, though, I think it’s important for founders to be decisive and to be assertive and to remind people why they are doing this and the mission of their company. Provide motivation for people to forge ahead and keep working on the goals.

I think it’s important to combine these two elements. Empathy but also decisiveness and motivation and a spirit of “We’re in this together and we’re going to make it happen.”

Any words of advice for founders trying to raise right now?

Conserve cash. Cash is king so be very prudent. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the whole world, which of course includes the investment community. I’m already seeing that that’s going to make raising money harder. It’s not impossible. It’s just going to be harder. It may take longer than usual, so just be in a position of strength. Whatever funding you have, make sure you can make it go the longest.

Now that I’ve now raised a number of rounds, I remember my first pitch round with my co-founder when we first spun out. You had two female scientists at the meeting, and at the time I wore a hijab so people knew I was Muslim. We were pitching an emotion company to an almost exclusively male investment community. That was really hard but we persisted and we were able to raise money from top investors.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when we were pitching again for our most recent round. The investor community is still predominantly male but this time around, I was adamant that we bring more diversity to our board and our group of investors. I was able to bring in Trend Forward Capital and Motley Fool Ventures, who both have female partners and are very committed to diversity and inclusion, which is something we care about, too.

So this is really a call to the female founders, but also the female partners and investors in the All Raise community. Make sure you connect with each other. It’s been wonderful being part of this community. You’ll get a lot of advice and a lot of support.

Speaking of diversity and inclusion, how do we avoid falling back into old patterns during a crisis? How can we make sure that we don’t slide back right now when people are worried about health and safety and other things?

It’s been super helpful just having access to the All Raise community. We can jump on a video call to compare notes and share best practices, even just tips about what keeps people mentally fit and healthy as leaders. I feel like more than ever we need these kinds of conversations. Also, there’s been a ton of documentation that diverse teams come up with more innovative and effective solutions. We need those today because the usual approach to doing stuff is not even an option. So we have to get creative and we have to hustle. And the more creative the team, the better the outcomes are going to be.

My advice to founders who are struggling is that you’re going to meet a lot of obstacles in the world we live in today. Try to find ways around them, underneath them, above them. Find ways to forge ahead.

Is there really such a thing as a female leadership style? Do women lead differently? And if so, in what areas?

I think the elements of female leadership, which I’ve certainly seen guys do as well, are around things like leading with empathy and compassion. Vulnerability. I bring my whole self to work and I think that encourages people to reciprocate. For example, if any woman on my team gets cut off in a meeting, I will actually call people out on it and give her credit for her idea. Another great data point is patents — 97 percent of our patents have a female inventor on them. In general, less than 30 percent of patents have a female inventor. At Affectiva, we call patents a team sport and because we have a diverse team, inevitably we have female inventors on our patents!

If you want to check out Rana’s book, “Girl Decoded: A Scientist’s Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity By Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology” will be available on April 21st and you can pre-order it here: ranaelkaliouby.com/girldecoded. You can also join Rana’s virtual book tour on Wednesdays at noon ET on her Facebook and LinkedIn accounts.

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