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Thursday, 29 July 2021

INTERVIEW: Rana El-Kaliouby says emotional AI is a multi-billion-dollar industry that will enhance people’s lives

Ninety-three percent of human communication is through body language and facial expressions, stated the leading researcher in emotion detection technology

Ashraf Amin, Wednesday 4 Mar 2020
Rana El-Kaliouby
Rana El-Kaliouby

Rana El-Kaliouby is a pioneer in artificial intelligence. She is the co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup based in the US.

El-Kaliouby grew up in Cairo. After graduating from the American University in Cairo (AUC), El-Kaliouby earned a PhD from Cambridge University, before joining the MIT Media Lab as a research scientist, where she developed the application of emotion detection technology in a variety of fields, including mental health and autism.

Forbes added El-Kaliouby to the lists of America's Top 50 Women in Tech and Fortune and 40 Under 40. El-Kaliouby shares her journey in the world of technology and entrepreneurship in her upcoming book Girl Decoded.

El-Kaliouby talks to Ahram Online about her research in emotional AI and the endless applications of emotion recognition to enhance the quality of people’s lives. She also highlights the need for a societal discussion in Egypt about AI ethics and regulations.

How do you interpret the controversy about the impact of AI on the future of jobs and the lack of policy measures for AI ethics? 

AI is an emerging technology that’s progressing at a really rapid pace. It’s exciting and has a lot of promise, but because of how quickly it’s taken off, there are a lot of misconceptions about what exactly AI is, how it will be used, what impact it will have on jobs and ultimately on people’s lives.

It’s up to people like me and other thought leaders to engage the public and address these concerns head-on. For example, at my company Affectiva we’re very outspoken about the ethical development and deployment of AI to ensure that the technology has a positive impact on people, and does not violate privacy or exacerbate biases. We also believe that there is a need for policies and thoughtful regulation to guide the development and deployment of AI. Those policies aren’t in place yet, but we need to get there. AI companies, governments, academia and other stakeholders must come together to shape that regulation.

What is the concept of emotional AI technology and its current and future applications?

In the last 10 years, I have worked with my team to define, name and seed the category of Emotion AI (artificial emotional intelligence) – software that can understand nuanced human emotions and complex cognitive states from face and voice – which is now on track to become a multi-billion-dollar industry. People express emotions beyond just their facial expressions. In fact, only seven percent of human communication is based in the words we say – the rest is through non-verbal cues like facial expressions, vocal intonations and gestures. That’s why we take a multi-modal approach to Emotion AI.

Our technology is already applied in the market. In automotive, Affectiva’s in-cabin sensing AI is enabling leading car manufacturers, fleet managers and ridesharing companies to build next-generation mobility that adapts to complex human states. This technology is also used by 25 percent of the Fortune Global 500 companies to test consumer engagement with ads, videos and TV programming. There are also applications in healthcare, education and social robotics.


How does Emotion AI recognise the differences in facial expressions and motions across ethnic groups, such as the head bobble in India, for example?

This technology is built on deep learning, computer vision, speech science and massive amounts of real-world data. We’ve analysed more than nine million faces in 87 countries around the world (all with opt-in and consent) to ensure we take a global approach that accounts for diversity. We use a portion of this data to train our AI algorithms, and a portion to validate them. This is where we account for cultural differences in emotional expression. We can train personalised models based on cultural differences – to use your example, we could collect data based on head shakes in India and use that to train our models.

In addition to our work with facial expressions, we’ve also developed and deployed in-market voice technology that analyses speech patterns, vocal intonations and the like. We’re also broadening our technology beyond Emotion AI to a new area, Human Perception AI: software that can detect not only emotions and cognitive states, but also behaviours, activities, interactions and objects people use.

What are the steps that should be adopted to establish an AI industry in Egypt?

It’s important to foster a strong pipeline of AI talent in Egypt. Interested groups should work with national universities, as well as those in our own backyard – like AUC – to ensure there’s an AI curriculum and discipline in place. AUC is an interesting case because of its liberal arts curriculum and emphasis on humanities and topics like ethics. That’s exactly the kind of programme we need to develop AI talent. It’s not just about teaching people technical skills, but also ensuring that up-and-coming AI experts have a well-rounded understanding of the technology and its implications, such as the business and ethics of AI. Arming the next generation of AI leaders with that perspective will be really important for moving AI forward in the region.

It’s also important for the government to support start-ups as entrepreneurs are getting started in AI. Specifically, there needs to be more organised support for emerging tech and AI companies to help entrepreneurs reach early milestones, after which they can start to raise funding and grow. But you can’t raise funding based on an idea alone, so it’s crucial for entrepreneurs to have support as they’re starting out.

What is your advice to young computer engineers and entrepreneurs? 

AI has a lot of potential to help people be happier, healthier and more productive. It’s an exciting green field opportunity, and folks who get involved early on will be able to have a big impact. That’s one of the reasons why I really encourage aspiring technologists to get involved in AI – to learn about it, build it and help shape its future.

For people in Cairo specifically, I’d recommend getting involved in the local startup ecosystem, which has really taken off in recent years. If you have an idea for a new company or tech innovation, get involved with initiatives like AUC’s entrepreneurship programme and the RiseUp Summit, and check out accelerator programmes like Flat6Labs. Or, if you’re just looking to learn more about AI, there are so many ways to get your feet wet. Consider online classes like those offered by Udacity or Coursera, and seek out AI meet-ups happening around you. My company is involved in hosting and organising AI meet-ups in Cairo and it’s always a great experience to be able to connect with others who are interested in AI and the future of technology. 

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