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Meet Rana el Kaliouby

What if our high-tech devices understood—and could respond to—our emotions? Computer scientist Rana el Kaliouby is on a mission to humanize technology with artificial emotional intelligence, or what she calls “Emotion AI.”

Publish Date: Brand: NOVA WondersNOVA Wonders

“I spent a lot of time wondering about the future. I am curious when we have A.I. and it becomes more mainstream, how is that going to affect the way we communicate with each other?” she asks, adding she’s most interested in using AI to improve mobility, mental health and education.

The co-founder and CEO of Boston-based software company Affectiva, Rana is developing an “Emotion A.I.” platform that combines facial expression with tone of voice to infer how a person is feeling. It does this with a programming approach known as “deep learning,” which hunts for patterns in enormous data sets – such as the more than five million faces from 75 countries found in the world’s largest emotion data repository.

When it comes to reading someone’s emotions, Rana says, about 60% comes from facial expressions and gestures. For her, teaching machines to measure and interpret human emotions has the potential to dramatically improve lives—by allowing doctors and nurses to deliver better care, enhancing consumer experiences, engaging students and personalizing their learning, increasing road safety by tracking driver alertness, and enabling people with autism to better communicate with their families and peers.

Born in Cairo and raised in the Middle East, Rana earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in computer science from the American University in Cairo and a Ph.D. from the computer laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

While studying in the U.K., far away from her family, she became acutely aware how difficult it could be to express feelings via technology. “There was one day when I was at the computer lab and I was actually, literally, in tears because I was that homesick,” she tells NOVA Wonders. “And I was chatting with my husband at the time and the only way I could tell him that I was really upset was to basically type, ‘I'm crying.’ And that was when I realized that all of these emotions that we have as humans, they're basically lost in cyberspace, and I felt we could do better.”

Today, as her popular TED talk demonstrates, Rana excels at making complex computer science accessible to all audiences. Recently inducted into the Women in Engineering Hall of Fame, Rana was selected as a World Economic Forum (WEF) Young Global Leader and serves on WEF’s Global Future Council on AI and Robotics. WIRED named her one of 25 Geniuses Who Are Creating the Future of Business, Entrepreneur honored her as one of The 7 Most Powerful Women to Watch, and MIT Technology Review featured her among the Top 35 Innovators Under 35.

One of Rana’s goals is to inspire a new, more diverse generation of scientists and engineers. “When NOVA Wonders approached me, I just felt that that’s very in line with my passion of getting more young people in science, especially underrepresented minorities like young girls or people around the world, like the Middle East, where I grew up,” she says. “The way to solve problems in the world is to become scientists and technologists and build things that haven’t been built before and discover things that people really don't know about.”

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Major funding for NOVA Wonders is provided by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and public television viewers, with additional funding for “Are We Alone?” and “What’s the Universe Made Of?” provided by the John Templeton Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1420749. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.