Teaching Computers To Think and Feel

Rana El-Kaliouby’s Take on Artificial Emotional Intelligence

Egyptian American computer scientist is on a mission.  She is on a quest to imbue the devices we interact with in our daily lives with the ability to interpret and respond to our emotions. Her work is focused on what she terms ‘Emotional AI’. To drive her mission she cofounded and leads Affectiva, the company developing pioneering technologies which have the ability to recognise emotions. Rana is building technology which interprets a person’s affective states through such things as their voice or facial expressions.  The company is also building a depository of emotion data which is made up of over four million facial expressions collected from over 70 countries from around the world.  The potential applications of this technology are obviously enormous and could potentially span a whole range of sectors from healthcare to education. Unlike historical research on facial recognitions her research and technology and seeks to focus on interpreting the more nuanced emotions that constitute everyday interactions.


Rana is a graduate of the American University in Cairo where she earned her Bachelors and Master’s Degrees in computer science. In 2001 she left Cairo to purse her PhD at the University of Cambridge.  While at Cambridge a homesick Rana found that she was spending more time with her laptop than with another human beings trying to reconnect with her family back home. During that time she discovered that all the nuances of her feelings disappeared in cyber space-through her laptop or over the phone calls. At that moment she asked herself the question about what it would take to get our devices to understand us in the same way that we or other people understood us.  From there she began to imagine what it would take to build an emotionally intelligent machine. Rana’s research found that people interpret emotions from about only 10% of what we say and the rest from how we say those words, mostly in facial expressions and gestures. Rana eventually moved to Boston where should worked as part of a team in the MIT Media Lab. There, with Rosalind Picard, her cofounder for Affectiva, she began to earnestly pursue her interests around making machines emotionally intelligent.  In 2009 Rana and Rosalind decided to take the first step to commercialise their work by piloting a technology called Affdex which advertisers use to monitor the emotional reactions of customers to viewing their ads. Rana is driven the bold question: ‘what if computers could read and understand emotions in the same way that we do’.  She believes that Emotion AI can transform many industries and verticals from media, advertising, retail, autonomous vehicles, and robotics. Rana sees her project as an opportunity to build empathy between man and machines and between people. She believes that the time has come to shift the way people have related with computers. Rana believes that whereas it has been the case that over the past 50 years humans have communicated with computers using their language, the time has come for computers to interact with people in our language. Rana and her cofounder have raised $26 million from investors for their venture and the initial use of their technology has focused on helping children with Autism.