Egyptian-American computer scientist Rana el Kaliouby wants to change that.
The 43-year-old co-founded her company Affectiva while undertaking a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Specializing in “Emotion AI,” a subsect of artificial intelligence, Kaliouby wants to teach computers how to recognize and quantify human emotions.
Technology has created an “empathy crisis,” Kaliouby says — and her mission is to humanize it.
The company has grown from a university spin-out into an international, multi-million dollar enterprise with headquarters in Boston. But Kaliouby maintains close ties with Egypt, and Affectiva employs about 60 people at its Cairo office, including software engineers and machine learning scientists.
One area where Kaliouby believes Emotion AI could have life-saving applications is the automotive industry, where driver monitoring systems that use AI-powered cameras in cars could potentially detect driver distraction and drowsiness, preventing accidents.
In May 2021, Affectiva was acquired by Smart Eye, a leader in eye-tracking technology for driver monitoring, and the two companies are now combining their technologies.
There are other applications for cars too, says Kaliouby, including cameras that can view the full cabin to customize the driving experience. “If my baby in the backseat is falling asleep, it can dim the lights, or stop the music; it could change the temperature,” she says. “You can personalize the car based on who’s in it, what they’re doing, and how they’re feeling.”
Surveillance or safety?
Aware of the many concerns surrounding Emotion AI, Kaliouby says Affectiva has a strict opt-in policy for data collection and transparency around how data is being used and stored.
“Anywhere where people’s data privacy considerations are not respected, we’re not going to do,” says Kaliouby, adding that the company turns down those wanting to use the software for surveillance, security or lie detection.
With 11 million facial responses from 90 countries around the world, Kaliouby says Affectiva is trying to create a diverse database that removes age, gender and racial biases from its system. Affectiva is working on a model which includes facial expression and tone of voice, and accounts for nuances such as culture and context.
In the years to come, Kaliouby hopes Emotion AI can help create a more human, empathetic digital experience.
“The mission is to transform what a human-machine interface looks like, because that’s not going to just improve our interactions with technology, but it’s going to make our own connections with each other in a digital world so much better,” she says.