By Mariam Helmy
2005: Dr. Rana el Kaliouby is returning to Cairo, Egypt, having spent the last four years commuting back and forth between the Middle East and Cambridge. She arrives with a baby and a PhD in tow – and this is far from her last trip between the continents. Her journey, in fact, which will later include detours giving lectures in Dubai and London with little Janna and Adam at her side, has only just begun.
2009: After having spent days delicately asking for more funding from MIT, Drs. Rosalind Picard and Rana el Kaliouby decide to throw the journey another curveball. “It might be time to spin out.”
2012: The journey is well underway; Dr. el Kaliouby has just been named one of MIT’s “35 under 35”, and is taking a rare and brief vacation in the Bay Area. She is asked to sit down for an interview to explain her background, which, like the work she does now, is unique and eclectic. Originally Egyptian, Dr. el Kaliouby studied computer science as an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo while the more creative aspects of software engineering were beginning to blossom. She had an accurate feeling that it would later become an important part of modern society, and was especially intrigued by the basic daily applications of an amalgamation of psychology and computer sciences. A surprising amount of the research that created her thesis, and later her company, was based on the evaluation of the communication struggles of people in the autistic spectrum, who cannot really interpret the facial expressions of surrounding community members. The idea was to code the solutions to those issues in software, and introduce emotion into the world of computers.
Dr. el Kaliouby’s project was based on the belief that since computer technology is such an integral part of human progress and life, it should be more sensitive to human feeling. “I wanted to build a computer that can essentially look at your facial expressions,” she says, “and translate those to emotional states.” Her mission led her to a position as cofounder and Chief Technology Officer of Affectiva, an MIT startup and a company dedicated to building emotionally intelligent machines. “With cameras embedded in everything from mobile devices to TVs, my vision is to make face-reading technology ubiquitous. The sky is the limit in terms of the applications.” Having just received an investment from Kleiner Perkins, the venture capital firm best known for financing and helping kick-start Amazon and Google, not even the sky can limit Dr. el Kaliouby and Affectiva’s innovation and creativity.