Girl Decoded – a Memoir on Humanizing Technology

Today, I wanted to share that I just bought the excellent book, Girl Decoded.

I first met the author, Rana el Kaliouby, when I ran MIT Startup Exchange. As a female, Muslim CEO and cofounder of an emerging AI startup called Affectiva, she stood out, although I didn’t think much of it at the time. Rather, her enthusiasm, the brilliance of Affectiva’s approach to make a mark in the emerging field of emotion AI, those were things that were more apparent.

Affectiva came to me at a time when they were making a pivot, from having a very successful, yet narrow application of their technology used by Kantar Millward Brown to help advertising clients with ad testing (as it turns out, Affectiva can figure out which jokes make you have face expressions that indicate laughter or sadness). I played a small role in helping them re-frame their offering and reach out to a completely new customer segment.

As fun as advertising is, it is an established industry with what seemed like little scope for growth for a third party application. Affectiva now wanted to pivot to even greener pastures–industrial applications. This was back in 2016, the birth year of the renewed fascination with autonomous driving. The automotive industry had started to show some interest in driver behavior. Could Affectiva perhaps understand drivers better than the steering wheel and gas pedal could, which previously was the only touch points a car had with its driver? What would the impact be on car safety and occupant experience?

The future is, of course, all about ever more efficient sensors, but that is another story. The point is this, Affectiva’s pivot has been an enormous success. The market for understanding emotions is big and wide, from industry to medicine and beyond, and Rana is at the center of the trend.

Rana has now penned the book Girl Decoded, coming out on Random House on April 21 and available for pre-order on Amazon now. I’m convinced she has done a tour de force and I just bought the book. So should you. Not only is it bound to be an interesting and humanistic take on computer vision, deep learning and speech technology from a leading innovator in the field, it is also an interesting personal story. The interweaving of personal and professional narrative is always more interesting than the typical non fiction book because it describes the real stakes involved.

Rana is a great example of a contemporary disrupter of the kind I describe in my upcoming book Disruption Games: How to Thrive on Serial Failure (preorder on Amazon starting March 20), which points out how successfully managing failure will become a valuable 21st century skill.

Rana has had her own share of obstacles, including being a female engineer at Cambridge and MIT, combining starting a company with having a baby, going through a divorce, and dealing with the inevitable disagreements about the direction of her company, from cofounders, executives, investors and employees. I’m sure much more is revealed in the pages of Girl Decoded, and you’ll get the interesting back stories.

Perhaps is it actually the other way around. Unless you have obstacles, you may not be able to dig deep enough into your own capabilities, seeking your inner strength, or even knowing how and when to seek help from others, in order to truly make a difference in society. It is when we realize our own limitations that we release the sources of our own uniqueness. It is also then that we humanize the tasks we have before us and are able to confront challenges in a sufficiently unique way.

Rana’s struggles and subsequent transformation story reminds me of another book I’m reading right now, Learning from Leonardo by Fritjof Capra. Many books have been written about Leonardo da Vinci, however many suffer from a combination of an utter admiration of his genius which creates too much distance, and an utter disdain for his lonely approach (he didn’t interact or share his discoveries like a scientist is supposed to do) which, again, creates distance. Capra, being smart enough to move beyond those two unfortunate misconceptions, instead unlocks Leonardo for us.

Capra claims Leonardo had these traits: “relentless curiosity, intellectual fearlessness, capacity for intense concentration, attention to detail, holistic memory, commitment to the empirical method, and pervasive systemic thinking.”

Without claiming that Rana is Leonardo, here’s what I’d like to say. The challenge of mastering technology is not only one of sheer rational capability to crunch numbers and comprehend physical laws. Rather, it takes a curious, mindful, and confident mind who perseveres through adversity through an overarching, systemic perspective (ecological in scope) that is not shaken by momentary disturbances.

Affectiva is building such a system. Among other things, it took the dedication and ingeniousness of hiring dozens of Egyptian staffers who over a period of several years, and continuing today, are labeling tens of thousands of facial expressions. It book building a company culture where people are appreciated for their differences and valued for questioning.

When I was the Master of Ceremonies at one of Affectiva’s first Emotion AI Summits back in 2017, an event now going into its 3rd year (see last year’s Emotion AI Summit 2019), I was struck by the importance of delving deep into the practical applications of Human-Centric AI. The findings are sometimes counter-intuitive. The impact it will have on the future of human to machine interaction are profound. It will even become a question of ethics training. We are starting to realize that emotions are far more complex than digital technologies, which, in a sense, always are playing catch-up. Emotion AI has the potential to build greater awareness of the need to treat empathy as a muscle that needs daily attention, honing and training.

Only a synergy of man/machine efforts will prevail. In fact, the most important skill I intend to teach my skills, who are growing up in this world that Rana has decoded, is indeed to fruitfully interact with machines, whatever that turns out to mean as we move into the new decade. Girl Decoded, yes, but in order to humanize technology for mankind, let’s each of us start to decode ourselves.