A Scientist's Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology
In a captivating memoir, an Egyptian American visionary and scientist provides an intimate view of her personal transformation as she follows her calling—to humanize our technology and how we connect with one another.
LONGLISTED FOR THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD • “A vivid coming-of-age story and a call to each of us to be more mindful and compassionate when we interact online.”—Arianna Huffington
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY PARADE
Rana el Kaliouby is a rarity in both the tech world and her native Middle East: a Muslim woman in charge in a field that is still overwhelmingly white and male. Growing up in Egypt and Kuwait, el Kaliouby was raised by a strict father who valued tradition—yet also had high expectations for his daughters—and a mother who was one of the first female computer programmers in the Middle East. Even before el Kaliouby broke ground as a scientist, she broke the rules of what it meant to be an obedient daughter and, later, an obedient wife to pursue her own daring dream.
After earning her PhD at Cambridge, el Kaliouby, now the divorced mother of two, moved to America to pursue her mission to humanize technology before it dehumanizes us. The majority of our communication is conveyed through nonverbal cues: facial expressions, tone of voice, body language. But that communication is lost when we interact with others through our smartphones and devices. The result is an emotion-blind digital universe that impairs the very intelligence and capabilities—including empathy—that distinguish human beings from our machines.
To combat our fundamental loss of emotional intelligence online, she cofounded Affectiva, the pioneer in the new field of Emotion AI, allowing our technology to understand humans the way we understand one another. Girl Decoded chronicles el Kaliouby’s journey from being a “nice Egyptian girl” to becoming a woman, carving her own path as she revolutionizes technology. But decoding herself—learning to express and act on her own emotions—would prove to be the biggest challenge of all.
El Kailouby, cofounder and CEO of the tech firm Affectiva, debuts with an uneven recounting of her personal and professional experiences working in the field of "Emotion AI." El Kailouby's professional message comes through with sincerity, as she enthuses about the possibilities of computer programs that can interpret people's emotional states by collecting data on facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. El Kailouby will win over fellow technophiles as she describes holding a hackathon to encourage programmers from diverse backgrounds to contribute to Affectiva's software, and working on an "emotion prosthetic" to help autistic people understand others' facial expressions. The details of her personal life juggling the expectations traditionally placed on "nice Egyptian girls" while pursuing her technological vision, and watching the post-Tahrir Square period of unrest in her home country while working in the U.K. and U.S. also make for intriguing material, but her discussion of them feels surface-level and self-conscious, as if she's working too hard to come across as a simultaneously aspirational and relatable role model. Readers will find el Kailouby's book an appealing manifesto for Emotion AI, but only a serviceable memoir.
I really enjoyed this book. I generally don't write a review, but for this one, I can't stop myself, this is really inspiring for me especially being a male and low key feminist. It is very motivational for all the girls across the world. I really like the idea of how technology can be infused with emotion and understanding of human emotions by computer is really amazing. I really find myself lucky to have the opportunity to read your story, thank you so much for this wonderful book. I wish to work in your company someday.
A memoir that teaches even by its silences
(Open letter to the main author)
I would normally have written down my reaction to your book after I finished it. But I’m now only four chapters away, and Sunday morning I couldn’t stop myself from peeking ahead to the Afterword and Acknowledgements, which very strongly reinforced what I wanted to say to you.
Your book teaches, between its lines, in what you don’t say, an approach to life that is rare. It is so unusual that I cannot easily find good adjectives for it. We all react when frustrated by constraints, opposed in conflicts, challenged with obstacles, or suffer losses. We feel frustration, humiliation, anger and sadness. While you honestly recount a remarkably wide spectrum of these emotions and the specific experiences that triggered them, what I found most notable is that these negative forces quickly vanish from the scene, in the sense that your major life decisions seemed remarkably free from their effect. When I started noticing this, I was a little skeptical.
Early in your book, I thought that perhaps you weren’t dwelling on the negatives for fear of alienating people who are still very much active in your still-young life. I suspected that maybe you are self-censoring the urge to air grievances or settle scores. But your honesty in telling about awkward and difficult experiences, and even more, the unbelievable care with which you acknowledged others while claiming proper credit for yourself, convinced me that the silences in your memoir, like those in a musical score, were an authentic part of your story. These silences together suggested that you had learnt how to quickly free yourself from the often persistent hold that negative emotions can have. A truly inspiring practice.
I wish I had read your book at age 20, forty years ago! It would have improved how I lived my life. I’ll be recommending it far and wide.
With deeply felt admiration,