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From helping people on the autism spectrum to improving driver safety, Rana el Kaliouby wants AI to be ‘humans first’

Bold Types | Rana el Kaliouby, who leads Smart Eye, wants artificial intelligence to keep us human
The Boston-based AI pioneer is focused on improving driver safety — but believes that’s just the tip of the iceberg for how the buzzy technology can be applied.

If you’ve found yourself thinking far more about artificial intelligence these days, you’re hardly alone.

As tools like ChatGPT have become available to the public, they’ve sparked real questions — and fears — about what the future holds for the technology and how it might impact human lives. To get a handle on where things stand, Boston Globe business reporter Janelle Nanos sat down with AI entrepreneur Rana el Kaliouby, who’s been contemplating big questions about AI for over two decades.

“We’re definitely at an inflection point with AI because finally a lot of these technologies are now accessible by the public, and so it’s unlocked people’s imagination about what AI can do,” el Kaliouby said in an interview for the latest in the Globe’s Bold Types video series. “I’ve been on this mission to humanize technology before it dehumanizes us.”

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El Kaliouby got her start in tech as a kid growing up in Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, and went on to earn her Ph.D. in machine learning at Cambridge University in England. She eventually landed at MIT working under Professor Rosalind Picard at the Media Lab, where the two women developed technology that aimed to bring a level of emotional intelligence to AI.

El Kaliouby and Picard recognized that 93 percent of communication between humans is nonverbal, meaning that we convey far more from facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures than we do from words alone. Yet artificial intelligence technology is by-and-large built on text-based platforms (ChatGPT, for example, was built by essentially scraping the internet to learn how humans write.) The tools the pair developed, which track facial expressions and other vectors that can be measured on the body in response to an emotional stimulus, were originally aimed at helping people on the autism spectrum better recognize nonverbal signals. But they soon realized that the tech had commercial potential too, and in 2009, launched their own company, Affectiva.

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“All of these Fortune 500 companies would come to us and they wanted to license or buy the technology for a variety of different use cases,” el Kaliouby says. “Bank of America wanted to look at customer experiences. Pepsi wanted to test people’s responses to new flavors. Toyota wanted to look at driver monitoring, the list just went on-and-on.” Affectiva’s tools were eventually used by 70 percent of the world’s largest advertisers.

Before long, the world’s major automakers came looking for tools to improve driver safety in cars. And in 2021, Picard and el Kaliouby sold Affectiva to Smart Eye, a Swedish company that’s been building driver monitoring systems for two decades, for $73.5 million. Their tech is now incorporated into the Smart Eye platform to help reduce the risk of distracted driving, which takes over 1 million lives each year.

El Kaliouby, who serves as Smart Eye’s Deputy CEO, is now using her decades of experience to help shape the future of AI. She’s a fellow at Harvard Business School, an active angel investor in AI startups, and is currently a 2023 Eisenhower Fellow, where she’s studying the global AI investment landscape.

She says it’s been interesting to watch the world catch up with a lot of the big questions she’s been wrangling with for years.

“I’m an optimist, but I’m a realist as well, and I can see where this can go wrong,” she said. “I think one of the biggest concerns around AI is bias and how we’re building bias into these models and then deploying them at scale everywhere around the world.”

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She’s also using her platform and prominence in the field to advocate for more diversity in the industry, and to bolster Boston’s AI scene however she can. And she’s hopeful for what the next few decades will bring.

“I’m thinking a lot about this idea of a personal AI assistant for everyone,” she said, imagining a tool that can act as a sounding board or a virtual assistant. “I think it has a lot of potential for positive applications like being a coach, or a friend, or a therapist.”

So long as empathy and emotional intelligence is a key component in the development of such technology, of course.

“I do worry that it would take away from human-to-human relationships,” she said. Because when it comes to tech and AI, her standard is always the same: “humans first.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her @janellenanos.