Born in a traditional Egyptian family, Rana el Kaliouby became a leading researcher in artificial intelligence at MIT. This results in a fascinating autobiography.
Rana el Kaliouby‘s parents met each other when her father caught her mother and a friend cheating in a university exam. Dating was unthinkable, so the only thing her father could do was immediately ask for his beloved’s hand in marriage. It was a happy marriage that produced three daughters. The family adhered to many traditions, but not to all of them. El Kaliouby’s mother continued to work, and the family invested in the education of the daughters, although they were only allowed to choose from three subjects: computer science, technology, and medicine.
El Kaliouby herself married (after dating secretly) the founder of a start-up. He allows her - now wearing a headscarf of her own free will under the influence of a popular TV imam - to travel to Cambridge, United Kingdom, alone for further studies. In fact, he encourages her, to the dismay of her father, who believes that women should be allowed to work as long as they don't neglect the household. El Kaliouby has become fascinated by affective computing, the automatic recognition of emotions. This field is at the vanguard of artificial intelligence, and Cairo is not the most suitable home base.
Her software should help autistic children ‘read’ faces
The route through Cambridge and later that other Cambridge in Massachusetts, USA, may be more familiar to Western readers. Brilliant researcher obtains her PhD, gets an appointment at a prestigious university to continue working on her software which, among other things, should help autistic children ‘read’ faces. Commercial interest leads to a start-up. A global advertising agency comes forward as a customer to test the effects of commercials. There are hiccoughs, for example when the software does not seem to work in China, which are overcome.
El Kaliouby has now been the CEO of Affectiva for several years. It may still be a start-up under the wing of MIT's famous Media Lab, but it is being closely followed by giants such as Apple, Google and Amazon. What if your smartphone not only hears your voice, but can also tell by your face how you feel?
As interesting as the technology is, the fascinating thing about this book is the enormous amount of perseverance El Kaliouby showed in getting where she is. It's those passages that lift Girl Decoded above the average Silicon-Valley autobiography.
- Rana el Kaliouby, Girl Decoded, Penguin, 2020, hardcover, 352 pages, € 28, ISBN 978-0-241-45151-9