Girl Decoded: A Scientist's Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology

Girl Decoded: A Scientist's Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology

by Rana el Kaliouby, Carol Colman
Girl Decoded: A Scientist's Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology

Girl Decoded: A Scientist's Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology

by Rana el Kaliouby, Carol Colman


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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


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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984824769
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/21/2020
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,160,525
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Rana el Kaliouby is a pioneer in artificial emotional intelligence (Emotion AI), as well as the cofounder and CEO of Affectiva, the acclaimed AI startup spun off from the MIT Media Lab. She grew up in Kuwait and in Cairo, Egypt, among a family of technologists and educators. After earning an undergraduate and a master’s degree in computer science at the American University in Cairo, she attended Cambridge University, where she earned her PhD. Afterward, she joined the MIT Media Lab as a research scientist, where she spearheaded the applications of emotion recognition technology in a variety of fields, including mental health and autism research. She left MIT to cofound Affectiva, the company credited with defining the field of Emotion AI. Affectiva’s technology is used by more than a quarter of the companies in the Fortune Global 500. An acclaimed TED speaker, el Kaliouby was named by Forbes to their list of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech, and Fortune included her in their list of 40 Under 40. In 2018 she was the cohost of a PBS Nova series on AI.

Read an Excerpt


Growing Up Egyptian

We are raising our girls to be perfect, and we are raising our boys to be brave.—Reshma Saujani, founder, Girls Who Code

From the outside, my suburban Boston home is everything I always imagined a real American home should look like. Built in 1868, it is the quintessential New England central-hall Colonial, with a tidy fence, a brick walkway, a gray wood exterior, black shutters, a sun room, and a lovely backyard with flowerbeds.

But step inside and you can see that my home is more complex, like me. It is Egyptian American. Interspersed among the traditional round-armed sofa, Queen Anne chairs, and side tables are mementos from my place of birth, things you would find in Egyptian homes. Smack in the center of the living room, in front of the hearth, are two half-moon-shaped black silk screens with Arabic script that promises to “Protect our home from evil spirits” (a service that Alexa and Google Home don’t offer). A large decorative plate perched against the wall near the kitchen door reads Khatwa Aziza, “Step in” or “Welcome.” The entrance to the back door is guarded by a hamsa, a hand-shaped amulet with an eye in the middle of the palm, the ancient Middle Eastern symbol for warding off the evil eye. Just as in my mother’s home, there are always scented candles burning in my Milton home, the pungent-sweet, happy aromas of my youth: sandalwood, musk, amber mixed in with a mysterious assortment of spices. My mom used to buy her candles from a shopkeeper who made them himself; I order mine online.

Scents in particular evoke deep emotional memories. A passing whiff of perfume or aftershave from a stranger or the scent of a candle will instantly conjure up the memory of a person or place, even if I haven’t seen them or been there in years. Our brain is primed to decode scent quickly; the smell center of the brain is connected to both the amygdala (the emotion center) and the hippocampus (where memories are made and stored). These are the most ancient structures of the brain, the limbic system (aka “lizard brain”), where emotions are processed.

I live 5,400 miles away from Cairo, but in my culture, no matter how far you travel, the emotional ties to the Old World remain strong.

My childhood home was a potpourri of modern and traditional values, often in conflict with one another. I was raised in a conservative environment, with strict social mores; my sisters and I were respectful, obedient, and hardworking. We deferred to our parents on all matters, big and small. Even as adults, our parents continue to exert influence over us in ways that Westerners can’t understand. But I was also raised by a mother who was a trailblazer, who stepped outside the traditional role of women in the Muslim world and became one of the first female computer programmers in the Middle East. At a time when an Egyptian mother working outside the home was highly unusual, my mother held an important job with the Bank of Kuwait while raising three children. It was a remarkable accomplishment. And she set the bar equally high for her daughters.

My father also had very high expectations for my two younger sisters and me, and even envisioned us in high-powered positions as adults. In many ways, my dad trained us for this new world. At the same time, he grew up in a very conservative Egypt, deeply rooted in cultural expectations around the role of men and women in society. Inevitably, a real conflict developed between the person my parents raised me to be and the social and cultural expectations of being a nice Egyptian girl.

In hindsight, I wasn’t the easiest of daughters: I was a disrupter both in my professional field as an AI scientist and tech entrepreneur in a very male-dominated industry; as well as a disruptor in my country and culture, breaking the rules of what it means to be an obedient daughter and wife. I know this put my parents in a difficult situation—yet, they never once wavered in their love or support, for which I am grateful.

I love my parents, even if we sometimes didn’t see eye-to-eye. This journey is one that we all embarked on together; we’ve evolved as a family and learned together. Regardless of how religious I was or am now, one Quranic verse has been drilled into my brain: Your parents come first. And second. And third. And those parents of obedient daughters have a ticket straight to heaven. No matter how young or old I am, religious or not, a believer or not, I want my parents to get that ticket.

In some parts of the fundamentalist Muslim world, educating girls is not a priority; in others, it can get you killed. But my parents revered education; our lives revolved around it. We were well-off, certainly, but not wealthy. My parents could have spent their incomes on fancy cars or vacation homes; instead, they used their money to foot the bill for expensive private educations for my two sisters and me, and later sent all of us to college. Whatever discretionary income they had went toward travel, so we could see the world and experience new cultures. That love of learning was ingrained in us at a young age—that and an incessant curiosity about other people and cultures.

Not everyone in my family agreed with my parents’ priorities. When I was eight years old, one night during a family dinner, I overheard my uncle questioning my father’s investment in our education. “Ayman, your girls will just get married, so why waste all that money on those fancy schools?” My uncle’s sons, my cousins, would constantly tease my sisters and me that the likelihood of our doing anything useful with our lives was dismal.

My mother would never have challenged my uncle or my father in public, but I suspect that later that evening, my father got an earful from my mother about the value of education. She was the one who picked those “fancy schools” for us—my dad left those kinds of domestic decisions up to her. I am eternally grateful to my father for not listening to my uncle, and to both my parents for doing everything they could to instill a fierce drive within us to do whatever we wanted to do. At times, my parents must have been horrified by my choices. Getting a divorce, founding and running a precarious start-up, living in the United States with my two children—this was not exactly the life my parents had pictured for me. Yet they laid the foundation that enabled me to break with Egyptian cultural norms, strike out on my own, and succeed.

I come from a close-knit, successful Muslim family, the kind you don’t hear about very often in the West. My parents grew up in Heliopolis, an upscale community in the greater Cairo metropolitan area. They met at a computer-programming class taught by my father. I doubt they would have met otherwise. My mother’s family hobnobbed with Cairo’s elite at the exclusive Heliopolis Club on the weekends. Nor would she have met him at the disco parties she went to in college, wearing micro miniskirts and cropped tops, escorted by her older brother, Shafie.

My father, Ayman el Kaliouby, lost his father when he was five years old. He didn’t have much time for fun; he had to grow up quickly. His mother was a widow with five children. My paternal grandmother never remarried, devoting her life to raising her children; they managed to get by, but the lack of an income and a father put a strain on them all.

My mother, Randa Sabry, was raised in more luxurious surroundings. Her father, Shafik—I called him Gedo, which means “grandfather” in Arabic—was in the military and was the director of Hurghada International Airport on the Red Sea, nearly three hundred miles and a five-hour drive away. My mother pretty much saw him only on holidays, but his position enabled them to live a life of upper-middle-class privilege. Her mother, Doreyya (Dodo for short), ran a complicated household, replete with a full-time cook, a housekeeper, and a driver. My mother attended an all-girls school and swam competitively throughout high school.

My parents both attended Ain Shams University, one of the top two public universities in Egypt. But my father is seven years older, and while my mother was in college, majoring in business administration and partying, he was in Austria.

As a youth, my father was a fanatical supporter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt, who led a military coup in 1952, deposing the monarchy. I think Nasser held a special appeal for my father, who saw him as a father figure. Nasser was a brash, charismatic leader, full of bravado. He nationalized many industries (including the Suez Canal), threw out foreign companies, and convinced Egyptians that they were invincible, that they could manage without any outside help. A “nationalist,” he turned the country inward.

My father believed every word of Nasser’s impassioned rhetoric: “Egypt ruled the world! We had the largest and strongest army in the world.” According to Nasser, Egypt had the best of everything. Then came the Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and my father’s whole world came crashing down.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Emotion Blind 3

Part I A Nice Egyptian Girl

1 Growing Up Egyptian 17

2 Oil and Water 25

3 Uprooted 31

4 What Will the Neighbors Think? 40

5 The Spark 50

6 A Married Woman 62

Part II The Scientist and the Mind Reader

7 Stranger in a Strange Land 75

8 A Mad Scientist Talks to a Wall 87

9 The Challenge 100

10 Learning Human 107

11 Mommy Brain 117

12 Crazy Ideas 127

Part III Straddling Two Worlds

13 The Other Cambridge 145

14 Demo or Die 151

15 Spinning Out 168

16 My Arab Spring 175

17 Grounded in Cairo 187

18 Woman in Charge 202

Part IV A Pioneer in AI

19 Hacking the Hackathon 217

20 Gone Quiet 226

21 Secrets of a Smile 235

22 A New American Family 245

23 Leveling the Playing Field 256

24 Human-ish 268

25 Alexa, We Need to Talk 280

26 Robots on Wheels 288

27 Human Before Artificial 300

Afterword 309

Acknowledgments 313

Bibliography 319

Index 327

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