Growing up in Egypt in the 1980s, Rana el Kaliouby was fascinated by hidden languages--the rapid-fire blinks of 1s and 0s computers use to transform electricity into commands and the infinitely more complicated nonverbal cues that teenagers use to transmit volumes of hormone-laden information to each other. Culture and social stigma discouraged girls like el Kaliouby in the Middle East from hacking either code, but she wasn't deterred. When her father brought home an Atari video game console and challenged the three el Kaliouby sisters to figure out how it worked, Rana gleefully did. When she wasn't allowed to date, el Kaliouby studied her peers the same way that she did the Atari. "I was always the first one to say'Oh, he has a crush on her' because of all of the gestures and the eye contact," she says.
It's a bright April day in Boston, and Gabi Zijderveld, a pioneer in the field of emotional artificial intelligence, is trying to explain why teaching robots to feel is as important as teaching them to think. "We live in a world surrounded by all these super-advanced technologies, hyper-connected devices, AI systems with super cognitive abilities -- or, as I like to say, lots of IQ but absolutely no EQ," says Zijderveld, chief marketing officer of Affectiva, the startup that spun out of the MIT Media Lab 10 years ago to build emotionally intelligent machines. "Just like humans that are successful in business and in life -- they have high emotional intelligence and social skills -- we should expect the same with technology, especially for these technologies that are designed to interact with humans." Giving machines a soul has been a dream of scientists, and sci-fi writers, for decades. But until recently, the idea of robots with heart was the stuff of moviemaking.
In the evolution to humanize technology, Affectiva is carving a niche. Its software development kit (SDK) and cloud-based API allow developers to enrich digital experiences by adding "emotion awareness" to apps from games to medical devices. And that means that machines can collect data and respond to users' emotions in real time, mostly based on facial recognition techniques. It's what the company calls, Emotion AI. As noted in a recent Forbes article: "Affectiva's technology has proven transformative for industries like automotive, market research, robotics, education, and gaming, but also for use cases like teaching autistic children emotion recognition and nonverbal social cues."
In June 2015, Ned Sahin paid a visit to a 23-year-old man named Danny who is on the autism spectrum. Danny can't speak, can't care for himself, and can't recognize or respond to human emotions. For most of his life, he's lived in a residential care facility in upstate New York. Sahin is a neuroscientist and the founder of Brain Power, a tech company dedicated to creating wearable AI systems to help people with brain-related challenges like autism. That morning, Sahin brought Danny a pair of Google Glasses equipped with a program designed to help children with autism.