I’ve got 99 problems but my phone recognises none of them: bringing feelings to tech

5 min readJul 15, 2020


Reflecting on Zone’s Book Club with Rana el Kaliouby, Zone’s Midhusa Mohan is inspired by a trailblazing CEO using emotions to bridge the gap between tech and humans…

Last week, at Zone’s Book Club, when Dr Rana el Kaliouby said that humans have 412 emotions, I felt a Group 19 emotion: surprised. I didn’t think I could even list 12 emotions, let alone be capable of feeling 412 types of ways.

Imagine if our tech had all of these emotions. How many Zoom meetings have you left feeling exhausted, especially when you realise that they could’ve been emails? What if Zoom could sense you’re stressed and suggest breaks? Those internal work systems that aren’t the most user-friendly? What if devs could see the parts which frustrate us and are difficult to use? When texting, how many times have you struggled to find the right words? When I’m feeling somewhere between the Conceited and Side Eye Chloe memes, sometimes the eyeroll emoji doesn’t cut it. But what if our devices could make suggestions based on our actual feelings?

In most human relationships, we expect emotion. So, given that the average person spends 13.5% of their day on their phone, why shouldn’t we expect the same from this relationship?

Rana’s company, Affectiva, is bridging this gap between tech and humans by giving the former emotional intelligence. With nearly six million faces analysed in 87 countries, Affectiva has the world’s largest emotion data repository. Mars used the software to analyse participants’ facial reactions to its ad, using the data to predict how likely customers were to buy Mars’s new product.

Aside from Affectiva’s reach in the marketing sector, it is also bringing emotion AI to self-driving cars. The software can be used to monitor the cognitive state of drivers and passengers, and is being developed to allow the car to intervene in an appropriate way.

As a company with emotion at its core, it was nice to see Rana not shying away from her own. She gave us courage when she spoke about being a brown woman in tech. In the brown community, we don’t often see the celebration of female talent in industries traditionally reserved for men. You could graduate, own a home or even be CEO, but if you’re not married, or god forbid, say you don’t want to, you’re seen as straight-up crazy. Rana picks up this cultural vibe well in her memoir, Girl Decoded, where she explores the conflict between Egyptian society’s expectations and her professional goals. Spoiler: she didn’t like society’s option so she made her own.

She admitted that her option wasn’t without its losses. Her single-minded focus on work contributed to her divorce, and there are notes of regret when she wished she’d had more of a work-life balance. Despite this, she says: “There’s strength in showing vulnerability.” A powerful message about an emotion society usually categorises as weak.

You don’t have to be brown and/or a woman to relate when she says that no matter how far you get in life, the self-doubt never really goes away. A sentiment echoed in her memoir. ‘The voice in my head […] whispered: ‘You can’t. You shouldn’t. You won’t.’”

This voice piped up when she was first offered the CEO role at Affectiva. In “waiting to check 150% of the requirements”, she turned down the role. A mentality which she thinks is shared by a lot of women. Her advice was to just go for it. A belief Zone has been proactively championing with our Women in Tech events.

Rana told us to attend these events and wishes she had gone to more of them when she started out. Not only do they promote female tech talent, but they also provide a space to cultivate rewarding professional relationships, such as the mentor-mentee one — a relationship which Zone recognises the value of.

Our new mentoring initiative demonstrates a shift towards more practical one-to-one learning: an approach Rana uses. When she initially turned down the CEO position, she turned to her mentor, who told her to “visualise it”. She visualised, journaled, did the work and today we find her where she didn’t think she’d be: as CEO.

As well as running Affectiva, Rana is also pushing for more education on emotion AI for non-tech audiences. I don’t do a tech-centric role but even I could understand her book. It’s important that people, regardless of their profession, are educated on what it would mean for our devices to have emotion AI. It’s a thought that ties in with a Book Club session from last year with Damian Bradfield, where he called for people to be more aware of how their data is used.

There’s been an industry-wide shift towards getting people to be more conscious about their digital footprint because AI is far from perfect. Google ‘emotion AI’ and the first page of search results is peppered with articles about its risks.

Should it be allowed? Affectiva says yes but it should come with people’s consent. The company prides itself on the ethical deployment of its AI and has turned down deals with organisations that wanted to use its tech without people’s full knowledge.

As an industry projected to be worth $56 billion by 2024, there are lots of opportunities for development and redevelopment to reduce potential risks. Quite a few AI talks have left me feeling a little anxious as I leave thinking: is this really necessary? Do you really need Alexa to tell you the weather when you could check on your phone in a few seconds? As a topic that usually involves words such as ‘heuristic’ and ‘deep learning’, it was a relief to see an approach with a word I could understand without Google’s help: emotion.

I didn’t feel anxious leaving Rana’s session — I left wanting to know more.




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