Computing Careers: Advice from MIT's Rosalind Picard on Succeeding in the Fast-Growing Field of "Affective Computing"
By Lori Cameron

Rosalind Wright Picard is professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, and co-founder of the startups Affectiva and Empatica. In 2005, she was named a Fellow of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Picard is credited with starting the branch of computer science known as affective computing.

Picard-credit-A-Ryan
Photo credit: A. Ryan

Affective computing is the study of emotion in intelligence, the vital role human emotion communication has to relationships between people, and the possible effects of emotion recognition by robots and wearable computers. Picard’s work in this field has led to an expansion into autism research and developing devices that could help humans recognize nuances in human emotions. It is also a fast-growing, multi-billion dollar industry.

We asked Picard about her work in affective computing.

Affective Computing’s Biggest Triumphs

Computer Society: What are the biggest advances to expect in the field of affective computing?

Picard: The advance I’m most excited about right now is a growing, nascent ability to help people understand, using smartphone and wearable sensor data and AI/machine learning, what things in life are most impacting their personal mood, stress, and health.

If you’re doing little things that are gradually making you feel worse, and you don’t notice them (because they’re each usually pretty minor) then gradually they can accumulate into feeling stressed and depressed. In the future, our smartphone will give us personalized mood and health forecasts—AND—unlike a weather forecast, it will also give us insights into how we can “change the mood weather tomorrow.”

For example, your mood might be forecast to be 40% happier and your stress 30% less if you go to bed by 10 tonight, wake up at the usual time, and take time to connect with a friend today.  Such small adjustments and measures have the potential to become highly accurate with training on enough data, and help people take small steps that overall improve their health.

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How To Have a Successful STEM Career

Computer Society: As a woman in tech, do you have any learning experiences you could share to benefit women just starting out in their STEM careers?

Picard: First, assume the best of people. In particular, be patient with men who may need help feeling comfortable around you.  Most of them want to see you succeed and want to do the right thing, but they often feel uncomfortable and don’t know what they can do to help.  You can assist them in becoming more helpful to you.  For example, the next time one of them complains they are too busy/stressed, then offer “Hey, you’re probably getting more invitations or responsibilities than you have time for.  If you want to bounce some of those invitations my way, I can take them on.”  Also, I recommend dressing slightly more professional, as it helps them treat you a bit more seriously, and not like you’re out on a date.

Computer Society: What advice would you give college students to give them an advantage over the competition and why?

Picard: Get strong technical expertise and also work to get great communication skills. Great tech skills and being too nervous when presenting your work will lead people to think you don’t know your stuff.  If you’re not comfortable speaking in front of others, join Toastmasters or get a speaking coach, or force yourself to give more talks and make friends in the audience who videotape you and take notes of suggestions of what you can do better. As painful as it is to talk in front of others, you will get past the pain with practice and feedback, and it will help you enormously in your career.  I once flunked show-and-tell, and dreaded being in front of audiences—my legs shook like a sewing machine.  Now I give keynote talks and people really listen and learn.

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How to Handle Rejection

Computer Society: How do you find a mentor and cultivate the relationship?

Picard: I have never found a perfect mentor.  Instead, I cultivate friendships with and seek advice from lots of different people.  I have lifelong friends who advise me on marriage, parenting, and spiritual directions, and colleagues whom I can ask about whatever I need professionally.  I’ve learned to not be shy about asking for tips.  Most people love to give advice, and there’s no one right way to do stuff.  I don’t want to be just like any one person, and what works for one person may not be best for another, so I collect lots of ideas, try things, and see what works.  I suggest that you make a list of a bunch of people that have some attribute you admire, invite them (one by one) out to lunch or coffee, tell them what you sincerely appreciate about them, and ask them for advice.

Computer Society: What rejuvenates your intellectual and creative energy the most?

Picard: Sleep, exercise, prayer, and reading new things.

Computer Society: How do you handle rejection?

Picard: I expect it to happen regularly if we’re breaking new ground.  Usually when I get it these days it’s part of a team (co-authoring a paper or proposal) and the first thing I do is share it with the team.  It’s easier to endure when you’re not alone.  Rejection is so common for everyone in research that I just expect that a bunch of what we submit won’t get funded or won’t get accepted the first time.  I always appreciate when reviewers take time to explain why they are rejecting our work and what we can do to fix it (if there’s a chance to revise/resubmit.)  Sometimes this also helps us see that we were misunderstood — that what we thought we communicated clearly was received quite differently.  Getting together to discuss with others why it was rejected and how we can respond with a better attempt is usually rejuvenating.  However bad it is, I give thanks for feedback that helps make our work better.  Never quit trying if you really believe what you’re doing is important and needs to be done.

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My favorite quote for dealing with rejection is from Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Get back in the arena and find somebody who will cheer for you as you try again!

 


 

About Lori Cameron

The IEEE Computer Society’s Lori Cameron interviewed Picard for this article. Contact her at l.cameron@computer.org if you would like to contribute to a future article on computing careers.