Shaundra develops software that helps girls explore their emotions.
Shaundra Daily knows girls talk. They chat on the phone and online, and sometimes write in journals. But she wondered if they could use more help in understanding their feelings, especially when dealing with highly charged home and personal situations.
An electrical engineer, Shaundra decided a computer program might help. “I was hanging out with a group of girls called Las Chicas Bonitas at a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” she said, “and we were having these wonderful conversations. I thought, what if there was software that could support this?”
The girls’ church group inspired Shaundra to create a software program called Girls Involved in Real Life Sharing—G.I.R.L.S. The program allows a girl to type in a story about something difficult she’s going through, and then create a comic-book-like version of her story with pictures and captions. “The software then reads each caption and tries to determine, sort of like a real person would, what emotion is being expressed,” Shaundra says. The computer’s feedback gives the girl a chance to explore her feelings further.
Shaundra’s first test subject was herself. “I wrote a story about my parents divorcing when I was young, and the program suggested the emotions of angry and happy,” she says. “That seemed weird. But then I realized that for some kids that would be the case: they would be angry about the divorce but happy about not having fighting in the house.”
She’s working to put the software online where teens can access it anonymously, without fear of their stories becoming known. “My program isn’t counseling,” she points out. “It’s software that helps you reflect on yourself.”
Machines with Emotional Intelligence
Shaundra is a graduate research assistant at MIT’s Media Lab in the Affective Computing Group. She works in a revolutionary new field—affective, or emotional, computing—which develops software that can recognize and respond to our emotions. Some of the groundbreaking projects coming out of the Media Lab in recent years include the Galvactivator, a wearable, glove-like device that senses how excited a person is, and “Affective Tigger,” a stuffed animal that can react to a child’s moods and feelings.
From the FBI to Engineering
In high school, Shaundra thought she wanted to become an FBI agent. “A chemistry teacher set up a mini crime scene for us to investigate,” she remembers, “and it was so much fun. I’ve always been a big puzzle person, and I thought, FBI equals solving problems.” After speaking with a friend’s parent who was in the FBI, Shaundra entered Florida State University with the option of choosing criminology or engineering as a major. Since she’d always enjoyed math and science, she chose engineering.
Although she started off as a civil engineer, Shaundra quickly found that electrical engineering was what deeply interested her. She also realized how much she loved working with kids—something she only did on the side as a volunteer. In creating her G.I.R.L.S. software, Shaundra was able to combine these two passions.