Stories > Engineered For Success

2020 • Issue 2

Engineered For Success

Ayesha Khanna, founder of artificial intelligence consultancy firm ADDO AI, discusses the Lion City’s position in a world increasingly shaped by technological trends.



oving to Singapore from London in 2012 made sense both career and family-wise. My husband, Parag Khanna, a global strategist, had been writing about the country for many years, and we were eager to apply our technological expertise to an Asian market. It also offers a safe environment for our kids, along with a great education system, which is part of the reason why we became Singapore citizens.

What sets Singapore apart from other smart cities is its Smart Nation initiative, introduced by the government in 2014 to improve lives through technology. While technological infrastructure is fundamental to this concept, it is also one that is citizen-centric and takes into account the general well-being of its people.

Ayesha Khanna is a Singaporean tech entrepreneur who believes that technology with a human-centric application can vastly improve lives. She is a globally recognised thought leader for her expertise in smart technology.

For instance, digitisation is incorporated into Singapore’s approach to caring for its senior citizens – grassroots organisations and firms hold digital workshops that enable them to stay up-to-date with technology and better communicate with younger members of their family. On the economic front, technology is not just used to improve efficiency but to help individuals thrive in their lives through better opportunities, such as accessibility to subsidies for smallbusiness owners through a one-stop online portal. It makes Singapore a more well rounded version of a smart city.

While it is not possible to replicate what Singapore has done, some of our ideas – like digitising healthcare and education – can be tailored to meet the unique needs of other societies. We have a good and adaptable framework for implementing smart-city initiatives – a lot of which has to do with both the public and private sectors being ready in terms of understanding the fourth industrial revolution technologies. It includes artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things that have changed the way we live and work.

When it comes to preparing its people for the future, Singapore has built a wonderful ecosystem of experimentation, entrepreneurship and learning. In the past few years, I have met individuals of all ages who are interested in partnering on new tech ventures. Singapore appears to have an entrepreneurial culture, and its people are agile and open to learning new things. Failure doesn’t seem to deter them.

“What Sets Singapore Apart From Other Smart Cities Is Its Smart Nation Initiative, Introduced By The Government In 2014 To Improve Lives Through Technology. While Technological Infrastructure Is Fundamental To This Concept, It Also Takes Into Account The General Well-being Of Its People.”

Among a slew of local start-ups, I’m particularly impressed by our female entrepreneurs, including Roshni Mahtani, who owns online parenting platform Through her website, she helps people understand their children’s needs, while her husband, the CEO of local property portal, helps people to find real estate in a democratised and easy manner. There’s also Elaine Kim, who co-founded Trehaus, a co-working space, Sillicon Valley-inspired preschool and family club under one roof that is probably a first for working mothers in Asia.

I’m inspired by these innovators’ drive, and certainly don’t buy the long-held notion that Singaporeans are less creative. It is amid this environment of entrepreneurship that I chose to start ADDO AI, an AI solutions firm and incubator, in 2017 that helps clients build end-to-end data-driven platforms. We aim to find solutions to free up people’s time, so they can enjoy the best benefits and services. Both the smart city and smart company are anchored in the customer (or citizen), as opposed to the technology or efficiency of the system.

Notably, Singapore is viewed by other countries as a powerhouse in AI governance. Recently, the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore won the top prize in the Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society category at the prestigious World Summit on the Information Society Prizes forum, held in Geneva. The award recognised Singapore’s efforts in building an ecosystem of trust to support AI adoption. These include forming the international and industry-led Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of AI and Data, as well as releasing Asia’s first Model AI Governance Framework.

Khanna’s charity organisation, 21C Girls, provides free coding, AI classes and robotics programmes to underprivileged young girls in Singapore.

Though these initiatives are in their early stages, such thought leadership is aligned with the world’s perception of Singapore as a neutral place where data is handled in an unbiased, ethical and secure manner. This is why I call Singapore the Switzerland of AI. As we have learnt from the Facebook data breaches – including one in 2018 that saw millions of Facebook users’ data harvested without their permission by Cambridge Analytica – there are unintended consequences to using data, which can be harnessed to manipulate people with fake news and images. With good governance, we can avoid the typical knee-jerk reactions.

In turn, we stand to learn from other countries’ approaches to technology. While working as a software engineer in Wall Street, I observed that Americans are bold risk takers and willing to invest in their ideas. I have great respect for Europeans as they treat data almost like a human right, and enforce measures to regulate it. And in Indonesia and Pakistan, I see a huge appetite to learn new skills, partly due to their highly motivated and growing middle class.

I believe that AI and smart technology have the potential to do a great amount of good, such as democratising access to healthcare and education. We are already seeing an explosion of online courses, where you have virtual teaching assistants grading homework.

A fine example of a company that harnesses technology for social good is Telenor Microfinance Bank in Pakistan, which disburses small loans to people who may not have an education or employment. It assesses their credit risk by analysing things like their browsing or payment histories through their smartphones. This system can help stayat- home mothers earn an income.

“Having Diverse Tech Teams In Terms Of Gender, Race And Age Can Help To Prevent Biases In Ai Systems. Girls Should Be Actively Encouraged To Participate In The Tech Industry, Not At The Exclusion Of But Together With Boys.”

As we continue to chart the social impact of technology, it is encouraging to see more momentum in girls being involved in the tech industry, which tends to be male-dominated. One of the reasons I started 21st Century (21C) Girls – a charity that works with both boys and girls from underprivileged communities – is because I didn’t want to be the only female techie in a board meeting. Girls should be actively encouraged to participate in the tech industry, not at the exclusion of but together with boys. We also have to use the media to encourage parents and young people to see tech as a viable career. If given some leeway and a nurturing environment, even shy 12-yearolds can display great ingenuity.

More importantly, having diverse tech teams in terms of gender, race and age can help to prevent biases in AI systems. Case in point: Amazon ditched a recruitment tool that was biased against females, as it was trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in CVs that were largely submitted by men. Because technology cannot replace human expertise, we need to facilitate better communication in tech companies.

When we first started ADDO AI, we had to replace existing project managers with those who had better communication skills. We also conducted AI and data engineering workshops for our stakeholders. Ultimately, communication leads to smooth innovation.

Likewise, we cannot build a smart city without giving people time to understand it. In the next 10 years, I see technology better facilitating happiness and productivity in Singapore. With good regulation and education, I envision a future where the potential of our citizens is greatly boosted.


Ayesha Khanna is co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI, an AI solutions firm and incubator. She serves on the Board of Infocomm Media Development Authority, the Singapore government’s agency that develops and regulates its technology sector to drive the country’s digital economy and power its Smart Nation vision. She is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils, a community of international experts who provide thought leadership on the impact and governance of emerging technologies. In addition, she founded 21C Girls, a non-profit that delivers free coding and AI classes to girls in Singapore.


This May Also Interest You