Cover Story: Meet Ayesha Khanna, the Wall Street software engineer turned AI luminary

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Founder of artificial intelligence consultancy firm Addo AI Ayesha Khanna wants to push for more women in tech.

GERMAINE CHEONG

Ayesha Khanna leaned in, but not quite in an assertive Sheryl Sandberg way. At a hackathon five years ago, a little girl was helping to build electronic parts for a robot, only to be shooed away by her own mother. “Oh, my daughter, that’s not her interest,” the mother said, although it was clear to Khanna that she was good at it.

“Then, she put her son in front of me instead,” recalls Khanna. So, it wasn’t so much of leaning in as it was a restrained urge to keep the little girl where she was.

“I always remember that incident. Girls are not encouraged enough; they need more nurturing in this field.” Which is why she started 21st Century (21C) Girls. The registered charity teaches school girls coding and will run a series of AI workshops for polytechnic students this year.

Says Khanna, who is also chief executive and founder of artificial intelligence (AI) consultancy firm Addo AI: “We are determined to give girls the skills that will give them the creative confidence to follow their passions.”

“To have this confidence, they must have an intuitive understanding of technology, AI and data because every single industry, from law, to manufacturing, to genetics, will have these elements in it in the 21st century.”

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Ayesha Khanna, chief executive and founder of artificial intelligence consultancy firm Addo AI

As much as she is a sought-after speaker at AI forums around the globe now, Khanna in her youth was oblivious to the marvels of technology.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, to a prominent civil servant and English literature professor, she remembers a household filled with conversations about political philosophy and governance. “Economic development and improving the lives of the middle class were always big topics in our house. But there was no mention of technology because no one in my family understood it,” she says.

Her mindset was transformed in the early ’90s when she beat over 54,000 high school students to score a scholarship to Harvard where she read economics. “I met a lot of Eastern Europeans who had come after the fall of the Iron Curtain. They had a unique approach to science and technology: that math is like poetry and science is a truth that we’re always arriving at. In my childhood, I had to learn by rote a subject that had a beginning, an end and a right answer. Now, I looked at it as fluid, beautiful, patterns.”

“THE EASTERN EUROPEANS HAD A UNIQUE APPROACH TO SCIENCE AND TECH: THAT MATH IS LIKE POETRY AND SCIENCE IS A TRUTH THAT WE’RE ALWAYS ARRIVING AT. ”

“(This approach) helped me realise that I could understand anything. It gave me a way of thinking that made me unafraid, regardless of the topic.”

She went on to get her master’s in operations research at Columbia University, where she studied applied maths and statistics, before moving on to Wall Street where she spent more than a decade developing large-scale trading, risk management and data analytics systems.

To feed her creative soul, she published an online cultural magazine called Ego for the South Asian diaspora in New York. Writing under at least five pseudonyms – “I wanted to give the impression that I had a big team” – she did fashion shoots, reviewed films and books, and even translated poetry from Urdu to English. “I never lost touch with the humanities because it mattered to me.”

Her world expanded when she met her husband, Parag Khanna, a renowned geopolitical strategist and academic in 2005. He is currently a senior research fellow in the Centre on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

She says: “For me, it had been Pakistan and the US, but Parag has never stood still in his life. He was writing his book The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the 21st Century in our first year of dating, so he was backpacking and travelling a lot. I was fascinated by this world. He was watching the increasing importance of cities relative to nations.”

More significantly, she was reminded of the civic-mindedness and social consciousness ingrained in her since childhood. “In the private sector, it’s all about consumerism. But when you’re helping citizens, you feel morally obligated to do the right thing and critically evaluate what you do.”

MY HOME, MY SINGAPORE, MY E-LEADER

In 2012, the Khannas, now with two children, made the big move to Singapore because technologically savvy countries/cities/individuals would be leading the charge into the future, as they argued in their co-written book, Hybrid Reality. The couple explained their relocation in a commentary, published in Bloomberg: “To live in the future, you have to move to it. Singapore is not just a city-state; it is perhaps the world’s leading ‘info-state’ (which harnesses) in knowledge and technology what (it lacks) in size or military muscle. (It thrives) by providing not just security, but also connectedness to rapidly advancing markets and technologies.” They became Singapore citizens a few years ago.

Now, armed with 15 years of technological expertise, as well as her unique viewpoint as a woman, Khanna wants to spread the digital fervour to help her adopted home maintain its competitive edge.

Khanna, who was on the Ministry of Education’s 2014 Aspire Steering Committee  where she reviewed high education reform and applied learning, says: “Singapore is taking the smart city concept and pushing it beyond technology and efficiency into a more citizen-centric idea. Jurong Innovation District is not just a space for innovation, but also for the elderly to live in multi-purpose neighbourhoods with younger people. Empathy is at the core of the Smart City 2.0 concept.”

But she also has her eye on developments in the region, noting that although Singapore has become more entrepreneurial and is displaying more grit, its neighbours are catching up quickly. To address this, Khanna suggests a digital talent network that empowers Singaporeans to partner with the most talented youth in Asia to innovate. “The young people in the region are extremely driven. It’s improving here but is it improving at a rate that we need it to be? What we can’t beat, we need to join. Every country is leapfrogging.”

To take this proposition to a macro level, Khanna thinks Singapore has what it takes to be “the Switzerland of AI”, a convener of dialogue between the East and West to improve accountability, transparency and ethics in the use of AI and advanced technology across the world. “Despite our size, we have a global leadership role to play because of our positioning, investment, neutral stance and connection to these different systems.

“Not only is there a gap in global leadership on ethical design, governance and use of AI, what’s worse is, when they do talk about it, it’s the Western experts talking to one another. No one is asking the Chinese, Indians or Japanese how they believe AI should be governed. Yet, the impact of AI is going to be felt most by billions of people in Asia.”

NOT ENOUGH WOMEN IN TECH

Racial diversity is not the only missing link in global discussions, in Khanna’s opinion. For all the glass ceilings shattered by Sheryl Sandberg, Susan Wojcicki and Meg Whitman, women remain a minority in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics  (Stem) field. Take her own Addo AI firm. Out of the 23 people in the management and partnership team listed on its website, there are only two women – and she is one of them. Addo AI’s clients include SMRT, Japan’s second largest insurance company and the Dubai government’s smart city agency, SmartDubai.

“We need a lot more women who are comfortable with doing technology and being engineers and data scientists. Otherwise, the systems that you develop will be grossly biased. Remember when Google’s facial recognition software mistakenly tagged two African Americans as gorillas? We want to be the designers of the systems that we use every day.”

“So far 21C Girls, which has partnered Visa and Google in its programmes, has taught over 2,000 students and will be offering classes to boys as well, especially those from underprivileged families, and polytechnic students.”

As far as tangible impact goes, Khanna’s work has touched not only the community, but also her family. They now read AI articles to keep up with her and the times. “When I started on Wall Street as a software engineer, my family wondered why, after all this education, I had become a back office engineer. Now they see that my work is cutting-edge.”

“I’ve never been afraid to try new things. I still feel excited about creating something new. That has always kept me going.”

 

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

HOW A WORK MEETING LED TO A POWER COUPLING.

Six-year-old Zubin, holding a pair of wire-cutting pliers, races across the hallway towards the 3-D printer. His sister, Zara, who’s eight, tinkers with the computer.

While Singapore has been transforming itself into an innovation hub to experiment with the latest technologies and develop systems, the Khannas have built a living lab right in their terraced house in the east of the island.

Ayesha says: “We spend quite a lot on all the new gadgets that come out, like Google Home, Jibo and a 3-D printer.” Their usage by the children, however, is carefully managed.

“It is about their relationship with technology. They must see it as something that can help them achieve what they imagine. The phone, in a way, is a colleague, as opposed to being just a tool or monitor. We want to move from passive reception to active interaction.” Zubin is combining his love for soccer and juice by building a robot that gives drinks to parched players, while Zara is developing a chatbot based on her travels.

Zara and Zubin Khanna in Berlin, Germany.

And active interaction with the world has certainly defined the Khannas’ lives. They have just returned from a five-month stint in Berlin, where Parag, 40, was undertaking research as a Richard von Weizsacker fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. The kids took a leave of absence from school. Says Ayesha: “Travel and living in other cities is a big part of how we want to educate our children. Technology is important but so is culture.”

“TRAVEL AND LIVING IN OTHER CITIES IS A BIG PART OF HOW WE WANT TO EDUCATE OUR CHILDREN. TECHNOLOGY IS IMPORTANT BUT SO IS CULTURE.”

As a family, they have visited over 40 countries and Parag alone has travelled and worked in more than 100 countries. Parag, who was a foreign policy adviser in former US president Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and senior geopolitical adviser to the United States Special Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, says: “My previous life was me and my backpack. Now we have car seats and nannies. At each phase, we’re always figuring out how to make the next step work.”

The couple met when a mutual friend suggested that Ayesha feature Parag in her online magazine Ego. He recalls: “She is a living version of all those pseudonyms she was writing under. She would take me to African dance class one day and we would watch a film noir the next. At the same time, she worked on Wall Street. Once people become professionals, they don’t have interesting mental lives. Ayesha’s very vibrant. That’s sexy.”

The attraction remains fierce, even after more than a decade. “There’s been a complementarity from day one,” he adds. “I know politics and she knows technology. I was writing essays about cities being the new authorities of the world, and she was researching smart cities at the same time. There was something that ought to converge.” The result was their 2012 book, Hybrid Reality, in which they explored the co-evolution of humans, technology and geopolitics.

Former Washington Post publisher Christopher Schroeder described the Khannas: “It would be hard to find two people better equipped to prepare us for these changes (in the information age).” The couple also set up the Hybrid Reality Institute, a think-tank that explores the social impact of technological trends.

Between back-to-back travel schedules, managing companies, consulting, giving talks and writing, they have little time left for anything but their children. Weekends are sacred, and the family always have breakfasts and dinners together.

“You have to make choices as a working woman,” Ayesha says. “There are a limited number of hours in a day and it’s rubbish to think that you can have it all; something’s got to give. You don’t see me at parties because I work and I spend time with my kids.”

“Every day you feel slightly guilty about something and that’s okay. The social rat race is hard to keep up.” Parag chimes in: “Social events used to be important. Now I really hope there’s nothing to do tonight.”

 

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