Opening the black box of AI

The Business Times | WED, NOV 07, 2018 By Leila Lai

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FEAR and distrust are often initial reactions to new technology like artificial intelligence (AI), since the less we know about something, the more mysterious and dangerous it seems.

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However, the best way to ensure that society does not lose control of such technology is to learn as much about it as possible, so that we can harness its capabilities for good, says Ayesha Khanna, CEO and co-founder of AI advisory ADDO AI.

"When we look at a piece of paper and some coloured pencils, we do not expect the pencil to get up and start dancing or doing something on the paper by itself. Yet somehow, when we look at technology tools, we tend to be very passive and accept the answers that are given to us," Dr Khanna told The Business Times.

"We should actually be open to the new insights that AI is giving us - not treat it as a black box, but experiment with it, try to learn what's inside, and be critical of the biases inside it.

"Technology is a double-edged sword, and it's very much in our power to keep a proactive relationship with it. And this proactive philosophical relationship with technology starts from childhood."

To that end, Dr Khanna founded 21C Girls (short for 21st Century Girls) in 2014, a charity that has taught coding to more than 5,000 boys and girls in the last four years. More recently in October 2018, the charity launched the pilot term of a new Empower: AI for Girls programme, conducted in partnership with SG Innovate and Ngee Ann Polytechnic, to teach AI basics to female polytechnic students.

This pilot run, consisting of three-hour classes held every Saturday over 12 weeks, will teach the basics of AI like Python coding, algorithms and decision trees, and also link the students up with entrepreneurs so that they can see the technology being used in business applications. The class is not exam-based, so that students will be motivated to learn about AI for the practical solutions it oers, rather than to pass an exam.

Following the pilot, the plan is to extend the Empower programme to the other polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and teach AI basics to 1,000 girls a year.

While Dr Khanna does not expect all 30 students to emerge from the class raring to become AI engineers, she hopes that it will spark a deep interest in AI for a few of them, and that the rest will leave with a better understanding of AI that can help them in other aspects of their future careers.

"We want you to learn enough about AI so that one day, when you are running your company and you know you need AI, you can hire the right person and collaborate with them. You will build a better service and a better company, and be more confident of your long-term career trajectory than you would if you had no background in AI and you were always afraid of it."

Dr Khanna herself had limited exposure to technology as a young girl growing up in Pakistan, only discovering it when she went to college in the US. Enthralled by the way she could exercise her creativity in building customised programs, she was inspired to pursue a technology-centred career, working as a software engineer on Wall Street and later completing a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science with her dissertation focusing on smart cities.

Today, she is a Singapore citizen, having moved here with her husband and two children in 2012. She set up ADDO AI in January 2017, providing AI solutions and training for corporate clients so that they can gain insights from their data and build new products and services.

One of the challenges she has faced in her career was tackling perceptions about her gender in a male-dominated industry. Her commitment to engineering was questioned at times because the men around her believed that women would eventually move from that eld to management or banking. She also had to carve out a career path on her own, since she did not have female mentors to model.

"I've been lucky to have had a reasonably good career, but if I had some help from mentors, or more of a community, I would maybe have done better things and been more confident," Dr Khanna said.

"I wasn't as confident as I could have been, because I wasn't sure that what I was doing was right for me in the long run. I just knew I really liked it."

Although Singapore is improving in terms of openness towards learning more about AI, with many educational initiatives coming from AI Singapore and the Info- communications Media Development Authority of Singapore, attitudes towards women in tech still have some way to go, Dr Khanna said. For instance, people here still often assume that because she is female, she is more likely to have a business background rather than a technical one and would not know much about coding.

She advises other women in the tech industry to seek out like-minded people for support and keep upskilling oneself to strengthen one's confidence and ability.

"There are plenty of programmes, like the Female Founders group and the Girls in Tech group, where you'll and a lot of like-minded people and women in the earlier parts of their careers getting together," Dr Khanna said.

She added that there is no lack of resources for those who are looking to improve their skill sets, from books and online classes to courses that are oered under the SkillsFuture Credit programme.

"Self-confidence comes from the muscle you build when you know things, and there are so many resources available now for learning," said Dr Khanna.

"The good thing is, in the world today, there are no elite boundaries; any one of us can start learning about tech on our own. And for the camaraderie that we need, there are many groups in Singapore. Between these two, the world is one's oyster. There's no need for anybody to feel left behind."