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“AI is fundamentally going to disrupt the way that we do business,” Ayesha Khanna explains. “It is going to change everything from the way companies interact with clients, to the way their employees work, to the very manufacturing processes that they use to create their products. If businesses don’t acknowledge that some part of that relationship and process is going to become automated and become better and more personalised because of artificial intelligence, they will be disrupted by a competitor.” 

Helping businesses to future-proof themselves
Ayesha Khanna is the co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI, one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence firms. The company builds artificial intelligence models and engines for its clients, following a move to Singapore. It was there that Khanna realised that the huge volumes of data created by the booming Asian mobile market were not, in the majority of cases, being properly processed and analysed. Using statistical algorithms, ADDO AI helps businesses to optimise operations, automate customer service, and personalise, cross-sell, and upsell product recommendations by banks, for example. Essentially, they help businesses to future-proof themselves by harnessing the power of all that data.

Many companies overestimate the amount of effort it takes to become an AI company.

AI doesn’t need to be expensive
According to Khanna, many companies “overestimate the amount of effort it takes to become an AI company”, which is why they end up shying away from it and risk being pushed out of the market. Yet to start an AI project does not take as much money or time as often thought, and “nine out of ten times they already have the data that is needed – they simply need to start a small pilot with a business use case and then build up from there. They will immediately see returns on investment if they begin to use data in an intelligent way on a small scale.”

A limited number of experts 
For companies who are embracing AI, the biggest challenge they face is finding the right people to help design, build, and integrate AI capabilities into their existing business models. As it is a relatively new technology, there are a limited number of experts worldwide – though the number is growing rapidly year-on-year. Khanna and her team provide just this kind of service. “But first,” she explains, “you need to upscale your employees with their domain knowledge. An AI engineer or consultancy can’t do anything for your business without their domain expertise.” 

Opening the AI black box
That engineer or consultancy should then not only build the AI engines but also “open the AI black box” and explain as much as possible about how everything works. This enables companies to continue to tweak their system and use it to improve the business on their own, whether they are a manufacturing company looking to optimise productivity and overheads or a private bank looking to complement personal relationships with big data analysis. 

Instead of waiting in long queues at hospitals, we will see AI doctors who can give us advice.

Bringing hundreds of millions of under-banked people online
It is not just big conglomerates and well-funded start-ups that can benefit from AI, though. Khanna, whose own story starts in Pakistan, is looking to democratise access to AI, whether it is in education, capital, or healthcare, so that people can “innovate and do more with their creativity than they would otherwise” in both developed and developing countries. By using data and AI-driven services – and a little imagination – she predicts that we will be able to open up our infrastructure “to not only unlock value where it hasn’t been seen before, but to create new value”, she explains. “Instead of waiting in long queues at hospitals, we will see AI doctors who can give us advice. In schools where resources are severely lacking, children will be able to learn on mobile phones. And in the developing world, we can bring the hundreds of millions of under-banked individuals online using features that are not available in the traditional transaction history or credit files.” In addition, ADDO AI’s engineers are using remote sensing satellite imagery and deep learning to build a new platform that sends pest infestation warnings and information on when to fertilise their crops to the mobile phones of the world’s poorest farmers. 

An emerging human-technology civilisation
Examples such as these show just how far-reaching the applications of artificial intelligence are. While many fear the ubiquity, envisioning either an Orwellian state or mass unemployment at the hands of automation, Khanna does not see a world where robots take over. Instead, she sees an emerging human-technology civilisation. “The mission of my work,” she says, “is to amplify human potential and provide a way for human beings to stand on the shoulders of machines.” 

The mission of my work is to amplify human potential.

Bringing young girls into technology
Her mission to amplify human potential does not stop with machine learning. She is also interested in human learning, and specifically encouraging young girls into technology and engineering roles. Khanna often tops lists of up-and-coming female entrepreneurs; in 2018, Forbes named her as one of South East Asia’s groundbreaking female entrepreneurs. But nearly half a century after Dame Stephanie Shirley forced the technology sector to start taking women seriously, it is still rare to find women leading the way in the industry. Khanna recently commented at a summit in Norway that she is often the only woman in the room and that this is something she hopes will change. She is also wise enough to know that this change won’t just happen on its own. 

Democratising artificial intelligence
In 2014 she founded 21C Girls, a charity in Singapore that teaches girls the fundamentals of AI and coding, in an effort to redress this imbalance. In addition to introducing them to technology, 21C Girls gives participants access to a network of women in the industry. This way they have role models who can teach them how to stand on their own in technical discussions. “That kind of creative confidence is very important for anyone,” explains Khanna, “but particularly for girls who have traditionally been kept out of the tech scene.”

The work that Khanna and her teams at ADDO AI and 21C Girls are doing to democratise artificial intelligence – whether in its applications or access to learning opportunities – will pave the way for countless new opportunities. Here’s hoping that more follow in her footsteps. 

Ayesha Khanna

Ayesha Khanna has been working in artificial intelligence and advanced statistical computing for the past 20 years. She has a BA (honours) in Economics from Harvard University, an MS in Operations Research from Columbia University, and a PhD in Information Systems and Innovation from the London School of Economics. Ayesha is also the Founder of 21C GIRLS, a charity that delivers free coding and artificial intelligence classes to girls in Singapore, and founded the Empower: AI for Singapore national movement, which aims to teach all youth in the country the basics of artificial intelligence.