Discovering a ‘deep’ calling
In the 1990s, the young Ayesha Khanna had an epiphany. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, she met scholars who saw science and technology as a means “to find answers about the universe, satiate their curiosity, and build and tinker with new kinds of products.”
“It was a very creative approach to science and technology, and I fell in love with it.”
Guided by this paradigm, Dr. Khanna has since built an international career in deep technology – beginning her journey in Wall Street and now through ADDO AI, helping governments and companies build their AI strategy and infrastructure, optimise operations and reimagine business models.
Under her leadership, ADDO AI has been recognised by Forbes Magazine as “one of the four leading intelligence companies in Asia” and Dr. Khanna herself has garnered multiple accolades.
For her, the thrill of working in technology emanates both from its creativity and camaraderie – especially given how important collaboration is to her work. “Technology is very meritocratic. I have people in my team from all over the world, and what matters is what you bring to the table.”
Finding home in Singapore
As she contemplated her next move following her PhD programme in London, Dr. Khanna had numerous factors that she needed to consider.
The untapped opportunities in Asia certainly made it an attractive business destination. She wanted to be in a place where she can build her business and access the region with ease. With that, the answer for the ideal base became clear: Singapore.
“Singapore is a leader in the world in terms of its commitment to deep technology ecosystem development,” Dr. Khanna says. “I wanted a place that emphasised deep technology and artificial intelligence, and I couldn’t have found a better home for it.”
Indeed, Singapore has been globally recognised for the strength of its business and technology environment. In 2019, the World Economic Forum named Singapore the world’s most competitive economy, and more recently Bloomberg ranked it among the top countries in its annual Innovation Index.
“It is a huge advantage to be a Singaporean company when going into the market,” she adds. “Singapore is known for the fact that it believes and invests in deep technology research. It also protects deep technology IP and is developing an ecosystem of talent and government support. This means that we have the full package.”
Capitalising on a culture of innovation
In its early years, ADDO AI made the most of Singapore’s burgeoning technology ecosystem, connecting with potential partners and clients with the help of such entities as SGInnovate.
“Wherever you go, you find people – from designers to the government to businesspeople to AI PhDs – all talking about the same thing. There is this excitement in the air, which is really good for entrepreneurs.”
Dr. Khanna notes that the public sector has been especially helpful in empowering businesses to take up new technologies. “One of our clients wanted to set up a chatbot which would vastly improve their issue resolutions and customer net promoter score. Through government subsidies, they were able to hire companies like us to build a platform for them.”
One key example of government support is the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)’s SMEs Go Digital programme. As of March 2020, more than 20,000 SMEs have adopted solutions through this scheme designed to empower Singaporean businesses in their digital transformation journeys.
Another key factor in cultivating a culture of innovation is talent – and Dr. Khanna asserts that Singapore has been a leader in this regard. “When you look at the development of artificial intelligence, you need an environment of critical thinkers, political philosophers and policymakers to come together. We are already doing that here in Singapore,” she says.
Providing upskilling options to build this pipeline of talent is especially critical. Singapore offers strong programmes supported by academia and government, such as SkillsFuture Singapore’s TechSkills Accelerator and the National Research Foundation’s AI Singapore programme, which allow young graduates and mid-career professionals to learn technical skills while still earning a salary. Such programmes enable people to develop in-demand tech skills but without the financial burden.
Inspiring innovation through industry events
One of the hallmarks of being a Singapore company, Dr. Khanna asserts, is “thinking from day one that we are an international company.” Technology has made geographical boundaries more porous, and local companies are empowered to go global.
Given this outlook, Dr. Khanna recognises the importance of having industry events as platforms for international thought leaders to share knowledge.
“When you go to conferences you want to hear, not the Singaporean perspective or the German perspective or the American perspective. You want to be at an event that gives you an international perspective. And Singaporean events bring in the best speakers from all over the world.”
Delegates find industry events in Singapore to be particularly credible because the country hosts a plethora of cross-sector deep tech pilots and use cases that innovators can learn from. For example, in 2016, the Monetary Authority of Singapore piloted Project Ubin, partnering with financial institutions around the world to explore the use of blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) for payments and securities. Since its launch, Project Ubin has studied deep tech applications to tokenise the Singapore Dollar and enhance cross-border payment systems.
Beyond seeing these innovations in action, entrepreneurs and business leaders from around the world also flock to Singapore to broker new partnerships. The latest edition of the Singapore Fintech Festival, for instance, attracted 60,000 participants from 140 countries. Also impressive in scale is the World Cities Summit, whose latest edition saw some 24,000 leaders from both public and private sector come together to address urban solutions and sustainable cities.
These local events attract such superstar talent who have successfully implemented or developed deep technology solutions within their own companies – and therefore serve as inspirations for budding innovators.
Building a Smart Nation
Sitting on the board of the IMDA, Dr. Khanna has seen first-hand how Singapore is positioning itself to become the world’s first Smart Nation. A critical part of this vision is the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy put in place to make Singapore a global hub for developing, test-bedding, deploying, and scaling AI solutions. Already, Singapore has embarked on an initial tranche of five National AI Projects, spanning multiple sectors including education, logistics and healthcare.
She notes that Singapore’s leading position in deep technology is thanks in part to its agility: “We try certain things and we then improve on them iteratively. This is a very tech approach, and this will make us very adaptive.”
Of course, this success is ultimately fuelled by passion, which Dr. Khanna characterises as a combination of “curiosity and grit.” “When you combine the two, that means your passion is meaningful – and the more your passion muscles grow, the more you’ll feel that you are leading a successful life.”
Still, while Singapore has made significant headway in harnessing the power of deep technology, Dr. Khanna reckons that “we are just at the tip of the iceberg.” But she is positive that Singapore is perfectly primed to make these technologies more pervasive in business and society.
“For me, Singapore is going to be a leader in deep technology because this is the place where we will commercialise AI and apply it to all kinds of industry business problems. That is something that will have enormous value for industries around the world.”