This article was first published in the September 2019 China edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Named by Forbes magazine as one of South-East Asia’s ground-breaking female entrepreneurs, Dr Ayesha Khanna, CEO and co-founder of ADDO AI, is one of today’s most sought after speakers and commentators in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital. Here, she talks about how businesses in Asia are adapting to the challenges of the digital economy and why education is key to understanding the new era.

Q At the 2018 World Congress of Accountants in Sydney you mentioned that 94% of accountants were likely to lose their traditional jobs to AI. Is the accounting profession in danger of disappearing overnight?

A No. However, the tasks and roles in the profession will change. I believe every industry is at a turning point with great automation and machine intelligence, and the accounting profession is no different. Routine jobs that include transaction processing, reporting and analytics can increasingly be done by artificial intelligence.

If the work is strategic or complex, then it does and will continue to require humans, and that is where the opportunity lies for forward-thinking accountancy firms to leverage on machine learning and give employees the ability to reach their true potential.

Q To leverage on the opportunities, accountants will need to get better acquainted with AI. Can you share some practical tips?

A The best way for any person to get acquainted with AI is, first, to become regular readers of magazines such as TechCrunch and MIT Technology Review, which provide insight into how companies are solving business problems using AI; and, second, take courses on online platforms such as Coursera and Udemy. The idea is not for accountants to become coders or data scientists but to learn enough to collaborate with AI engineers and at the same  time question and probe the biases of the solutions that AI generates.

Q Humans are still needed to drive AI technology and ensure its proper usage. Is it possible that one day AI will become smart enough to make these judgment calls?

A We are in the age of narrow AI, which means that it is very good at mimicking many routine tasks and mining large amounts of information to find solutions to very specific problems. It is nowhere near the stage where it can make strategic decisions, to have empathy with humans, and to connect the dots between the philosophical, business, legal and political aspects of a problem.

However, one should not discount our ability to create smarter AI machines over time. Even though we may be far from this point today, we should debate, discuss and ponder over how it will affect society, so that we continue to reap its benefits and reduce its risks.

Q You’ve cited education as a key way to address concerns and fears about AI. What do you think about the current state of education?

A The education system across the entire world is currently broken and dismally underprepared for the 21st century. We are making several mistakes: we are still treating disciplines like science, engineering and humanities as isolated even though the products of the future will require a multidisciplinary approach; we are making exam grades the end goal of schooling even though students would be better evaluated on project work; and we are not teaching the fundamental concepts of computational literacy even though this is as important as reading and writing.

However, the good news is that many countries, including Singapore and Estonia, have begun to pivot their education system to a greater focus on computational literacy for children, project-based work and internships for college students and lifelong learning for adults.

Q One of the drivers for talent growth in Asia has been the rise of self-taught digital-domain workers who learn from online learning platforms. Do you think physical learning will become obsolete?

A The rise of online learning platforms has democratised access to education for much of the emerging middle class of Asia. This is excellent, given how the poor have historically been unjustly deprived of good education. But there is still value in physically studying together – learning how to approach a problem from a great teacher’s perspective, pursuing one’s curiosity in interdisciplinary teams and learning the emotional IQ necessary to be successful. So I don’t think that physical universities will become obsolete, but their function will be far less about imparting information and far more about collaborative problem-solving, debate and collaboration.

Q How is Asia being impacted by the digital economy and how are businesses in the region adapting?

A Asia is enthusiastically coming onto the digital age largely due to mass and rapid urbanisation, increase in telecommunications infrastructure and, of course, the proliferation of the mobile phone, which acts as the nexus of the economy’s digital transformation. Businesses are moving on to the cloud and looking at how they can use data and machine learning to meet the large consumer demand that is growing in Asia as the populace moves up to the middle class. According to the Financial Times, five people join the global middle class every second and most of these are in Asia.

Q You mentioned in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit podcast that one of the drivers of innovation in Asia is the real-world problems of developing countries. What are some of these new innovations that are surfacing?

A Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations that we have seen in Asia has been the rise of the super app, WeChat, in China. In one app, users can chat with each other, watch videos and news, order food and do bike-sharing. Now the battle is on for super apps in the rest of the region, notably in ASEAN and South Asia.

One of the key functions in these areas is the ability to use alternative data to understand the credit worthiness of individuals so that they can be given a loan for a house mortgage, a fridge or a child’s education. The more data an app has on a person, the more it can use that person’s micro-behaviours to generate a credit score. However, it is imperative that these apps must be governed as it can be dangerous for one company to have access to data about so many facets of an individual’s life.

Q Is Asia leading or lagging behind in terms of its regulatory framework for the digital economy?

A Given how many millions of people are going to be affected by AI in Asia, I believe we’ll see leadership in regulation in the region. Singapore, of course, has already started this trend. It just won the World Summit on the Information Society Prize for at its work in AI governance and ethics. The government has developed a framework to guide organisations on how to govern and implement AI in a human-centred manner while encouraging innovation in the economy. I am sure we’ll see more regulation and governance in this area from other parts of Asia soon.

Rufus Tan, journalist