Technology and smart cities expert Ayesha Khanna talks about current tech trends – and where the internet of things, robotics and artificial intelligence and other innovations could take us in the future.

Entrepreneur Ayesha Khanna has always been fascinated and excited by transformative technological innovation. “I truly believe in the power of technology,” she says. “It makes us more productive. I love tech that is user-friendly and valuable because it reduces stress, creates business opportunities and brings joy to people.

“I’m particularly excited about the transformative power of technology for the emerging middle class in Asia.” For example, she says, now anyone with a smartphone can have access to personalized education, thanks to the range of free learning courses, classes and lectures available online.

Harvard and Columbia-educated Khanna – the author of several books about innovative tech – spent years on Wall Street working in financial technology. Now based in Singapore, she works as an innovation and technology expert, advising governments and companies on smart cities, future skills, fintech, and other emerging industries. Clients come to her for advice on out-of-the-box thinking and product design.

Tech has been good to Khanna, so she is keenly aware of using it to give something back to society. In 2014 she founded 21C GIRLS, a non-profit organization that delivers free coding classes to girls in Singapore, and in 2015 she launched an education hub called The Keys Global, which partners students with leading companies to apply skills in coding, robotics, 3D printing and other new technologies.

“Academia has traditionally been divorced from innovation,” she says. “But I think it’s incredibly important to expose students to industry at an age when they are interested, enthusiastic, open and idealistic.”

To wind down from thinking about tech, running her business and continuing her Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, she loves spending time with her husband and their two children. “As much as I enjoy tech, there are other aspects to my life that make things fun and interesting,” she says.

She’s also finishing off a PhD on smart city infrastructures. “So as you can imagine, I’m a big fan of Google and Google Scholar!” she adds. “I’m a fan of Uber, too. As a family we had a car for a long time but decided to go completely green and now use Uber and car-sharing. And I love virtual reality. I’ve tried various applications and I’m really excited to see what will happen next in that area. I think virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality will transform everything from entertainment to education to logistics.”

What tech innovation trends are currently exciting you?

Anything relating to smart cities. That means the internet of things, smart homes, plus innovations around mobility such as driverless cars and buses, and connected cars. Another exciting trend relates to artificial intelligence and the use of big data by large companies – and its application in education, too: Bill Gates, for example, has plans to change education with an artificial intelligence-driven “personalized learning” program. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $240million in the initiative so far.

What about robotics?

Robotics will have a big impact on everything from supply chains to last-mile logistics to care homes. There’s no doubt we will see the growth of robot technology in policing, rescue and crisis operations, and security. Robots are also becoming more affordable so increasing numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises will be able to employ them. And with the aid of robotic exo-skeletons, people who are paralyzed or elderly will be able to lead better lives.

You mentioned your interest in Smart Cities. What are their benefits? And what would it be like to live in one?

I do live in one. Singapore is one of the world’s leading smart cities. At a very basic level, public services are very efficient People tend to think of smart cities in terms of infrastructure technology, with sensors everywhere exchanging information. A criticism of smart cities is that in all the excitement of the technology, ‘the individual’ tends to be forgotten. However, Singapore has moved things to the next level with an initiative called Smart Nation. This aims to use tech-enabled solutions to harness the innovative spirit needed to grow the next-generation economy, and help its citizens, businesses and government co-create a better future. I really like its inclusivity and creativity and think more countries will adopt it.

Is there a danger that smart city technology – with its collected and connected data – could be used in an intrusive, ‘dystopian’ way?

It’s a danger to be aware of, certainly. A society should know about the ethical dilemmas associated with the use of such technology and a regulatory framework needs to be in place for the protection of citizens. But such problems can be overcome if we can figure out a way to meet these challenges together as a society.

Where could tech and innovation take us in the future?

Way, way ahead? Who knows? We could be living on other planets or space stations. And with genetic enhancement people could edit embryos to design the intelligence of their babies, which I think is exciting and terrifying at the same time. It would mean that people who don’t have access to those kinds of technologies would be at a disadvantage, and that’s what bothers me, because rich people would be thousands of times smarter than poor people. But I’m a cautious optimist. I believe that there are enough people out there who are thinking about what’s right for humanity – and that, whatever tech advancements come along, controls will be in place for our protection. — Tony Greenway

Published: November 2016

Image: PR