Ayesha And Parag Khanna On Artificial Intelligence And Coding With Their Kids
The Khannas do not go on holidays. Instead, Parag and Ayesha Khanna, as well as their two children Zara and Zubin, take “mini-baticals”. The word, a play on the term sabbatical, was coined by Parag to describe the kind of trips this globetrotting family takes.
“This is when you go somewhere for a couple of months and you make the most of it by immersing in as much of the culture as you can. So you really dive in and not waste time because it is a relatively short stay,” says Parag, a leading global strategy adviser and bestselling author on books about the future of international relations, including The Future is Asian and Connectography. “We look for places that will be interesting and dynamic to expose the family to new experiences.”
They had meant to spend their next “mini-batical” in San Francisco this year but the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic put a pause to their plans. Instead, for the first time in as long as any of the Khannas can remember, they have hunkered down in one location—Singapore—to ride out this crisis. This country, the couple says, is one of the safest in the world to shelter in.
The duo, both of whom are sought-after on the international speaker circuit in their respective fields of expertise, relocated to the city state in 2012 after Ayesha completed her PhD in Information Systems and Innovation from the London School of Economics. They became Singapore citizens a few years ago.
“We were looking for a ‘nanny state,’” quips Parag, the chattier of the two, with a laugh. “As in, we were actually looking for a country with nannies.” Jokes about childcare help aside, they actually chose the little red dot for strategic reasons. For Ayesha, who is the co-founder and CEO of artificial intelligence consultancy firm Addo AI, Singapore was a natural choice to grow her ambitions.
We look for places that will be interesting and dynamic to expose the family to new experiences.
Pakistan-born Ayesha read economics at Harvard University and later moved to New York City to pursue a career in Wall Street. She says, “In my field of work, being in Singapore makes a lot of sense. The country believes that for future economic growth, it needs to invest in technology. It is also a great gateway to the fastest growing markets in Asia and because it is a smaller country, any startup here is international from day one because the mentality is to go out there and be an adventurer.”
More than building a business empire, Ayesha, who is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils, emphasises the importance of the human element in her work. “When I was younger, I worked in the area of human rights so I have always had a human-centred approach to using and living with technology,” says the 46-year-old, who also serves on the board of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority.
Her father was a civil servant in Pakistan and improving the lives of people was a big topic of conversation when she was a child, she explains. “I believe that the true purpose of AI is to amplify human potential. For example, with the coronavirus affecting schools and interrupting student journeys, how can we use AI to better teach students through personalised learning? Or in healthcare, how can AI assist doctors in their diagnosis or help assistants work locally with the remote supervision of doctors?”
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Addo AI is currently working with a government agency from another country to develop a programme that can identify coronavirus risk locations to better divert hospital resources. She says, “My love for technology is deeply rooted in its capacity to empower citizens.”
As for the nomadic Parag, who was born in India and grew up in the United Arab Emirates, US and Germany, he found Singapore to be “by far the best” among a handful of global cities that he wanted to live in as an “urbanist”. A widely cited global intellectual, much of his life work centres around influencing the influential to build a “multipolar equilibrium”.
“I’d like an end to the cycles of superpower competition and their violent rise and decline. Since my first book, I’ve been writing non-stop about how for the first time in history, we live in a global system that is truly multipolar and multi-civilisational at the same time. Governments need to accommodate each other in order to preserve geopolitical equilibrium,” says the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data- and scenario-based strategic advisory firm that offers tailored briefings to government leaders and corporate executives on global markets and trends.
With the coronavirus affecting schools and interrupting student journeys, how can we use AI to better teach students through personalised learning?
The 43-year-old has provided expertise to multiple governments including the US, UK, Japan, Australia, Kazakhstan and Bhutan. “I devote all of my academic and theoretical work to saying, ‘This is how we get this right, and not have World War III.’”
Over the years, the couple with seemingly divergent interests has discovered that their professional interests have dovetailed in more ways than one. “When we met, I thought our interests would be further apart,” reflects Ayesha. “Then we both became interested in cities—he was doing geopolitical work and I was working on smart cities.”
They co-wrote the book Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization in 2012. “Right now, I am researching political philosophers for my upcoming book titled You Plus AI, and Parag runs a company that works with data scientists. Even though we do different things, we converge and intersect at different points and that is nice because we enrich each other.”
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EDUCATING THE JUNIORS
Nowhere is this blending of interests more obvious than in the myriad hobbies that their two children are involved in. When she was eight, Zara (now 11 years old) combined her love for travel and technology to code a travel chatbot, Octa, which provides family-friendly recommendations for activities, events and restaurants in cities around the world.
“Once, I was Googling for kid-friendly things to do in Baku, Azerbaijan and the search led me to her site, which just proves the utility of the product,” says Parag, with a mixture of fatherly pride and wonder etched on his face.
And Zubin, who loves participating in sports like his father (Parag plays tennis while Zubin is into football) has been building Arro, a robot that delivers water and healthy snacks to kids during sports practice and games, since he was six. Zubin is now eight years old, and the robot is currently in its fourth iteration.
“As Asians, the mistake we often make is an emphasis only on theory. In our family, we are careful to encourage both theoretical foundations and project-based learning. Math, technology and engineering can be incredibly creative and that is what we try to show the kids. The idea is for them to start with something they love and to build something while finding joy in it,” says Ayesha.
Parag chips in, “What a great way to learn coding. It’s like you want your kids to eat the spinach but you coat it with honey.” Their aim in encouraging this hands-on approach is to equip their children with the skills and flexibility to thrive in this ultra-connected, high-tech world that they live in. Neither parent is concerned about what occupation the kids will eventually end up with, saying such linear career paths are a thing of the past. “I have never planned my career; rather by meandering and building upon my passions, I think I have done alright. That’s what I wish for our kids,” says Ayesha.
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My aim is to make AI and technology accessible to all. Education must be democratised and technology should be a team sport.
EMPOWERING GENERATION NEXT
Beyond nurturing their own kids, both Parag and Ayesha are determined to share this love for technology and travel with as many people as possible.
Ayesha is the founder of 21C Girls, a charity that offers free coding and AI classes to girls in Singapore. 21C Girls has partnered the Infocomm Media Development Authority- and Google-sponsored Code in the Community programme to teach thousands of children coding, and with Ngee Ann Polytechnic, to teach teens from the polytechnics across the country the fundamentals of AI.
“My aim is to make AI and technology accessible to all. Education must be democratised and technology should be a team sport. It is not ‘only my kids should be the best’ but rather ‘we can’t do it alone’. So, the more people there are, the better it is for all of us,” she says.
To encourage intrepid adventurers to pursue their dreams, Parag has set up a foundation to provide cash grants to researchers in their 20s. The people he has funded include a scholar from northeast India who biked around the country to teach sustainable farming to villagers; a Bulgarian geographer who needed to fund the translation of a geography textbook; and a British scholar who went on a 4,000-kilometre road trip on the Sino-Russia border to study cultural exchange and infrastructure projects.
“My goal is to, as often as possible, support young researchers to ensure they can do hands-on fieldwork. I take them on as mentees and besides funding them, I promote them professionally,” he says. “That’s how to train the next generation of travelling researchers.”
Ever adaptable—a skill arguably honed through a lifetime of constantly being on the move—the Khannas have discovered many advantages to staying put in Singapore through the pandemic thus far.
With many countries, businesses and institutions grappling with the coronavirus fallout, Parag has been more in demand than ever before. His 5am to midnight workdays now comprise a whirlwind of video calls with clients hailing from all corners of the globe.
“It is incredibly more efficient,” he muses. “I used to go to two countries a week but now if my clients want strategic guidance, it doesn’t come with cocktails and dinner. So now, I visit four countries in a day.”
What a great way to learn coding. It’s like you want your kids to eat the spinach but you coat it with honey.
On a more personal note, the family has made the most of their time at home to connect with each other and rediscover the charms of Singapore. They frequently go on bike rides at East Coast Park, and have signed up for cooking classes as a family. Ayesha has found a grounding practice in meditation, which she says has proven to be the ideal counterpoint to her highly technical work.
And while travelling has been a way of life for the Khanna juniors since they were born—Zara, for instance, has already visited over 40 countries—they have adapted remarkably well and enjoy being in school, going for play dates and participating in their favourite sporting activities. “Kids are by nature optimistic, they do not really think about this as a permanent condition, so they have just adapted to this routine,” says Parag.
Perhaps, Ayesha muses, this may be the opportunity of the lifetime for the children to internalise what she thinks might be the most important lesson of all. She says, “My wish is for the kids to be calm and centred in the typhoons and cycles of life.”
Parag was a speaker at our virtual event Gen.T Stream. Read our recent article with Parag here.