January 14, 2021
Caryn Tan on riding the Responsible AI wave
By: Caryn Tan

Caryn Tan

An avid surfer, Caryn Tan seems to instinctively know when to catch the right wave.

That instinct led her to build and scale Accenture’s global responsible AI practice side by side with the global lead. In less than two years, her team has grown tenfold from 5 to more than 50 people globally.

She sees AI as a key “to raise the bar of how we live our lives.” By automating certain tasks, we can free ourselves to focus on the more important things. She compares it to the technological shift that freed us from having to wash all our clothes by hand – but on a much larger scale.

“In my mind, we create these technologies to help humans flourish and to live better lives,” she says, “and we should be raising standards not just for a subset of people, the standards should be raised across the board.”

Fairness is crucial for Responsible AI, which is all about consciously considering AI processes as our world shifts towards increasingly enlisting algorithms to make decisions. As part of the practice, Caryn worked with the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institution for AI and data science, to create a prototype to understand how to quantify bias in algorithms and to correct for them.

Caryn’s work on responsible AI has led to her being honoured in the WeAreTheCity Rising Star 2020 awards, which identified her as one of 100 role models from across the UK in different industries and professions. She has also been named 2020 Future Stars of Tech in the AI and Machine Learning category.

Currently she is the programme manager for Accenture’s new five-year partnership with the Alan Turing Institute. Together Accenture and the Turing institute aim to deliver cutting-edge research, innovation, whose impact will benefit the wider UK economy.

Caryn’s sense for when to catch a wave helped guide her career at Accenture from the start.

As an undergraduate in her native Australia and during a year studying abroad in Shanghai, she focused on humanities and languages – before doing a masters degree at London Business School. It was during a field trip to Silicon Valley, visiting top tech companies in the Spring of 2015, that she started to see her path.

“The thing that struck me there, which is the inception of my journey into analytics and then into AI, was regardless of who was giving us a speech, or who I was talking to, they were all talking about how everything they did was data-driven, and how they were using data to drive a lot of their strategies, their decisions.”

Caryn already knew she would be joining Accenture after graduation so she asked to join the reputable analytics practice, which combines technical analytics and consulting.

“At the time, you had to have a STEM background,” she recalls, “so you either had to be an economist, a mathematician, or an engineer, to even be considered for a project. But, because I was determined –to show that I was valuable, I got in despite not having a technical background.”

She buckled in and spent a year doing technical work and building up new skills, which she could combine with her existing consulting skills.

“That was my first year and it was then during that time I saw that the intersection between law and analytics started becoming quite interesting,” she recalls. “Being someone who was fascinated by multiple, different subjects, and liked to operate at the intersection of disciplines, I decided to do a part time law degree while working.”

So she caught another wave – this time studying law part-time, while continuing to work full time.

As Accenture was building a new responsible AI practice starting with Rumman Chowdhury, the Lead on Responsible AI, an MD thought introducing us would be a good idea.

“So, I was introduced to her and they were like, ‘Maybe you can help her for a week?’ That was the beginning of 2018 and I'm still building and growing that practice.”

Responsible AI is part of wider responsible business, Caryn says, and she sees Accenture, too, spotting a new wave at the right time with a360 Value strategy, which looks at the work we do from the added dimensions of its impact on our clients, their people, shareholders, their communities and the planet.

“(Clients) will want to assess their 360 Value-equivalent across all areas and one of the areas will be procurement,” she says. “And so it is very likely consultancies will be upheld to a standard where it's more than just: ‘Can you deliver value at a cost that's suitable to us?’”

A 360 approach can ultimately lead to more creative and innovative solutions in our work, adds Caryn, who is also a yoga teacher, cold water meditator and is studying non-violent communication.

“My philosophy in life is to live holistically,” she says. “I really enjoy my work in this area of technology, but I am fascinated by so many other things. One benefit of being ever curious is that I am always connecting ideas and coming up with unique perspectives and solutions.”

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