01 July 2018

Egidio Zarrella

Egidio Zarella

Clients and Innovation Partner and ASPAC Head of Banking and Capital Markets, KPMG
Bachelor of Accounting

Identified as the flag bearers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive thinking have always been of interest to KPMG Partner Egidio Zarrella, who believes this ever-evolving technology will transform the world in years to come.

What some might consider the work of futuristic science fiction is already widely present in today’s societies, with AI and cognitive thinking impacting our everyday lives and industries such as healthcare, finance, manufacturing and logistics.

As the company’s youngest ever Global Head and current Senior Partner and Head of Banking in China, Egidio is passionate about starting the conversation surrounding AI development and believes it’s important to always strive for new knowledge and understanding of our ever-changing world.

How has your interest in technology shaped your successful career in financial services?

I always had a knack for technology and knew it would play a pivotal part in the future of the industry. After I graduated I went straight to work as an auditor for the firm Arthur Young, which was one of the Big 8 accounting firms of the time, then 18 months later I moved to Sydney to complete my professional year as a chartered accountant. I was really keen on working in technology and computers and became Manager of the Information Systems Audit Group, where I worked for quite a few years.

After Arthur Young became Ernst & Young, they sent me to Canada to continue working in the technology sector of the business, where I was promoted to Senior Manager. After three years, my wife started to miss home, and we decided we wanted our future children to be Aussie kids, so we came back to Australia. I planned to keep working for Ernst & Young in my home town of Adelaide, but KPMG found me when we got back – I ended up joining them and 18 months later I became their youngest partner and ran the consulting business for a few years before returning to Sydney to take on the National Technology Practice for the firm.

At 36, I became KPMG’s youngest Global Head and held the position for eight years, during which we built a US$1.5 billion business with 10,000 people globally, which was incredible. What I loved more than anything during these years were the clients. I’m a very lucky guy, to have had these opportunities to travel around the world and meet so many interesting people. You have to love what you do, and I made it because I love my job and always try to have fun with it.

After my time as Global Head, KPMG’s Chairman of China asked me to move to Hong Kong and I’ve been here in China for 10 years. I’m currently the Senior Partner for the firm’s biggest account in Asia, HSBC, one of the biggest banks in the world. I’m very privileged because of my great interest in technology – I have worked in financial services for 31 years but I’m one of the very few partners globally with a convergence of the financial and technological. As Global Head I travelled all around India, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore all countries where technology went through the roof as people moved their back-office operations to this side of the world. Thinking about where the world is going to go now in regard to technology, it’s going to be amazing; what I’m seeing now is seriously unbelievable.

Tell us how AI and cognitive thinking are changing the future of business.

In the blink of an eye we’re seeing the rise of AI here in China, where we’re currently setting up cognitive architects and systems. The first article I ever wrote as a young partner was on AI, and that was 21 years ago. Nobody seemed to believe me then, but AI is going to impact every business – it’s already drastically taking over the financial sector and we need to be prepared. Look at our phones, they have AI inside them, but people tend not to think about it because they assume AI doesn’t directly affect them. When I first started my career, they had only just introduced punch cards, and now my iPhone has more power than all the PC’s at the time put together. People can make the mistake of underestimating China, but here technology is already so intuitive, they’re the world leaders in technology. It’s always easy to spot foreigners in China because they’re the only ones still using cash, whereas 84% of the Chinese population are using WeChat, a social media and mobile payment platform with over one billion monthly users.

Every quarter here in Hong Kong we host an event for 400 of our clients, and I always ask the audience: how can we walk into a world where AI and cognitive is literally learning at a speed no humans can achieve, if we don’t understand it? I ask bankers if they know about algorithmic trading, but hardly anyone understands it. Algorithms are now trading most of the world’s trade flows – trillions and trillions of dollars go through it, so we’re already in a world of AI. I’m not a futurist, but it’s already impacting my profession so I’m helping to drive the change. For some reason every time we talk about AI, we always end up talking about the Terminator and Skynet – let’s get rid of that for a second. I don’t believe the world is going to end up as machine against man. It’s not about machines replacing humans, it’s about humans and machines working together, and the results will be amazing. We’re soon going to live in a world where the technology is so advanced, it will look just like magic.

Why is it important to create discussions about technological advancement and the future world of AI and cognitive thinking?

I think the danger for many people is they think after they’ve graduated that they can stop learning. I am a ferocious reader and learner and even I’m barely keeping up with all the new developments in AI. We need to influence students and graduates to learn about it, because if you’re in a profession or business then it’s going to impact you, whether it is this year, the next or further into the future. The question is when do we start to prepare for this change – when it has already happened? We need to teach graduates not only what they’re going to need for today, but the ways of the future. Having robust conversations with each other is exactly what we should be doing, and what is really important, especially for new accounting graduates, is to consider and learn about the technology side of the industry.

We should never stop learning, no matter what, whether we’re reading about AI and cognitive or any other topic. If we’re not constantly reading, then how can we know about the world? In the last year of my degree I studied philosophy and poetry, just to enrich my learning with something different. To gain empathy for the world and its people, we need to learn about perspectives and opinions different to our own.

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