UAE sees future in artificial intelligence

UAE officials are keeping an open and optimistic — yet cautious — mind regarding AI.

ABU DHABI - With research emerging about the global effect of artificial intelligence (AI), countries in the Middle East and North Africa must get involved in the technological evolution to be ahead of the game, a report points out.

“Notes from the AI Frontier: Modelling the Impact of AI on the World Economy” by the McKinsey Global Institute lays out factors contributing to a country becoming a leader — or falling behind — in artificial intelligence. Those factors include access to talent, an education system that generates it, funding and a desirable geographical location.

Officials and experts said those drivers of the adoption and success in AI have clear implications for countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

“A few months back, we discussed what happens when people lose their jobs to AI,” said Omar al-Olama, UAE minister for artificial intelligence. “Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE vice-president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, said it was not a model that has one element to it and there are many challenges and opportunities we need to address. He said to look at the economic, social and security impact of all these technologies and understand what has the most positive possibility.”

Speaking at the EmTech MENA conference in September in Dubai, Olama said people lose jobs because of advances in any technology. “It’s not just AI,” he said. “It’s important for us as humans to be agile and people who don’t accept change are unfortunately not part of the future.”

The UAE is embracing that change with technologically driven initiatives. Some include training programmes, summer camps and educational curricula for students to better understand AI and what role they can play in the future.

“This will steer them in that direction,” Olama said. “One element is looking at talent specifically, seeing what ideas they have and looking at how we can implement them. It happens in Emirates Towers with the Dubai Future Accelerators and we believe that whatever is seen as a crazy idea globally can change the world. This is how world-changing ideas start.”

The emirate also plans on having half of its buildings 3D printed by 2030. “The targets seem ambitious but short-term milestones need to be achieved to ensure we embrace these technologies,” Olama said. “It’s a multifaceted approach and we’re looking to become a testbed for these solutions.”

UAE officials are keeping an open and optimistic — yet cautious — mind regarding AI. “We need to understand the many opportunities we want to leverage and be conscious of the impact,” Olama explained. “We want to have a testbed for any country and company around the world to test [technologies] here and see the impact.”

He said these elements coming together give the UAE a unique selling point compared to other countries. “In specific countries, if something goes wrong, livelihoods are at risk,” he said, “but in the UAE, we can control that. We can stop the process, go back to the drawing board and fine-tune it. Many companies, governments and academia want to come here for testing.”

Automation is expected to change the world for the better, with the market estimated to reach $42 billion by 2025. Experts have hope for dealing with expected job losses. “If displaced workers are able to be re-employed within a year, automation can [uplift] the economy,” said Clarissa Chen, chief operating officer at Udacity, which offers online courses for a technology-driven economy.

“Everyone has the power to change this dynamic and I propose we become job-neutral, which means that for every job your organisation displaces with technology, you commit to educating one person and making it possible for them to pursue a career in technology.”

Increasing access to tech education is a major driving force of Udacity. “It’s in our DNA,” Chen said. “We need to do a better job of reaching out to people outside of tech — truck drivers, factory workers and more. They’ll build a better life for themselves, their families and the rest of society. Anyone who wants to learn deserves to be educated.”

Making technology less intimidating will prove crucial in that shift. “We need to show people how rewarding it can be to come up with solutions to the world’s biggest problems,” Chen said.

Olama suggested taxi drivers could become the next computer scientists, if they wish. “They can learn how to code and become someone who’s a part of the future,” he said. “Our ‘One Million Arab Coders’ programme is open to the whole region and we’re looking at places where we will have the highest efficiency if we deploy AI solutions in government. We’re looking at how we can migrate people slowly as we don’t want to be rash.

“Our approach is addressing this scientifically: We put a hypothesis, train it, test it, then look at the theory and implement it on a wide scale if it actually works. Every initiative has always gone through that process and it will be cross-cutting for citizens to be tech-informed.”

Caline Malek is an Arab Weekly contributor in Abu Dhabi.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.