‘Artificial intelligence’ becoming buzz phrase in Arab world

A recent PWC study projected that AI will add $320 billion to Middle East economic output by 2030.
Sunday 14/04/2019
A driverless vehicle at Masdar City, on the eastern outskirts of Abu Dhabi. (AFP)
Cutting-edge technology. A driverless vehicle at Masdar City, on the eastern outskirts of Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

“Artificial intelligence” is becoming the buzz phrase in the Arab world. The Smart Dubai Initiative recently highlighted the $21 billion Dubai had attracted in the phenomenon and robotics from 2015-18, “more than any other city globally.”

News of Uber’s acquisition of Careem, the Dubai-based ride-hailing application, grabbed headlines for its $3.1 billion price tag, the largest-ever regional technology transaction. It also indicates the importance of company size in the accumulation of data, in which artificial intelligence (AI) creates a cutting edge.

Add those figures to Saudi Arabia’s $45 billion investment last year in the technology fund of Softbank, the Japanese global corporate, and a picture emerges of the Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates, as world leaders in AI, a field in which change is probably more transformative and more rapid than any in history.

A recent PWC study projected that AI will add $320 billion to Middle East economic output by 2030, when it will account for 14% of the Emirates’ GDP. Yet there has been little public discussion of AI’s implications for the Arab world.

Mazen Skaf, managing director of Strategic Decisions Group in California, gave a presentation to the Order of Engineers and Architects in Beirut, explaining that AI was the only way to deal with an explosion of data. “Every two days, we are generating more data than [were] generated from the beginning of civilisation up to 2003,” Skaf said. “AI becomes a necessity to deal with all that data and transform it into knowledge.”

Skaf distinguished between “artificial narrow intelligence” (ANI), in which computers surpass humans in a specific domain, and “artificial general intelligence,” in which machines will soon learn a concept in one domain or industry and apply it elsewhere.

As an example of ANI, in 2005 world chess champion Gary Kasparov demonstrated that a combination of humans and machines could beat computers. “Now you can download a chess-playing app on your phone that will be the best champion in chess,” said Skaf. “This is an example of what will happen in domain after domain as the machines get better than us.”

The potential in health care seems positive. AI-based image-recognition achieved 95% accuracy in identifying skin cancers, compared to 87% for human diagnosticians. In business, AI increases sales and profitability through understanding and analysing customer data, including demographics.

The combination of humans and machines is seen in the way Amazon, set to become the world’s first $3 trillion company, uses doctoral-level economists, of whom it employs more than anyone else in the United States other than the Federal Reserve. While Amazon’s economists sign confidentiality agreements, it is believed they essentially use their skills to ask questions about what causes what, finding answers through machine-learning algorithms.

An optimist, Skaf portrayed AI as an answer to issues such as climate change and mass inequality. “These are all complex problems we have created with our advancements in technology,” he said. “The right innovation is coming at the right time maybe to help us solve this.”

The implications for jobs are serious. Writing after January’s Davos conference of world leaders, syndicated business writer Kevin Roose exposed a divergence between corporate leaders talking in public about “human-centred AI” while privately aiming for greater profit margins through replacing most — if not all — workers.

Kai-Fu Lee, a technology executive, predicted that AI will eliminate 40% of the world’s jobs within 15 years. A report in January from World Economic Forum organisers suggested that only 25% of those displaced by automation in the next decade could be profitably reskilled by the private sector.

Skaf highlighted autonomous vehicles and factory-floor automation in removing a large number of jobs. Secretaries and accountants are already endangered species but low-skilled jobs are important in populous countries, such as Iraq and Egypt. In time, the demand for service drivers will end, with any boost from app-based operations short-term, given Uber’s research into driverless cars.

Further down the line, “artificial super intelligence,” Skaf said, would mean machines surpassing humans in “realms thought of as the specialisation of human beings… including scientific creativity, general wisdom, common sense.”

This emphasises a growing issue: computers being programmed with values and aims. At present, these are set by business leaders. Skaf called for “a code of ethics across the industry.” Others wonder whether citizens, governments and multinational bodies should play a role.

Nasser Saidi, a former Lebanese economy minister, warned of AI increasing inequality. Addressing the Beirut conference at the Order of Engineers, Saidi called for higher levels of transparency involving civil society.

“We need to convince our leadership that this is the only way to go,” Saidi said. “If you ask them ‘Is this a priority for you?’ the answer is ‘No.’ They’re still living in the ’60s and ’70s when they should be living in the 2020s and planning for the 2030s.”