Artificial Intelligence to define future of regional development

November 26, 2017

The machines are start­ing to roll in and walk out of the labs. Drones are filling the skies. These smart crea­tions can see us, hear our words and make sophisticated statements. They are endowed with intelligence that simulates ours, but without a con­science. Ultimately, their prolifera­tion will cause us to lose our jobs, our privacy and any semblance of control over our environment.

This is just one of the dystopian scenarios put forward by people in the Arab world on the issue of artificial intelligence (AI), which is quickly becoming a focal point of technological development.

According to figures from The Arab World Online Report 2017, a survey carried out by the Moham­med Bin Rashid School of Govern­ment (MBRSG) and, 59% of internet users in the Arab region are concerned about the use of AI applications. More than 70% are concerned that AI could lead to violations of privacy and 46% are worried that AI could cause wide­spread unemployment, the study found.

The online study, which surveyed 19,869 people in 22 Arab countries, including Oman, the UAE, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and Lebanon, ap­pears to show that AI is a major source of concern in the technology industry. It also shows that there is more of a need to understand AI and its potential.

On October 19, the UAE created the world’s first Ministry of State for Artificial Intelligence. The move came after Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, unveiled the UAE’s new Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, a cornerstone of the UAE Centen­nial 2071.

These are the UAE’s first steps towards becoming a hub for AI development and related legis­lation. In the coming decades, AI is to be utilised in all gov­ern­ment and private sectors, which is expected to bring a fresh stream of revenue into the country’s economy.

To bring this goal to fruition, however, the UAE will need to employ information and com­munication technology (ICT) infrastructure and solutions capable of supporting and sustaining automation. This will require resources from a technologically ambitious government, as well as sup­port from leading ICT provid­ers in the region.

The UAE sees AI as the future of intuitive tech­nology, which, in view of today’s rapidly changing technological landscape, is the right approach. Forms of AI are already present in much of modern life, including commerce, retail, home automation, health, industry, education, agricul­ture, justice, transport, finance, telecommunications, banking, insurance, security, defence, envi­ronment and energy.

According to the French maga­zine Le Point, the US spent more than $17 billion on AI research and develop­ment between 2012 and 2016. China spent $2.6 billion during the same period. By 2030, the advent of AI could increase the global economy by more than $15.7 trillion, a PwC study shows.

Worries aside, AI — if wisely man­aged — can help Arab countries meet some of the world’s greatest challenges and redefine the fu­ture of regional development. The UAE, which is striving to re­alise this technol­ogy’s full potential, is an outstand­ing model in this regard.

One of the most important steps, however, will be finding the appro­priate balance. While AI promises to vastly improve quality of life, it also collects sensitive information about us and our habits. This will require us to decide how much of our privacy we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of improved technology.

Arab universities, research insti­tutes, industries and governments need to be on the cutting edge of helping train and prepare for this future. Universities, in particular, have a key role to play in terms of research, training and commer­cialisation.

AI, it is estimated, is where the new high-salary jobs will be, but demand for new talent is expected to outstrip supply. To adjust, courses and training must be pro­vided to generate additional talent.

It is also important to reduce the gap between industry and aca­demia, attracting the best talent from around the world and creat­ing more opportunities for women and other under-represented groups.

Now is the time for all — Arab scientists, researchers, entrepre­neurs and government officials — to unite and address the future of AI. With the right approach, the region can deliver technological breakthroughs that improve society for generations to come.