UAE emerging as a global innovator in AI

Artificial intelligence renaissance

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The past few decades have seen major advances in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). As a result, AI has become a transformative business force, specifically in the technology sector. Numerous organizations are significantly expanding their use of AI tools and services, with 2018 a landmark year for this trend. Supporting technologies, such as computational powers, digital storage, and adaptive algorithms have sufficiently matured to enable AI to enter into a new period of adoption and integration as part of the digital transformation of businesses. This changing landscape is obliging companies, organizations, and governments to take note—arguably their future success will depend on their ability to embrace AI. 

The future of AI remains a hotly debated topic. At the 2019 World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk publicly voiced concerns that computers could outsmart their creators and end humanity, yet others hold more optimistic views. Jack Ma, the Chinese business magnate and co-founder of the Alibaba Group suggested at the same conference that AI would “enable humans to understand themselves better.” Irrespective of differing views on what AI signifies for humanity, it is becoming an integral part of daily life, technology, and business, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a rising pioneer of this sector through concrete initiatives that will—very likely make it a beacon of innovation.

AI can be defined at its core as machines performing activities that require human-level intelligence, including the capacity to learn, reason, and self-correct. AI can be used to resolve complex issues, by, for example, making predictions through analyzing large data sets, or through linguistic processing and recognition of shapes, reasoning, and images. There are two classifications of AI: weak AI and strong AI. Weak AI is a machine intelligence that is limited to a particular area or focus; it can simulate human consciousness, but it is not in itself conscious. Strong AI is a form of machine intelligence equal to human intelligence; it is conscious and self-aware. Strong AI does not currently exist, and it is considered highly controversial because of the danger that it could outperform humans.

The weak AI model that is being developed internationally is focused on improving services and creating improved products. This can be seen in practical terms through the likes of Google and its AI tool that is used for searches, translation, and healthcare. Similarly, Amazon bases a lot of its business on machine-learning systems, such as the autonomous Prime Air delivery drones (due to start in selected countries at end 2019), the Amazon Go convenience store, and Alexa AI. At the 2017 Internet Annual Gala, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos referred to AI as being in a “renaissance and golden age,” and as a “revenue driver.” AI can effectively improve communication, relationships with customers, service turn around, and overall business performance, according to the 2018 State of AI in the Enterprise report by Deloitte. 

UAE perspective 

The UAE has been at the forefront when it comes to AI and the potential it entails. The UAE government counts AI in its strategic vision for the future; in October 2017 they launched the “UAE strategy for Artificial Intelligence” in line with the UAE Centennial 2071 vision. The intention was to make the UAE a champion of AI in the public and private sectors, in turn creating new crucial markets with substantial economic value. The leadership of the UAE are of the view that AI will improve performance in the private and public sectors. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE, notably stated at the 2017 launch of the UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy: “The next phase requires Emiratis specialized in AI to serve our supreme national interests as the implementation of AI technologies will help develop new sectors and create various opportunities for our national economy.” The strategy covers the following sectors: transportation, healthcare, space, water, renewable energy, education, and the environment. The focus is reducing costs, increasing productivity, enhancing technology, and simplifying processes across these fields.

Regulating AI

Key initiatives that have been introduced have been a mixture of legislative and practical measures, and the UAE is currently ranked number one in the Arabic world on AI enterprises, according to the Artificial Intelligence Adoption in Enterprise 2018 report by Dubai Technology Entrepreneurship Campus (Dtec), prepared with the collaboration of ArabNet and startAD. One solid legislative initiative has been the creation of the UAE Council for Artificial Intelligence (CAI), chaired by Omar Bin Sultan al-Olama, minister of state for artificial intelligence; its first meeting was held in March 2018. The establishment of the CAI was aimed at developing a broad AI infrastructure, promoting international collaboration within the public and private sectors; liaising with international institutions to effectively integrate AI in key UAE societal sectors (transportation, environment, services, energy, and health); and promoting quality of life for Emiratis. A report by international consultancy firm Accenture estimated that by adopting AI, the UAE could increase economic input by $182 billion by 2035.

The CAI has implemented a dynamic action plan by launching programs and centers designed to enhance innovation and the skills of government officials, in addition to field visits to government bodies, and the organization of workshops. The development of the AI capabilities of future leaders and human capital of the UAE is paramount to the success of its overall AI strategy, according to the UAE government.

“The UAE has been at the forefront when it comes to AI and the potential it entails.”

 The UAE is also striving to implement AI services in the medical and military sectors, and investments are pouring in—a 2019 study by Microsoft and Ernst & Young states that the UAE’s investment in AI has been the second highest in the region over the past decade, reaching a total of $2.15 billion. Developing the UAE artificial intelligence infrastructure requires consideration on how to regulate the sector. Globally, governments have been cautious to regulate AI as it could stifle innovation in this upcoming market. Yet, there have been considerations as to what extent AI can be left unregulated when it comes to specific technologies, such as facial recognition due to potential discrimination and intrusion of privacy. Data protection is critical to AI, given that the value of data collection is immense for service providers who sell it. Accordingly, legislative measures have been passed that give individuals rights over their data and regulate how companies can acquire and sell data, such as the European Union’s Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), enacted in 2016 and the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA). There could also be improper uses of AI in the field of surveillance, policing, and weaponization. As this sector in its current form is still relatively new, it is difficult to predict the long-term outcomes. The UAE needs to be prepared on how to balance AI’s uses and competing interests.

In order to facilitate the AI sector, a UAE federal law was enacted in 2018 by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, which granted authorization to the UAE cabinet to grant temporary licenses for testing and vetting innovations that utilize future technologies and their application of AI. This effectively launched the UAE’s governmental Regulations Lab, which aims to work closely with the private and public sectors and, according to a speech by Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, Mohammad al-Gergawi, at the 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils meeting in Dubai, aims to further “anticipate and develop future legislation and regulate products of the like of AI, self-driving vehicles in a solid and transparent manner.” This is an important development as it is laying the foundations of the AI infrastructure in support of the Vision 2021 initiative and consolidates the position of the UAE as a global player.

 The AI renaissance has taken the world by storm as businesses and governments become increasingly reliant on AI and launch platforms to integrate and share initiatives internationally. The advantages of AI include a reduction in the costs of services and products, greater quality, efficiency, and, most significantly, less human error. It is nonetheless a sector that requires vetting and regulation to ensure it is not misused due to its potential ramifications. The UAE is becoming a top leader in this field and understands the competitive advantage it will acquire by fostering AI futuristic technologies, but it will need to ensure that it is carefully balanced to maintain innovation not stifled through excessive regulation. 

Nicole Purin

Nicole Purin is a legal and finance expert based in the United Arab Emirates.