The UAE strides into an artificially intelligent future

Brid-Aine Parnell

Thursday 15 February 2018

The Emirates is pouring investment and resources into cutting-edge innovation, from its own Hyperloop to a simulated Martian colony in the desert. The appointment of the very first Minister for Artificial Intelligence is just the latest step in its bid to be a world leader in technology.

The United Arab Emirates has made no secret of its ambition to be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology and is ploughing billions into research, accelerators and direct investment.

From its plans to build a simulation of a Mars colony in the Emirati desert to its partnership with the Hyperloop One firm examining the potential for superfast transport across the Middle East, the UAE has both eyes firmly on its future.

The world’s first Minister for Artificial Intelligence

It’s fitting, then, that the country has become the first ever to launch a Ministry for Artificial Intelligence, with His Excellency Omar Sultan Al-Olama at the helm. The post of Minister of AI was created in October last year during a cabinet reshuffle, and 27-year-old Al-Olama, currently Managing Director of the World Government Summit in the Prime Minister’s Office at the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, was tapped for the role.

“Artificial intelligence is the next major revolution of our times – our goal is to be one of the most advanced countries in this regard,” UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum tweeted during the announcement of the position.

Worldwide spending on cognitive and artificial intelligence (AI) systems is forecast to reach $57.6 billion in 2021, according to research firm IDC.

“Some of the use cases are very industry specific such as diagnosis and treatment in healthcare, and in others they are common across multiple industries such as automated customer service agents,” said Marianne Daquila, Research Manager in Customer Insights and Analysis at IDC. “The variety, application and nature of cognitive/artificial intelligence use cases is resulting in ubiquitous spend over the forecast period,”

AI investment in the UAE

The UAE has already made significant investments in AI. Dubai’s Department of Economic Development launched the Saad customer service system in partnership with IBM’s Watson cognitive computing system in 2016 and fellow Emirate Abu Dhabi is also working with Watson through its investment vehicle Mubadala.

The new AI Minister Al-Olama was instrumental in the development of the UAE AI strategy, published just a few days prior to his appointment. The strategy’s aim is to save the government half of its annual costs by cutting down on the 250 million paper transactions performed by the federal government and the 190 million hours that are wasted because of them.

The strategy also covers:

  • Transport – to reduce accidents and cut operational costs.
  • Health – to minimise chronic and dangerous diseases.
  • Space – to help conduct accurate experiments and reduce the rate of costly mistakes.
  • Renewable energy – to manage facilities.
  • Water – to conduct analysis and studies to provide water sources.
  • Technology – to increase productivity and help with general spending.
  • Education – to cut costs and enhance desire for education.
  • Environment – to increase forestation rate.
  • Traffic – to reduce accidents and traffic jams, and draw more effective traffic policies.

Rules and regulations for AI development

But the Ministry of Artificial Intelligence won’t just be strategising the country’s role in AI. It also has a remit to invest in advanced technologies and AI tools, as well as implement laws and legislation to govern the development of AI.

In a talk at the Dubai Press Club shortly after his appointment, Al-Olama said that the rapid development of AI could pose risks to humanity, but only if there is no legislative framework in place to ensure that AI is developed to serve humanity, not control it.

The minister also said that much of the ministry’s early focus will be on education. The UAE is already committed to teaching coding to students from a young age, and the AI ministry will work with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to add AI to the curriculum.

“We will ensure people in the UAE are prepared for a change [in the] job landscape,” Al-Olama said at the Dubai Press Club event. “As a ministry, we will work to raise awareness on these new jobs and develop people’s skills through training programmes so they can keep pace with the advancement.

“The UAE has already taken a big step in training students in coding and programming, and now our role will be to work with the education ministries to include AI in the curriculum of higher grades. The next generation, which already knows coding, will be fully prepared for AI.”

AI ambitions

On paper, the commitment to AI development is significant. The UAE wants to be a world leader in the field by 2030, providing all government services with the help of AI tools, fully integrating the technology into medical and security services, and developing the capabilities and skills of trained AI professionals and government officials.

With a remit to both invest in and regulate the sector, the Ministry of AI could prove to be a powerful institution in the technology industry in-country. And if the UAE’s global ambitions as a tech powerhouse are realised, that power could stretch beyond the Middle East region and worldwide.