What AI can do for you today

Brid-Aine Parnell

Wednesday 19 July 2017

With a young, digitally savvy population ready to embrace technology disruptions, the Middle East is primed for an AI revolution.

Artificial intelligence (AI) may be perceived as the future for software, but not everyone realises how much AI can do for enterprises right now.

Research firm IDC has predicted that widespread adoption of cognitive systems and AI across a broad range of industries will drive worldwide revenues from nearly $8 billion in 2016 to more than $47 billion in 2020.

“Software developers and end-user organisations have already begun the process of embedding and deploying cognitive/artificial intelligence into almost every kind of enterprise application or process,” says David Schubmehl, research director for cognitive systems and content analytics at IDC.

“Identifying, understanding and acting on the use cases, technologies and growth opportunities for cognitive/AI systems will be a differentiating factor for most enterprises, and the digital disruption caused by these technologies will be significant.”

Schubmehl adds that many technology companies are announcing AI offerings.

Disruption led by the young

According to Statista, the enterprise AI market in the Middle East and Africa was worth around $2 million in 2016. That may not seem like much against the worldwide figures, but many believe that the Middle East could leapfrog other regions in AI technologies.

More than half of people across the Middle East and North Africa are under the age of 25, according to the Oxford Business Group. That gives many Middle Eastern countries a winning combination of a fast-growing economy and a young, digitally savvy workforce that is open to embracing AI.

For example, a recent PwC study found that two-thirds of the region would be willing to replace doctors with AI and robots, compared to 55 per cent across EMEA as a whole.

Government support and pilot schemes

This openness to AI-driven technology solutions has also led a number of firms and government institutions in the region to launch AI projects. Dubai’s Department of Economic Development started its “Saad” customer service with Smart Dubai and IBM in October last year. Using IBM’s Watson cognitive computing system, Saad can answer questions from the business community about licensing and registration and other regulations.

Watson is also working with Abu Dhabi’s investment vehicle Mubadala on Cognit, which aims to create “a broad local ecosystem of partners, entrepreneurs, startups and application developers who will apply cognitive computing in new and innovative ways”.

On the business side, Middle East bank Emirates NBD is piloting an AI customer services chat bot called EVA, which can answer queries in natural English.

Smart Dubai Government (SDG) is the technology arm of Smart Dubai, the city-wide initiative to transform the city into one of the world’s smartest. SDG is currently putting together an AI roadmap for Dubai, due to be published in July.

“In order to accelerate the adoption of AI technologies, SDG has also created a centre of excellence with IBM to provide enablement trainings and certifications, implement POCs and provide the latest technologies and support in the field of AI,” a spokesperson told Think Progress.

SDG sees a wide range of industries embracing AI, particularly customer service, healthcare, banking and finance, and e-commerce.

“Marketing and customer experience/insight is one of the most prevalent applications for AI in the market today,” the spokesperson added. “However, as AI technology matures, we expect to see a rise in other applications such as healthcare. A good example is Watson, which is already being used today by doctors to help treat cancer,” the spokesperson said.

Big help for big data

Within businesses, a critical application for AI today is in big data analytics. According to management consultancy firm McKinsey, data and analytics are completely changing the basis of competition.

“Disruptive data-driven models and capabilities are reshaping some industries, and could transform many more,” the firm said.

“Our research finds that companies with advanced digital capabilities across assets, operations and workforces grow revenue and market shares faster than peers. They improve profit margins three times more rapidly than average and, more often than not, have been the fastest innovators and the disruptors in their sectors – and in some cases beyond them.”

AI and cognitive computing is crucial to processing the mounds of data generated by large enterprises and analysing it for ever-smarter insights. Or as SDG puts it: “AI is a tool that can help companies address the growing pains of growing data.”

While behind-the-scenes applications of artificial intelligence, such as analytics, will likely grow in tandem with other regions, the Middle East has a chance to stride ahead in customer-facing solutions, including marketing, customer service and healthcare. In its growing youth population, the Middle East has an audience that’s much more receptive to digital disruption than the ageing populations of the US, Europe and parts of Asia.

With governments also taking the initiative, launching projects and creating centres of excellence to promote AI, the Middle East has an opportunity to become a global centre for AI and robotics.