The United Arab Emirates (UAE) wants to be at the heart of the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution and is already testing its mettle as a global tech advocate and innovator.
In 2017, the country created the world’s first “minister of AI”, along with an AI strategy that is leading the transformation of multiple sectors, such as transport, education and healthcare. The UAE has reportedly poured billions of dollars into AI investment and tech startup incubation funds, including its $270m Dubai Future Endowment Fund.
“We think the UAE has the strategic need, leadership vision, deep resources and small enough population to potentially become the centre of disruption in the AI arena,” said Sam Blatteis, founder of research firm The MENA Catalysts and former Google head of public policy for the Gulf. “AI may be a way to help solve some of the UAE’s greatest challenges and inefficiencies and get it off the oil-economy rollercoaster.”
And the UAE’s AI landscape is developing at lightning speed. Abu Dhabi government-owned investment company Mubadala and tech giant IBM recently brought in IBM Watson technology to help serve MENA’s clients and build an ecosystem of partners and developers; the state-backed Khalifa University has a Robotics Institute exploring AI in manufacturing and AI conferences; New York University-Abu Dhabi is working on several AI-related research projects; and Abu Dhabi Police has introduced AI-powered traffic management control.
Dubai is also pushing ahead rapidly with its automated transport ambitions and has positioned itself as the prime testing ground for emerging transport technologies, including driverless vehicles and aerial taxis.
But Frederic Paquay, senior consultant digital transformation at Frost & Sullivan, warned that AI “needs a lot of computing power”, which calls for bigger investments that not all local companies can afford. “Data is the new oil and even if the region’s population is tech-savvy, there is still a shortage of data compared to the US and China,” he said. “A lack of talent can also be observed within the industry all over the region. Even the salaries of fresh AI graduates are being pushed to unprecedented levels.”
Nevertheless, Paquay added: “Regional governments are working hard to make innovation and investment in AI even easier and more reliable. They want to become hubs and pioneers for any innovation in the Middle East and other growth markets.”
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With the right foresight, AI could prove to be a revolutionary force for good in the UAE and further afield, according to Wes Schwalje, chief operating officer of Dubai-based Tahseen Consulting.
“The region’s current healthcare, jobs market and education challenges could all be significantly relieved by the application of AI and machine learning,” he said.
Healthcare is a good example of a sector that could reap the benefits of AI technology, said Schwalje. “For example, with an increasingly ageing population and high incidence of chronic diseases, there is demand for personalised specialist care.”
Schwalje said AI-driven personal healthcare technology can reduce patient-doctor interaction and provide digital health surveillance in real time. “Wearable remote devices could reduce patient visits to healthcare facilities and allow them to receive medical consultation as quickly as possible,” he said. “This can significantly improve healthcare outcomes while lowering costs.”
Image-guided surgical robots are another case of AI adoption in healthcare, he said. “Complex surgeries requiring extreme precision can be conducted using such robots. This can be especially helpful in cases where there is a high risk of fatality due to surgical error.”
Giant leap forward
Schwalje said AI could also trigger a giant leap forward for medical education. “AI coupled with virtual reality can be a great learning tool for future doctors by providing them with a virtual learning environment,” he said. “Young doctors could practise intricate medical procedures in the virtual environment and predict patient outcomes before applying those procedures on actual patients.”
And then there is a big opportunity for AI in education, said Schwalje. The biggest challenge the UAE faces is reducing the skills mismatch in the future labour market, he said, and AI could be a tool to develop predictive labour market analysis based on workforce job performance data. “It could enable policy-makers to identify skills gaps and recommend the right educational interventions in line with national development priorities,” he added.
At a micro level, AI could be used to automate activities in education such as grading and other repetitive tasks, said Schwalje. This could significantly reduce the burden on teachers, who could then focus on professional development and improving learning outcomes for students, he added.
Globally by 2021, AI augmentation is expected to generate $2.9tn in business value and recover 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity, according to research firm Gartner.
Schwalje concluded: “AI as a technology is in its infancy. The concern that many have regarding the singularity of AI is slightly far-fetched according to my understanding. Even the co-creator of robot humanoid Sophia – the AI robot marvel granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia – opines that Sophia might not be true AI. So AI needs time to evolve before it can be regulated.”