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Abu Dhabi AI university is key to UAE’s future as the oil dries up

Abu Dhabi's fledgling artificial intelligence university is part of a highly ambitious 30-year plan to transform the UAE’s economy and culture

Abu Dhabi’s fledgling artificial intelligence (AI)-focused university is a core pillar of the United Arab Emirates’ 30-year plan to remove its economy’s heavy reliance on oil.

The Gulf state is developing healthcare, financial services, renewable energy and materials technology sectors, which will make up the UAE economy when the oil runs out. But first, it needs to ensure its citizens have the skills to drive them.

The long-term nature of the UAE government’s initiative is what stands out for Oxford University professor Michael Brady, who is interim president of Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), which was set up to ensure the UAE has the right skills to drive these industries. The Masdar City-based university has just opened to applications for its first intake of 50 students.

Brady, currently professor of oncological imaging at Oxford University’s Department of Oncology, was invited by one of his former PhD students to advise on the project to establish a university specialising in AI in Abu Dhabi.

He has had a long career in academia, including roles as professor of information engineering at Oxford, and senior research scientist in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also has 26 patents in computer vision, robotics, AI and medical image analysis and has established 10 tech companies focused on the latter.

Brady’s expertise in the application of AI in the healthcare sector – more specifically, applying machine learning methods to medical imaging data – drew him to what was happening in the UAE, where development of the healthcare industry is well under way.

But it was the ambition that he saw when he visited Abu Dhabi, which puts UK government planning to shame, that cemented his interest “There is a stark difference between the short-termism that characterises so much of government policy in the UK, where politicians worry about the headlines tomorrow morning,” he said. “It is so refreshing to be part of a government-led initiative that has a 30-year vision to transform the economy and the culture.”

“It is so refreshing to be part of a government-led initiative that has a 30-year vision”

Michael Brady, MBZUAI

Also stark is the reality that will face the UAE in a few decades’ time. “Almost all the UAE economy is based around oil today, but the government knows that in 30 or 40 years, this is not going to be the case,” said Brady.

Plans had been cooking in the country for quite some time before Brady arrived, with the UAE developing a strategy to build healthcare, financial services, renewable energy and materials technology industries. But these plans for new industries bring challenges around skills. The UAE has about 10 million residents and 90% of them are immigrants.

“The greatest threat to achieving the strategy is a lack of skills and people who are going to populate and lead the new industries,” said Brady.

AI and big data are the key technologies needed to realise key parts of the UAE’s future economy, said Brady. Currently, AI skills in Abu Dhabi are almost exclusively contained in the Inception Institute of Artificial Intelligence (IIAI), where about 70 people work. The IIAI has already produced some 100 papers and attracted European researchers, but MBZUAI will accelerate this and create a virtual cycle of skills development, research and investment, he said.

Researchers and other experts are currently attracted to the UAE from Europe, China and the US, but they don’t often stay long term, and the government wants to change this. “They want to attract people to come and study and live,” said Brady, pointing out that achieving this will require the country to look beyond its economy and zero-tax environment to attract people, and transform its culture, particularly with regard to the role of women.

Read more about IT skills in the UAE

Brady said the university plans to take up to 100 students a year and accepts that it will not be able to retain 100% of the students who have done a PhD, with fierce global competition for these skills.

“There is no way in the world that is going to happen,” he said. “It is an ambitious venture and is by no means a slam dunk. You can throw money at it, but that is by itself not going to solve it. They can get nice buildings and all that, but you need to build a brand like Cambridge, MIT or Imperial College, where people want to go.

“The questions are: how many do they need given that they are going to take up to 100 a year, and how many do you need to populate the new industries that are planned to be established over the next 30 years?”

Brady said MBZUAI’s current recruitment targets mean that even if half the students leave the UAE, it will still gain 50 highly qualified kids living in the country.

A virtual cycle of skills development needs to be set off by raising awareness from the start, he said. “This means they have to get top students coming in, which also means they need to attract a really good faculty. They also need to provide something that will excite students.”

There were 3,000 applications in the first week after MBZUAI’s announcement, with 50 places available in the first intake.

Also built into the plans is the creation of an ecosystem around the university, said Brady. To this end, Abu Dhabi-based big data company Group 42 has been charged with attracting startups and effectively acting as an incubator or agent.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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