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Tue 28 Nov 2017 10:57 PM

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Opinion: Arab youth at the heart of a brave new world

Our 40 and under list raises hope that man, woman and machine can be greater than man or machine

Opinion: Arab youth at the heart of a brave new world
Lubna Hamdan

Arab youth are told that by 2030, around 50 percent of all jobs will be replaced by robots. Doctors, drivers, delivery staff and many more will be substituted with artificial intelligence (AI) personnel.

But in the Arab world, where youth unemployment across the region is already up to 30 percent, according to the Arab Youth Survey 2017, are robots our friends or foes?

Seeing as one in two young Arabs are unsure of their job prospects, it is likely the answer is the latter.

In Saudi Arabia alone, the number of young workers is expected to grow to 58 million by 2025, meaning as many as 226,000 Saudis will enter the labour force every year, without a guarantee of employment, according to research firm Jadwa Investments.

But the figures have not stopped the kingdom from pouring investments into AI. It became the first in the world to grant citizenship to AI robot Sophia, built by Hanson Robotics.

The move came in line with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s announcement of Neom, a $500bn fully automated city in Saudi Arabia set to be 33 times bigger than New York City.

The UAE has not held back in its plans either, with the Smart Dubai initiative expected to introduce everything from smart people to smart governance by 2021. Already, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) has employed five robots at its Future Centre for Customer Happiness, the city’s first integrated space of its kind to rely on AI and robotics.

But with global business life expectancy going down and human life expectancy going up, what does this mean for the Arab youth? According to a recent report by Dell Technologies, it means more jobs.

The ‘Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships’ report estimated that 85 percent of jobs in 2030 have not yet been invented.

Osman Sultan, chief executive at telecom giant Du, agrees that the future will hold new opportunities that are non-existent today.

Speaking at the recent Arabian Business Forum, he said the UAE’s appointment of a minister of AI is a clear reminder for the reason behind the digital revolution: to make life better for humans.

“Yes, we are embracing this new development, but at the same time, human beings are at the heart of it all,” he told the audience. “This conversation needs to happen. It’s man plus machine being greater than man or machine. And I am quite optimistic about it.”

Jobs of the future, which are gradually being identified at regional events such as the Global Manufacturing & Industrialisation Summit in Abu Dhabi in March, are being created partly by digital giants such as Amazon, which recently acquired Dubai-based online retailer Souq.

But startups are also a driving force in creating jobs, with e-commerce platform Namshi, app-based car booking service Careem and app-based delivery service Fetchr all offering graduates a chance at employment.

Many of the men and women on our ‘40 and under’ list are making that happen, proving it is in the hands of Arab youth to lead the way to a brave new world.

One of them is 32-year old Ola Doudin, founder of Dubai-based startup BitOasis, the Middle East’s first e-wallet that uses multi-signature technology to protect digital assets.

Another is 30-year-old Khalid Alkhudair, who set up online company Glowork, which focuses on solving female unemployment in Saudi Arabia. It has helped over 26,000 women find jobs in the kingdom.

Then there’s 34-year-old Zeina Abou Chaaban, who provides Palestinian women in refugee camps with jobs through her fashion label Palestyle, sold worldwide online (Note, by the way, that two of these three are women).

In the Middle East, where the majority of the population is aged 40 and under, the demographic is undoubtedly powerful.

But is it equipped with the right technology skills to replace traditional jobs? Nearly half of respondents in the 2017 Arab Youth Survey said they were not satisfied with the current level of preparation of students for jobs of the future.

However, of the 51 percent who said they were satisfied with the current education system, most were from the GCC.

It seems, then, that the problem may not lie in robots taking over jobs meant for Arab youth, but in readying the generations of tomorrow to remain at the heart of robotics, so that together, men, women and machines can create a better world.