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Thu 7 Dec 2017 01:58 PM

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Opinion: The many faces of innovation

Innovations of many different shapes and sizes are shaping our future

Opinion: The many faces of innovation
Smart move: The UAE is at the forefront of research and development of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics

To many people, “innovation” may seem like an over-used buzzword with no clear meaning, other than the vague promise of a new method, idea, or product. Innovations, however, are taking place each and every day in this region. The very real effect they are having on people’s lives, is happening in surprising ways that we, perhaps, are only just beginning to understand.

Sometimes, for it to bring about new ideas, one must apply 21st century innovations to existing – or even ancient – practices. In this week’s cover story (page 24) Palestinian scientist and biotech company founder Penelope Shihab recounts how she successfully managed to use antibodies from traditional Bedouin camel milk to invent a product that combats acne.

It wasn’t always easy. In Shihab’s own words, “It was a very challenging experience” spending two years struggling to convince investors and scientists to support her and her research. “It’s time to offer more opportunities to think outside the box,” she says.

When properly supported, however, innovation has an enormous potential to change lives.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a prime example. While the technology may once have seemed like something from a futuristic sci-fi film, support for it – particularly from the UAE’s government – is rapidly changing the world. As Microsoft Gulf’s Alessio Bagnaresi writes in one of this week’s comment pieces, “The contribution of AI to economic growth is not abstract.”

AI is already changing sectors ranging from healthcare to manufacturing. In this way, innovation is very tangibly helping the UAE develop the non-oil sectors that are vital for its future.

For the average man on the street, the everyday effect of AI on daily life is yet to reveal itself. But innovation is also on the cusp of radically changing the way we travel, as Restrata’s vice president for professional services and airports, Ian Todd, says in his piece.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, we may be able to blast off in a spacecraft from Dubai and land in London half an hour later. This amazing feat of engineering, however, will require innovation at every step of the travel process. “The passenger who can travel from London to Sydney in 51 minutes is unlikely to be content to spend the same time or more making their way through check-in and security at either end of the journey,” says Todd.

Ongoing research hopes to deliver a day when we will be able to go through quick and efficient ‘stand-off’ screening, or plan our airport visits with the assistance of online and physical screens displaying waiting times for airport security. Early versions of such technology are already in use at various airports around the world, and give us a small glimpse of what today’s innovations will mean for the world of tomorrow.

Notably, innovation doesn’t necessarily always imply having to do something new. We are, in fact, beginning to see innovative ways to use current technologies. Just this week, for example, we saw Dubai-based ride-hailing app, Careem, launch Dukkan, an extension of its platform that will see its network of drivers deliver t-shirts, sweatshirts and other items to customers in as fast as an hour. Rival Uber, for its part, has already successfully used its platform to deliver food, and in certain American markets is also using its drivers to deliver parcels.

Given how rapidly technology is developing, and how dedicated the region and the world’s young innovators are to coming up with new ideas, it seems clear that we’re only just scratching the surface of what is possible, and how our lives are being, and will be, transformed. As far as innovation goes, the sky is the limit.