The UAE is leading the race to an artificial intelligence-enabled business age as it prepares for a post-oil era
Overhyped, misunderstood, mass surveillance, end of humanity, no more jobs, loss of control – these are just a few of the words used to describe Artificial Intelligence (AI), at least according to Twitter users. In a questionnaire conducted by Arabian Business this month, one user even wrote, “Robots taking over is our best-case scenario. We clearly cannot make decisions.”
If one thing is clear, it’s that humans are confused about AI – and with good reason. From robots taking over 40 percent of human labour to uncontrollable machines becoming security threats, there are countless assumptions over the advancing technology that, despite being active for a number of decades, is now suddenly at the forefront of almost every sector, from logistics to medicine and even food and beverage.
Any company, any government that merges data and oil is going to get yields that we have never seen before
To say that AI is the new buzzword in business is an understatement: everywhere you turn, from the mundane to the breathtaking, AI is disrupting virtually every business around the world, with tech giants going as far as to refer to it as the central pillar of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Yet the work and presence of AI remain largely hidden.
It is for that reason that the UAE was quick to take initiative; in 2017, the Gulf country became the first and only in the world to appoint its own minister of AI, Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama, in a bid to lead the implementation of its 2031 vision.
It was the right move.
The adoption of AI solutions is expected to upturn the UAE’s GDP by $96bn by 2030, according to a study by professional services network PwC, while a study by consulting giant Accenture estimated that the technology will grow the finance sector by a whopping $37bn, healthcare by $22bn and storage and transport by $19bn.
What do these sectors have in common? They’re all vital cogs in the UAE’s well-planned economic machine.
Speaking at last year’s ADIPEC, Olama famously stated: “Data is the new oil”.
You do not sell AI. You sell solutions or products that use AI, so AI is part of the value proposition
He told CNBC, “Any company, any government that merges data and oil is going to get yields that we have never seen before. We are going to see lower costs, with profits that cannot be found elsewhere.”
The UAE government aims to become one of the most advanced countries in the adoption and deployment of such AI – a message that has permeated from the very top.
Patrice Caine, chairman and CEO of Thales – the $24bn French company that designs and builds electrical systems and provides services for the aerospace, defence, transportation and security industries – has met with senior leaders in the Gulf region on numerous occasions, including Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the UAE’s Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
“When I meet, from time to time, [Abu Dhabi Crown Prince] Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, he always insists that this is the technology on which he wants his country to be at the forefront,” Caine tells Arabian Business.
“He didn’t mention cybersecurity or anything in IT; it was AI. So there is a strong and clear political vision at the top of the country to have a world class expertise in this domain,” he says.
Renowned AI expert Martin Adams says the UAE’s appointment of a dedicated minister for the technology will soon set a global trend.
I’ve been asked how much revenue AI generates. You cannot answer because you do not sell AI
“The one thing I’ve been extremely impressed with so far in the Gulf region has been the serious responsibility – more serious, I would say, than any other region I’ve seen – where the state is actually viewing it as its responsibility to equip the workforce for this sort of technological platform in the future,” says Adams, whose company Codec specialises in providing AI-based insights.
“The governments in the Gulf region are actually saying, ‘We will equip people to have the right degrees, to create the right jobs and to essentially create the right space for them to adapt to those new jobs’. If I look at Europe and the US, it’s all really been left to the private market and the big tech companies themselves to create that learning,” he says.
The Minister for AI sends out a message that “this is not a fad and not a narrow technological kind of application”, Adams says.
“It’s a fundamental new arrival on the business and technology landscape, and I think it’s very intelligent to show that the UAE is open for business in this new space,” he adds.
At the heart of AI is the prediction of a 50 percent savings in the UAE’s annual costs by using it in education, transportation, energy, technology and its space programme.
Businesses, too, have been utilising the technology to automate fairly basic predictable and repeatable processes that humans have been involved in.
One element of the future is going to be voice interaction and voice interfaces
The acceleration in recent years has come on the back of the invention of deep learning, which uses artificial neural networks to more closely imitate how the human brain identifies things and makes decisions.
Its use has been varied – speech-to-text transcription, detection of early signs of blindness, online customer support and virtual personal assistants like Alexa or Siri.
Experts believe that the Google and Amazon smart speakers will be able to spot early signs of disease before we are even aware of it. It could also one day detect emotional state, hear coughing, sneezing or a blocked nasal sound, and place an order for the appropriate medication.
Patrice Caine, chairman and CEO of Thales
It’s little wonder that a large majority of the world’s most valuable firms are putting deep-learning-based AI at the heart of their operations.
Thales has invested nearly $8bn in technologies since 2014, including AI, and has opened a research centre in Montreal, where nearly 50 AI experts are based, with another 150 experts at its major research centres in France.
Caine insists that Thales’ investments are seeing a return, but more indirectly.
Dubai Police, for example, sponsored a machine-learning competition at their AI Everything conference
“I’ve been asked several times about how much revenue AI generates. You cannot answer this question, because you do not sell AI. You sell solutions or products that use AI. So AI is part of the value prop,” he says.
“So what make us more and more unique is the fact that our solutions, products, and equipment bring things that others cannot do by idea. I would say it’s an additional feature; the digital capacity of bringing AI on-board – that’s how I measure the return on investment coming from all these important investments.”
One sector that will initially see the biggest gains is retail, because of the immediate impact of automation and intelligent automation, according to Dr Scott Nowson, PwC’s AI and Data Practice Lead in the Middle East.
“There’s a lot of confusion in the market between AI just simply being automation; robotic process automation is often included in AI and it’s not that.
But there’s a lot of room for automation, such as manufacturing products in retail and supply chain optimisation and analytics and AI, which you can do in that space more immediately – that means you will get the biggest hit in the short term in retail. Longer term though, you are looking at industrial, manufacturing, particularly in this region, because the industries are so large.”
Nowson says there will also be a massive uptake in the health and public sector, particularly with the scale that the public sector is looking at with personalised automation.
I think that AI will touch every aspect of human decision making
“Being able to understand and getting to the point where we have your data, your medical history, in order to better diagnosis you – that’s what AI is really good for; decision-making.”
Global firms are helping to drive down the cost of AI, with ready-made solutions making it increasingly commoditised.
Even before the 2031 strategy was established, the UAE attracted inward investment in AI. A recent report by FDI Dubai said the emirate attracted more than $21bn of foreign direct investment (FDI) for AI and robotics projects between 2015 and 2018.
The UAE itself is also investing in AI. Earlier this year, it allocated $408m towards the construction of ‘new generation’ Emirati schools which will include design and robotics labs as well as AI facilities.
Locally, there’s a big push in AI coming from government entities and large organisations.
“Dubai Police, for example, sponsored a machine-learning competition at their recent AI Everything conference. They provided the data, they provided the problem, they provided the infrastructure and said, ‘People, come to us, work with us, help solve these problems’. It’s open initiatives like that which will really change the landscape of the region,” Nowson says.
Dubai-based ride-hailing tech firm Careem, set to be acquired by US giant Uber this year, uses AI to arrange better meeting points from historical data, particularly when customers are in a building with hundreds of other people.
“Many buildings have traffic systems around them, but looking at historical data of pickups that have been made from that point before… They can now learn the entrances to buildings and start making that pickup more seamless,” Nowson explains.
However, the biggest impact will be on recommendations. When customers receive an email from Emirates airline promoting destinations or offering a particular deal, for example, they are based on its own internal AI.
“It’s the Netflix effect of trying to understand more about you as a person, what you like,” says Nowson.
“We see the retail giants, Emaar and Majid Al Futtaim looking at this space. They get their back of house in order first, optimisation of stock, predicting what people want to buy and it’s going to start moving much more to recommendations.”
Arabic is also set to benefit from AI. Because there are so many variants and accents, the world has been very late to the market with Arabic language technology. But that’s all changing.
Google has improved its machine-learning AI in its translation services, while AWS recently launched an Arabic version of text-to-speech service.
“What’s really exciting me right now is more and more people from small groups, like Arabot and Labiba, launching Arabic speech and language products. Microsoft and Google are getting into that space, too. That’s going to enable so much more consumer-focused AI that will be able to handle Arabic language. They are pretty core experiences right now and consumers are expecting so much more,” he says.
“Netflix is easy; you just point and click. But your bank – one element of the future is going to be voice interaction and voice interfaces – but having that be readily available in Arabic language and being across the region, for me, it’s personally very exciting and I can’t wait to see where that’s going in the next one to two years.”
All but the very smallest of companies will, in some way, be using AI in a productive sense – getting a return on investment, according to Codec’s Adams.
Artificial Intelligence is the next major revolution of our times – our goal is to be one of the most advanced countries in this regard
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum
“I think that AI will touch every aspect of human decision-making, from politics to corporate strategy and corporate training. I think it will touch every element of strategic and creative decision-making and that will mainly focus on efficiency and productivity,” he says.
“I think that the Gulf region, given not only the resources that it’s putting in, but also the mindset that it has around training people to be ready for this kind of AI-enabled business age, stands to be up there at the very, very top.”
Despite fears of job loss, mass surveillance and even security threats, the reality is that the benefits of AI seemingly outweigh our worries. If anything (as one Twitter user pointed out in our questionnaire), AI will simply be “life made easy”.