Of minds and machines

The deployment of Artificial Intelligence is necessary for a more 'secure' future, experts urge at Gitex 2020

By Rhonita Patnaik

Published: Mon 21 Dec 2020, 4:50 PM

Dubai, the global capital where East meets the West, has been the epicentre of business and leisure events for decades. But this year was different. Since March, all that resonated in Dubai was the silence of empty halls that usually play host to the biggest who's who in the world.

However, this month brought two hopes to the world - the Covid-19 vaccine and the first in-person event post-pandemic, the Gitex Technology Week. The 40th edition saw the artificial intelligence and cybersecurity take centrestage. And rightly so.

As people were confined to their homes due to the worldwide pandemic, Artificial Intelligence (AI) saw an acceleration in its growth to help uncover efficiency and inform business decisions. Many feel that AI is already transforming industries and changing competitive dynamics. Even after the lockdowns are lifted, customers around the world continue to use contactless interfaces such as facial recognition, speech recognition, and mobile apps to seamlessly continue their everyday dealings even as basic as ordering food.

AI adoption in the Middle East is taking place within a global context of rapid deployment of the technology. Despite the impact of Covid-19, 47 per cent of AI investments remained unchanged since the start of the pandemic and 30 per cent of organisations planned to increase such investments, according to a Gartner poll. Only 16 per cent had temporarily suspended AI investments, and just seven per cent had decreased them. This means that the importance of AI in today's times cannot be toned down.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai issued early guidelines for businesses to reopen once they have complied with protocols such as limits on operating hours, disabling the use of any touch screens, and ensuring mandatory temperature checks and face masks. Technology will be crucial for governments as they seek to get people back to work while safeguarding their health. In particular, AI can play a major role by helping to limit the spread of infection and boost the efficiency of embattled organisations.

"AI has come to the fore in 2020 due to its successful application in combatting the spread of the novel coronavirus," said Dr Mohammed Yaqub, assistant professor at Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence. "From research into vaccines to faster diagnoses, AI-based technologies have elevated the healthcare, scientific and research sectors by providing new tools to augment current capabilities. This is not just helping in the fight against Covid-19, but also accelerating solutions in current and future healthcare problems."

Key sectors that stand to gain from investment in AI include the telecom, healthcare and education sectors. Moving forward, Yaqub said the latter two sectors will continue to see greater investments, especially as the technology develops and different institutions set targets for themselves.

Dubai has forged ahead with AI implementation as part of its Smart Dubai strategy. For example, the city's utilities infrastructure increasingly relies on AI to operate smoothly, according to Matar Suhail Salem Al Mehairi, chief innovation officer, Innovation and The Future, at Dubai Water and Electricity Authority (DEWA).

Younus Al Nasser, assistant director general at Smart Dubai and CEO of Dubai Data Establishment, reiterated that technology is essential to build trust. "If we want to make Dubai the happiest city in the world, we need to explain how data is being used," Al Nasser said.

DEWA is using AI for predictive maintenance to detect stressed assets and other problems that might occur in its substations or services. "For instance, we will cover almost 30 to 40 per cent of our critical operations with the help of AI within three years. It will save us billions. The future of AI in industrial automation will be huge. In fact, AI is the future," Al Mehairi said.

Muneer Zuhdi, a Nokia Bell Labs Middle East and Africa partner, added: "While the UAE is one of the early adopters of emerging technology in the region, large-scale deployment of the technology is certain."

Few trends that will define the Middle East's AI industry in the coming years, as highlighted during Gitex, include:

Faster AI deployment

While AI implementation in industry is at an early stage at the moment, widespread deployment is inevitable, Zuhdi said. AI in manufacturing can be applied to virtually all business verticals and at all levels to improve operational efficiencies, service delivery and customer experience.

The combination of AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G - being rolled out faster in the Middle East than other regions in the world - will be especially powerful for industry, Zuhdi said. IoT sensors on equipment can feed data to AI software, which can enable predictive maintenance by detecting anomalies in usage patterns and the regular functioning of various assets.

5G, offering transmission speeds up to four times faster than 4G, will be the technology gluing various applications together. 5G is expected to reach 130 million subscriptions in the MENA region by 2026, representing 15 per cent of total mobile subscriptions. These forecasts are included in the November 2020 edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report. The report reiterates the importance of timely licensing of harmonised spectrum that is suitable for 4G and 5G.

Etisalat has achieved the world's fastest 5G download speed of 9.1 Gigabits per second. The throughput has been achieved by aggregating multiple commercial spectrum band of n78 (3.5GHz), n41 (2.6GHz) and millimetre wave n258 (26 GHz). This was accomplished through a prototype 5G device that aggregates all three bands.

Saeed Al Zarouni, senior vice-president, Mobile Network, Etisalat, said: "The landmark announcement is a result of Etisalat's efforts in building a robust 5G network, and 9.1 Gbps is truly a huge leap forward in the 5G era to offer a speed 30 times faster than a 4G average throughput. This will have a significant and profound change on individuals, industries, society and the economy, transforming how we live and work."

AI and humans to walk together

Humans have no reason to fear AI replacing them. New AI systems have beyond-human cognitive abilities, which many of us fear could potentially dehumanise the future of work. AI will indeed automate most repetitive and physical tasks, and part of the quantitative tasks such as programming and even data science. However, by automating these skills, AI will push human professionals up the skill set ladder into uniquely human skills such as creativity, social abilities, empathy and sense-making, which machines cannot automate. As a result, AI will make the workplace more human, not less. There will be a shift toward different skill sets on the part of human workers, creating new job opportunities as AI augments human intellect.

AI can do away with bias

Computer scientists are humans and they bring their biases into AI, according to Hoda Alkhzaimi, president of Emirates Digital Association for Women, and director of the Centre for Cyber Security, New York University Abu Dhabi.

"We should change the way we develop codes and algorithms. We have to develop holistic algorithms and not use a software that has these kinds of biases," she said.

People are working with samples of data that are restricted to certain criteria. The larger the sample, the better, Alkhzaimi said. "One should stop using AI that is not responsible," she added.

Urging AI guidelines

Government support is needed to address bias and encourage the development of AI applications that can be considered trustworthy by users, said a broad array of speakers and attendees at Gitex.

There is an urgent need for international rules and regulations for the use of ethical AI and the avoidance of bias, said Majid Al Shehry, GM for Enterprise Architecture at the National Information Centre and Strategic Advisor for the Saudi Arabia Data & AI Authority (SDAIA).

The UN, UNESCO and other international organisations are bringing together decision-makers to agree on guidelines for ethical and responsible use of AI.

As global citizens, operating in a global economy, Dubai's autonomous systems have to operate under the same standards as other parts of the world, while trustworthy AI should mitigate bias and promote transparency, according to Smart Dubai's assistant director General Younis Al Nasser.

This year, Smart Dubai started to run training programmes with DEWA to educate C-Suite executives and business owners on how to teach, supervise and build trustworthy AI. And two years ago, Smart Dubai released AI ethics guidelines that explain what bias means and how fairness can be achieved in AI systems. It helps organisations developing and commissioning AI, especially government entities, to ask the right questions and ensure the correct steps are taken throughout AI system design and the development life cycle to minimise bias, he added.

Fintechs to become more competitive

AI will play a key role in financial services as fintech used by a growing number of start-ups are challenging traditional banks. Open banking - essentially the use of APIs to share data and allow third parties to offer applications that supplement traditional services - will be a major factor in this trend.

Financial firms were the early adopters of the mainframe computer, relational databases, and have eagerly awaited the next level of computational power. Inorganics Intelligence helps Fintech companies in solving human problems, by increasing efficiency. AI improves results by applying methods derived from aspects of human intelligence at a beyond human scale.

"To survive, traditional banking should further foster innovation and engagement in the market, improve customer service and promote competition," said Tom Bicknell, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. This is where AI comes into play: the technology can help financial services of all kinds be more efficient by, for example, automating business processes and providing risk analysis.

In the Middle East, open banking regulations are lagging, but Bahrain is leading the way, issuing draft guidelines two years ago, while Saudi Arabia is moving fast towards the adoption of open banking rules. Meanwhile, 90 per cent of UAE bank executives surveyed by fintech start-up Finastra said their organisations are adopting or looking to adopt open APIs (application programming interfaces) that enable the secure sharing of data with authorised third parties.

Israel to lead AI expertise

The recently signed Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel have opened new avenues for joint collaborations and sharing of technological knowhow. The inaugural UAE-Israel Future Digital Economy Summit presented vast opportunities for business collaborations, investor networking, sharing of ideas and experiencing mind-boggling innovations from two of the world's most future-driven nations.

In the country of eight million often referred to as "start-up nation", reality has kept pace with rhetoric in Israel. AI-related investments in Israel are surging: 37 per cent of the total capital raised last year was for AI companies, according to a report from Start-Up Nation Central, which tracks and supports investment deals.

Today, Israel holds one of the leading positions in the development of AI. One-thousand four hundred active companies and 40 R&B centres are involved in the field, which includes areas such as big data and machine learning, with $3.7 billion in venture capital raised last year.

In September, an agreement inked between two universities in the UAE and Israel will see the establishment of a virtual institute for artificial intelligence (AI).

The UAE's Mohamed bin Zayed University of AI (MBZUAI) and Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science signed the agreement to advance the development and use of AI as a tool for progress.

The MoU, which is the first-of-its-kind to be signed between two higher education institutes from the UAE and Israel, covers a range of opportunities for collaboration: Student and postdoctoral fellows exchange programmes; conferences and seminars; exchange between researchers; and sharing of computing resources.

Tackling cyber pandemic

Traditional cyber threats, coupled with challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, have compelled organisations to look ahead and build resilient systems and processes that can better withstand future pandemics.

In July, Dubai launched the Dubai Cyber Index, an initiative that seeks to promote healthy competition among government entities in the field of cybersecurity and encourage the development of capabilities and excellence in this area.

Enterprises in the end-user industries are increasingly deploying AI to realise cost benefits, increase productivity, and improve their safety standards. Several government-driven initiatives are changing the dynamics of the industrial sector and contributing to reshaping the landscape in key economies like Saudi Arabia and UAE, and creating stronger institutional set-up and effective regulatory frameworks, to promote private sector investments.

More news from