Oil to AI: The new resource

As the top and fastest adopter of artificial intelligence in the region, the UAE has now set its sights on becoming a world leader.



By Rhonita Patnaik

Published: Mon 19 Oct 2020, 11:20 AM

Last updated: Mon 19 Oct 2020, 1:31 PM

The UAE is traditionally known for its oil-rich reserves and tourism-dependent economy, but there is now a remarkable shift in how the world perceives the nation today - tech-savvy and sustainable. Both are the foundations of various industries, a key reason being various government initiatives to harness the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to restructure the economic map.  

The UAE is currently the fastest-growing and most progressive country in the region when it comes to adopting AI solutions. The country has established the world's first AI university in Abu Dhabi, and appointed a 27-year-old as its minister of artificial intelligence. This is also the first time that a country has established a dedicated ministry of AI.

In October 2017, the UAE Government announced the UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence. The strategy is billed as the first of its kind and is intended to achieve the UAE Centennial 2071 objectives, boost government performance, and invest in AI adoption. Concretely, the UAE's AI Strategy covers development and application in nine sectors: transport, health, space, renewable energy, water, technology, education, environment, and traffic. The 10-year strategy, called the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031, was cleared by the Cabinet last year.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has stated: "We want the UAE to become the world's most prepared country for artificial intelligence."

Currently, more than 60 AI-driven companies are located in the UAE, and the number is steadily growing.

But has the adoption in practice been as fast as the theory?

Investing in AI companies has been a growing trend in recent years, and tech corporations are voraciously acquiring AI-oriented startups. This is mainly due to the fact that AI has the potential to transform businesses in a radical way - a much-needed boost in these times. But, for this transformation to happen, business leaders need to understand AI properly in order to grasp the opportunities and threats that the technologies pose.

While companies acknowledge the significant potential of broader, more advanced AI technologies such as computer vision, speech recognition, and virtual agents, they are currently not in common use by companies in the Middle East. Companies are currently focused on narrower and more specific use-cases that support existing business. These efforts will undoubtedly help companies build capabilities that are necessary to deploy more advanced AI solutions in the future.

The UAE is a future thinking nation, always investing in fields that will bring accelerated growth to the country. In the past 10 years, it has invested a total of $2.15 billion in AI, making it the region's second highest investor in AI, as per AI Maturity Report in the Middle East and Africa, a new study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Ernst & Young.

The top three reasons executives in the UAE are implementing AI are to improve operational efficiency, enhance customer acquisition, and improve customer experience, with several types of game-changing initiatives underway or planned.  

Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Teleworking Applications, said that the UAE is a pioneer in employing AI technologies to build a knowledge-based economy and shape the future of vital sectors, due to the far-sighted vision of its leadership. "It is also a pioneer in promoting global partnerships to serve humanity and develop creative and efficient solutions that will meet the requirements of the coming period."

Abu Dhabi and Dubai have moved up in global Smart Cities rankings, now in the top 50 Smart Cities worldwide, and the highest in the Middle East and North Africa, according to The Institute for Management Development's Smart City Index 2020. Other emirates - Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain - are investing in smart government and smart city plans to enhance daily lives.

As AI progresses from plans to implementation, the Smart Dubai AI Ethics Advisory Board recently convened to identify bias, to ensure fairness and data privacy, to bring accountability in explaining complex algorithms, and to highlight cybersecurity.

The generally high prioritisation of AI when compared to other digital initiatives is very promising, however, the proportionate amount of direct funding that AI is attracting versus other digital initiatives pales in comparison. Many organisations have highlighted that the bulk of the current digital spend is going to foundational activities such as creating an open data architecture for quality data, upgrading and future-proofing the infrastructure, digitising operations and fostering an agile culture. These create a solid platform for AI technologies to rest upon and will enable sustainable AI solutions to progress from pilots to scaled production, but direct funding will have to increase if the potential benefits from AI are to be realised.

Still, successful AI projects need more than the high-level view - they also require knowledgeable and experienced channel partners. Partners should be aligned with technology vendors that are AI leaders and have the experience in deploying AI projects.


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