Opinion and Editorial

The UAE’s AI mission is multifaceted and pragmatic

Shalini Verma
Filed on September 1, 2021

Across the world, new AI breakthroughs aside, this technology area is seeing structural advancements.

A lot has happened in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) since the UAE tagged its destiny to the technology area. AI can complete our sentences, suggest software code, write plays, and self-drive cars. Well almost. The UAE on its part has understood that AI would be the bedrock for establishing its economic leadership and a strong global identity as an AI-driven nation. The country is accordingly staking a claim to the future, while diversifying its economy.

Across the world, new AI breakthroughs aside, this technology area is seeing structural advancements. For example, computer vision has become ubiquitous, and AutoML is making machine learning more accessible.

This is precisely what the UAE government set out to do as it fleshed out its National Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031. Make AI accessible and ubiquitous in the Emirates. This was no halfhearted PR exercise. The UAE went all the way. After famously appointing Omar bin Sultan Al Olama as the world’s first Minister for AI, it established an AI university. This signalled the earnestness of the country’s AI mission.

Al Olama has made a concerted effort to foster a culture of AI. Through summer camps, internship programmes, degree courses, the UAE is preparing a generation of Emiratis to make AI technologies a part of their vocabulary. The National Programme for Artificial Intelligence has launched the ‘Learn AI Platform’ to raise AI awareness among students.

The UAE’s key objective is to establish the foundation for AI innovation, in which higher education has a crucial role to play. Zayed University’s (ZU) College of Technological Innovation (CTI) has inserted AI learning in its graduate and undergraduate programmes with the notion that AI is multidisciplinary. Its newly established NextGen Center acts as a bridge between students, private enterprise, and government agencies to improve its students’ career prospects, and together with the ZU Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, provides the incubation setting for transforming students into entrepreneurs and their ideas into startups.

Higher education’s other objective is to build a body of research in AI. The Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is a research-oriented university with the initial focus on machine learning, natural language processing and computer vision in its curriculum.

Zayed University’s CTI has 65 professors holding a PHD, of which more than 50 per cent are engaged in some form of interdisciplinary AI research. They collaborate with entities within the UAE and beyond to work on applied research in areas such as healthcare, education, smart cities. Technology companies in partnership with universities and government agencies have set up training labs and R&D centres, in addition to supporting startups.

Globally, Tesla and other tech giants have their eyes set on real-world AI applications, as the initial hype is giving way to pragmatism. In implementing AI for its priority sectors, the UAE’s approach has been one of optimistic pragmatism. It initially picked up the low hanging fruits such as computer vision, which is ahead on the AI maturity curve. It was therefore reasonable for the UAE government to embed facial recognition in various processes such as bank account opening. We can expect more applications of AI and Robotics in community wellbeing, authentication, authorisation, and sentiment analysis.

These efforts have helped underscore the need to accelerate the application of AI by private enterprise and government agencies, especially for improving customer service. While businesses started out with using basic AI tools for customer service, soon their focus shifted onto advanced models and algorithms. Banks have been embedding advanced models in areas such as credit risk and anti-money laundering to reduce decision making and approval time. The Road and Transportation Authority is trialling its City Brain system to improve public transportation based on data aggregated from Nol ticketing cards, public transportation and its Enterprise Command and Control Centre. This resulted in improved ridership by 17 per cent and average waiting time by 10 per cent.

Organisations across the board realise the value of data in any AI driven transformation. The UAE is gradually building a robust data driven infrastructure through its Open Data platform for various sectors. The UAE Smart Data Framework has mandated standards for data classification, interoperability, and data quality.

The UAE is presented with a critical opportunity to build new AI models such as natural language processing for the Arabic dialects, which is being explored. There are core challenges with AI, which need to be addressed, such as rapidly training models and making AI more versatile and explainable.

The UAE government has given itself a 10-year time frame to build AI capabilities that will contribute to the GDP, keep the country safe, improve quality of life. Like Data Science, AI is a team sport. Each participant in the value chain needs to collaborate and align with the country’s multifaceted AI priorities. The UAE’s AI mission is undoubtedly a marathon involving years of selfless work in building a talent pool, conducting research, and solving real world problems.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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