First Saudi forum for Fourth Industrial Revolution begins in Riyadh

Discussions highlight the role of AI and other technological changes in the kingdom

AI is expected to contribute up to $215bn to Saudi Arabia's economy by 2035. Reuters
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Saudi Arabia kicked off a two-day Fourth Industrial Revolution event in Riyadh on Wednesday that aims to support its transformation towards an innovation-based economy.

The event, organised by the kingdom's Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, managed by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, will discuss the impact of emerging technologies on the future of transportation, building resilient healthcare systems, clean energy transitions, building future smart cities, ecosystem restoration and the future of finance.

It has attracted the best talent coupled with technology to deliver disruptive innovation, said Abdullah Alswaha, Minister of Communications.

The centre, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, aims to harness the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as AI, blockchain, self-driving cars, drones, the Internet of Things and smart cities for the benefit of all.

The C4IR network has centres in 13 countries and works with the government, businesses, academia and civil society to develop, prototype and test pioneering collaborations and governance models to maximise the benefits of technology with risk accountability.

The centre’s projects aim to co-ordinate with public and private-sector partners and academia to design and test policies, as well as regulatory frameworks that contribute to enhancing opportunities to benefit from the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as well as reduce related risks.

Those at the event will discuss how "innovation in regulation can be fit for purpose in the 21st century, post Covid-19 and how regulation should have regulatory resets with agility and disruptive thinking," he said.

Speaking about regulatory agility, Mr Alswaha said: "We need to move with a pace that is unprecedented."

Mohammed Al Tuwaijri, Saudi Arabia's former minister of economy and planning, and Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of WEF. SPA

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is expected to generate non-oil revenues worth 1 trillion Saudi riyals ($266.66bn), the minister said.

The global forum reflects the ambitions of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence, building future cities such as the Neom giga-project with clean energy technologies that are environmentally friendly and to achieve sustainable development goals.

Prof Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, was part of the welcoming session of the C4IR forum, which included ministers, senior officials and a group of experts.

“Just a few years ago, developing a vaccine within a year would have been inconceivable. But thanks to technologies and international co-operation, this has become a reality,” Prof Schwab said as he joined the live streaming event from Geneva.

He said good governance and civil society have to go hand-in-hand with innovative frameworks for technologies.

“I hope to visit the centre in person,” he said.

“We stand at the precipice of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The future of SDAIA is bright with the use of AI,” said Dr Abdullah bin Sharaf bin Jamaan Al-Ghamdi, chairman of the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority.

“We must ask ourselves: how can the 4IR benefit Saudi Arabia's infrastructure? How can the revolution accelerate achievements? In the past, infrastructure took decades to develop. Today, apps like Tawakkalna is able to serve the population. SDAIA also helped issue smartcards during Hajj to ensure pilgrims’ safety,” he said.

The SDAIA chairman said the kingdom “through forward thinking” will create a business-friendly environment to attract the brightest and most talented people to the country.

During the first panel discussion titled "Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution" panelists discussed policy regulators, perspectives and challenges, national strategic transformation and its effects on the private sector and agile governance.

"We are proud and excited by the ambitious achievements so far," said moderator Dr Dinah Alnahdy, chief executive of Entec.

"Digital transformation and the 4IR are key pillars of the Saudi economy," said Haitham Al Ohali, Vice Minister at the Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

"The digital economy is key to transform from a carbon-based economy into a more innovation and skill-based economy. It was no-brainer to invest in state-of-the-art infrastructure," he said.

"The 4IR brings $200bn improvement in value created in improved efficiency and reduction in cost over a 10-year period. The ROI is very clear to us, and I'm only talking about the manufacturing sector, " Mr Al Ohali said.

"We started this journey with a public-private partnership with operators in the kingdom to employ $15bn into the kingdom's infrastructure with the support of the leadership of the country.

"We have more than 13,000 cell sites powered by 5G and more than 45 per cent of the kingdom's area is also covered by 5G services. This was essential to implement 4IR, including cloud to monetise data."

Sheila Warren, deputy head of C4IR and a member of the WEF's executive committee, spoke about creating collaborative partnerships and the need to "recognise that we need to think about governance in a global way".

Ms Warren spoke about creating a global framework that takes into account accountability and said that not all innovations need to be permanent, depending on the different cultural context.

Olayan Alwetaid, group chief executive of STC telecoms group, said: “Cyber security is one of the main challenges but we have been dealing with it in a collaborative way, which includes global players ... we have taken concrete steps; STC has launched its own cyber security services. We think collaboration is needed at a local and global level.”

Esam Al-Wagait, director of Saudi Arabia's National Information Centre spoke about the previous industrial revolutions and the patterns that have emerged.

"These were limited in terms of usage, such as the internet. However, today, the internet is a part of our daily lives. Even while we are asleep we have a smartwatch on for instance," he said.

According to Mr Al-Wagait, AI is still an "exotic term" and "we are at the cusp of usages of AI and data in our daily lives."

Saudi Arabia has launched a national strategy for data and AI which includes six domains: ambition, skills, policy, investment, research and ecosystem.

"These domains have several initiatives that will help drive the usage for AI and data further," Mr Al-Wagait said. "We have a data bank, which is used along with our AI platform to provide insights called 'evidence based decisions'. The National Center for AI employs AI algorithms in different fields including education, health and energy, among others."

Updated: July 29, 2021, 8:11 AM