UAE and French universities to strengthen AI ties

MBZUAI and two top French universities are working on setting up a dual education programme

Guests entertained by a robot at the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence inaugural commencement ceremony in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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The UAE university dedicated to artificial intelligence, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, and two top French universities are embarking on a dual education programme, director of research development and engagement at MBZUAI Ramzi Ben Ouaghram has told The National.

Mr Ben Ouaghram, a French national, was speaking on Tuesday on the sidelines of a business forum in Paris, Vision Golfe, that aims at strengthening ties between France and the UAE in the sectors of innovation and green technologies.

“We're collaborating with Ecole Polytechnique and the Sorbonne Center of Artificial Intelligence (SCAI) to build partnerships between MBZUAI and these French universities together with industry partners,” said Mr Ben Ouaghram.

“We are really at the inception phase of how we are putting [together] maybe a dual education programme and develop joint applied AI research programmes.”

In January, MBZUAI opened in France its first office outside the UAE, named France Lab. The objective is to attract talent and develop local partnerships, including in other European countries.

“France has really impressive talent that we can leverage and we already hired a number of engineers,” added Mr Ben Ouaghram.

“Here in France, there are strong mathematics and technical abilities. That is why France is really a very attractive country to be established in.”

France and the UAE last month signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate jointly in developing AI.

The UAE seeks to become a world leader in AI and in 2017 appointed its first AI minister. In 2021, MBZUAI, the world's only graduate university that focuses solely on AI, welcomed its first cohort of students.

“AI is already transforming our lives, but it will continue to do so exponentially,” said Mr Ben Ouaghram, pointing at the use of facial recognition on smartphones. “We need to embrace it rather than putting it aside, or ignoring it.”

MBZUAI focuses on advancing AI and building open large language models. “These models, such as K2, that was released last week, is a full open source and transparent model to serve the community. Our objective is to make AI available to everyone,” said Mr Ben Ouaghram.

Developing AI is a flagship project for French President Emmanuel Macron, who said in a speech last month that “artificial intelligence is not simply an economic and technological revolution – it carries the potential for a profound paradigm shift in our societies”.

France and Gulf countries, including the UAE, “share common views and strategies for the future”, Laurent Saint-Martin, the CEO of Business France, a state-run company that promotes French business abroad, told The National.

“We have to invest and trade more between our countries,” he said.

The UAE is currently the second biggest investor from the Gulf in France behind Qatar, according to the French government.

France, meanwhile, is the fourth foreign investor in the UAE behind the UK, India and the US. In 2023, bilateral trade between France and the UAE increased by eight per cent to $7.4 billion.

A new French-UAE business council, headed by TotalEnergies president Patrick Pouyanne and Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and managing director and group chief executive of Adnoc, had its second meeting in February in Paris.

Major French exports include perfumes, aeronautical construction, luxury and leather goods while the UAE mostly exports refined petroleum products and natural hydrocarbons to France.

France is one of many players, along with China and the US, which has taken an interest in the UAE's role in fostering AI.

France, Mr Saint-Martin said, should not be underestimated as a global player. It counts a number of highly valued start-ups such as Mistral AI, which recently released its first generative AI model for code. Last year, a number of prominent French businessmen launched independent research lab Kyutai.

The US, added Mr Saint-Martin, are “of course very strong when it comes to AI, but they know in France and in Europe there is a lot of expertise”.

“We have to leverage investments to keep it European and have partnership with key players such as the UAE.”

The application of AI must be kept in mind when fostering partnerships, said Professor Olivier Oullier, CEO and cofounder of Inclusive Brains, which creates human-machines interfaces with AI.

The company's collaborations include the International knee and joint centre in Abu Dhabi, where it recorded the brain of surgeons during operations to better understand how they manage stress.

“AI-specific campuses can be very interesting as long as outcomes are very clear, whether they impact energy, health or others,” said Prof Oullier.

The already relationship between France and the UAE has further strengthened under Mr Macron, said Christophe Bourland, First Abu Dhabi Bank CEO in France.

“French companies have for quite some time understood that economic developments in the UAE are not limited to oil and gas,” Mr Bourland told The National.

“There is an awareness of the need to move forward with the greening of the economy. Investments in biotechnologies and research are also picking up.”

Updated: June 04, 2024, 4:49 PM