The UAE's all abuzz about AI

Google search data shows that UAE internet users are among the world's most interested in the technology

A man interacts with Pepper at Emirates NBD branch in Emirates Towers.
Dubai Future Foundation (DFF) launched Dubai Future Week which offers a schedule of community events and interactive workshops at AREA 2071 in Emirates Tower, as part of efforts to offer a global futuristic experience that promotes technological knowledge and applications.

Under the theme: “Imagining, Designing and Executing the Future”, participants will have the opportunity to preview international films that envision the future, play Human Experience 2.0, an awareness game that introduces futuristic technologies, marvel at the Future Exhibition of images, shopping and the future of food, and engage in Future Dialogues which will explore various sectors such as education, workforce, economics and transportation.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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We're exposed to more and more news about artificial intelligence, or AI, these days - from stories about talking robots to deepfake videos of celebrities and self-driving cars. AI has become a buzzword and popular interest has been steadily growing over the past few years. However, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone shares the same level of interest, learning about new technologies and increasing their understanding of AI at the same rate. After all, more than 40 percent of the world's population isn't even connected to the Internet yet.

Here in the UAE, the media seems to provide residents with a daily diet of news about artificial intelligence. This is no accident. Although it's never a perfect replica, the media is a reflection of society and interest in AI-related topics has grown as business, government and education investment in AI has scaled-up.

Although the UAE is not yet a big developer of AI technologies, it has embraced its AI future wholeheartedly, appointing the world's first Minister for Artificial Intelligence and being one of the first nations to announce an AI strategy. The Emirates is now ranked among the top 20 countries in both the Oxford Insights Government AI Readiness Index and the Economist Intelligence Unit Automation Readiness Index.

Last year's PWC report on the impact of AI in the Middle East, forecasts that AI will contribute almost 14 percent of the UAE's gross domestic product (GDP) by the year 2030. Meanwhile, according to market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC), the UAE is expected to account for 20 per cent of the Middle East and Africa's total spend of $374.2 million on AI technologies by the end of 2019.

During the past 12 months, the UAE Cabinet approved a new, more detailed National Artificial Intelligence Strategy and the world's first dedicated AI university, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) was launched. Moreover, SenseTime, the world's biggest AI startup, announced plans to open a research and development centre in Abu Dhabi, aiming to hire hundreds of engineers.

While it is now well-known that the global AI race has been led by the US and China, few nations have grasped the importance of the expanding role that artificial intelligence will play in our future as well as the UAE. That top-down commitment to embracing technology and putting in place policies that will position the UAE as AI-ready, has also helped business and society at large to embrace it, too.

Out of the 75 countries estimated by Google Trends to have significant Internet search volumes for the term 'artificial intelligence' during this year, the volume of searches from the UAE ranks among the top ten.

Searches for 'artificial intelligence' are about three times more popular among UAE Internet users than for users in the US and the UK. Users in a number of Western European countries rank much lower still.

So, not only does the UAE have credible public policy, investment and national initiatives in place to leverage the potential of artificial intelligence, it now also seems to have an interested and engaged population with a much higher than average appetite for information about AI. That public interest could prove to have real value.

As with any new wave of technology, it is the early adopters that often build the strongest competitive advantage. For sure, early adopters of AI need to be forward-thinking, experimental, adapt to change and accept certain risks. Invariably, though, it is the human factors that make the crucial difference to the success or failure of many new technology initiatives.

To create AI systems that actually enhance human performance and experiences, they must both be human-centric in design and engage with a receptive audience of users and other stakeholders. The sheer pace of technological change makes that human engagement all the more critical and yet all the more challenging to secure, particularly at a national level.

A population that is enthusiastic about the future prospects for AI could be more receptive to new AI concepts, products, services and initiatives than their counterparts in other countries of the world. Likewise, communities where AI is a topic of popular discussion arguably provide a better environment for technology innovation than communities that consider AI less relevant.

It's easy to dismiss AI buzz as meaningless. However, all that buzz may actually help the UAE to achieve its AI goals.