Coronavirus: AI is poised to fuel growth but who is leading the charge?

The US has a large lead in attracting top-tier researchers while Dubai is carving out a niche in the region as a testbed

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 18, 2019 a logo is pictured above the entrance to the offices of Google in London. Google on June 16, 2020 confirmed that it booted one far-right website from its ad platform and put another on notice for hosting "dangerous and derogatory" comments about civil rights protests. / AFP / Ben STANSALL
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The US is the front-runner in attracting talent to develop artificial intelligence, mainly from abroad, while the UAE is carving out a unique role in the Middle East as an AI testbed, according to new research.

Global competition is heating up as AI algorithms underpin some of the biggest advancements fuelling economic growth amid the Covid-19 pandemic, including in life sciences and logistics.

The US commands 59 per cent of top-tier researchers in the world, a sixfold lead over the runner-up, China (10.6 per cent) or region, Europe (10.2 per cent), according to Macro Polo, a Silicon Valley research firm focused on China's economic development.

"Without researchers from abroad, America’s lead on talent would likely be considerably diminished," Macro Polo found, with more than two-thirds of employees receiving undergraduate degrees in other countries.

The Trump administration is expected to announce today further restrictions on H1-B visas that allow foreigners to work in the US, the bulk of which are accounted for by people in tech sector.

China is the largest source of human capital, with the majority, 56 per cent, going on to study, work and live in the US, which is host to the top five headquarters for AI science: Google, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and Microsoft Research.

The widening talent gap in AI "is a major problem", Dr Thomas Campbell, the founder and chief executive of FutureGrasp, told The National. That's because it will lead to a homogeny, or lack of diversity, in the science's development, curtailing its potential.

His Colorado-based company advises global companies on emerging technologies and he said he is "very worried" about South America, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.

"There's still very little representation in those places because they just don't have the money, and their tech infrastructure is so weak or poor compared to other places," Dr Campbell said.

In addition to scientists, Internet connectivity, computing power and universities are needed to support leading AI research.

"Without all those seeds in place, you'll never get to a real dominant position or even a fast follower position in AI as a country.

"There's going to be vastly growing inequality."

Digital roadmaps, as put out by the United Nations and the World Economic Forum in recent months, can help identify gaps, he said, allowing for bigger countries or private sector firms to step in and develop infrastructure, data centres or programmes in places without the resources to do so themselves.

But Dr Campbell cautioned such set-ups mean the data is often owned by who built it, which raises concerns about privacy, and big players only becoming more dominant.

Indeed, data sharing is the fuel that makes AI successful, with diversity and scale making for much better algorithms.

"Dubai is one of the more experimental jurisdictions in terms of data-sharing initiatives," according to a new study from MIT Technology Review.

The government’s Smart Dubai strategy is working to create and manage a data trust to serve as a repository for companies’ anonymised data, allowing members to receive aggregated insights on customer preferences. One of the emirate's biggest retail and entertainment conglomerates, Majid Al Futtaim, is participating.

“As the UAE’s shift towards a knowledge-based economy gathers pace, the country has become a reliable testbed and leader in the development and execution of guidelines and frameworks that enable the large-scale deployment of emerging technologies such as AI,” said Khalfan Belhoul, chief executive of the Dubai Future Foundation, commenting on AI development work the Dubai Electric and Water Authority did in tandem with the World Economic Forum this month.

“In an era that will continue to be dominated by the transformative technologies emerging from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, integrating AI into the public sector for everyday use will significantly elevate the performance of government departments.”