Governments globally must create a safe digital space, UAE's AI minister says

Omar Al Olama calls for more efforts to balance the interests of society with those of business

Shaping Empowered Data Societies (Option 1)
Copyright ©️ World Economic Forum/Pascal Bitz

Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications of the United Arab Emirates
Nighat Dad, Founder and Executive Director, Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan; Young Global Leader
Richard W. Edelman, Chief Executive Officer, Edelman, USA
Moderated by Stephanie Ruhle, Anchor and Correspondent, MSNBC, USA
Facilitated by Julie Ziskind, Platform Curator, Data Policy, World Economic Forum
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Protecting people's data is the paramount concern for governments when regulating the digital sphere, a UAE minister said on Thursday.

During a conversation called "Shaping Empowered Data Societies" at the World Economic Forum 2021, Omar Al Olama said consumers wanted to understand what and why their data is being used for.

Mr Al Olama, the Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications, called on businesses to step up their efforts to ensure adequate protection.

“A lot of data is being mined, but not enough investment is put into protecting it,” said the UAE minister, who in 2017 became the first in the world to hold such a portfolio.

Governments and tech companies around the world are increasingly being called on by digital rights campaigners to reorient their practises to greater serve the interests of societies, rather than corporations.

Nighat Dad, a Pakistani lawyer and internet activist, was one such campaigner at the session. Ms Dad, who runs the not-for-profit organisation Digital Rights Foundation, said there was a lack of transparency from governments and tech giants. "We need to take everyone on these conversations with us," she said. "The conversations are happening on the government and tech giant side but end users aren't part of [them]."

Ms Dad said the Covid-19 pandemic had revealed big “digital divides” within communities and was widening the Global North/South gap on human rights and digital development. She stressed the need for governments to take a bigger role in informing people of their existing rights and their applicability in the online space.

The calls for greater consumer protection come amid a worldwide crisis of faith with governments and big tech corporations. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, a study published annually by global communications firm Edelman, trust in governments worldwide dipped profoundly in the latter half of 2020. The study also revealed that citizens now looked at businesses more favourably than political institutions when it came to accuracy of information. Speaking at the session, the chief executive of PR firm Edelman, Richard Edelman, suggested that it was now "the moment for businesses to lead" within "parameters" set by governments.

According to Mr Al Olama these parameters need establishing through conversations with governments, businesses and civil societies. “We need to ensure that the internet is the space for globalisation and that everyone’s rights are considered.”

He said that “ensuring inclusivity of rights wherever people are is very important” and stressed the need to work collaboratively across countries. “What made the internet great is its access but what might cause its hindrance is if one country regulates in a way that limits rights others have.”

The UAE ranked 16th globally out of 187 countries in the Open Data Inventory Report of 2020 by Open Data Watch, an international organisation of data experts. The country has been leading Middle East economies in an accelerated global push towards digitisation spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the 2020 Digital Intelligence Index, a data-driven evaluation of the progress of the digital economy in 90 economies.

Globally, the pandemic is accelerating digitisation -- especially in areas such as payments and retail -- and the UAE, the Arab world's second-largest economy, is projected to benefit the most in the region from AI adoption. The technology is expected to contribute up to 14 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product – equivalent to Dh352.5 billion ($95.9bn) – by 2030, according to a report by consultancy PwC in 2020.

This week, the man leading the world's first dedicated artificial intelligence research university revealed a challenging target: to put the UAE "on the map of AI superpowers".

Speaking to The National, Dr Eric Xing, a world-renowned computer science professor, who was appointed president of Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence last year, outlined his bold vision for the pioneering institution.

He said his first priority for MBZUAI was to develop a “critical mass” of research output and impact in the shortest amount of time possible.

The university’s curriculum is focused on two areas: machine learning, which provides the mathematical foundation of AI, and computer vision, which takes machine learning a step further to identify and analyse images and videos.