Electricity needed before internet, UAE's artificial intelligence minister says

Omar Sultan Al Olama was part of a discussion on technology for development at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi

Omar Sultan Al Olama, the UAE Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence. Antonie Robertson / The National
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All communities need to have basic amenities such as electricity before the focus can turn to global internet access, the UAE's Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Remote Work Application said on Friday.

“We're talking about access to the internet but in reality many communities don't have access to electricity, or dependable electricity," Omar Sultan Al Olama said at a panel discussion on the second day of the Raisina Dialogue, India’s premier foreign policy event, in New Delhi.

Mr Al Olama, the world's first minister for AI, discussed the significance of technology in health, women's empowerment and education as well as the need for a ministry to overlook the technology development and its effects, with the onset of AI such as ChatGPT.

"I think there's going to be a leapfrog with the advent of platforms like Starlink from SpaceX and Elon Musk. We're going to see communities where there's no need to have fibre or ground-based connections, we can just connect directly to satellite — but still, without electricity, [people] will not be able to make use of these innovations," he said.

Latest figures from the International Energy Agency show that the number of people without electricity rose last year for the first time since the agency began recording the data 20 years ago. "The rise is mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of people without access is nearly back to its 2013 peak," the IEA reported in November.

Fellow panellist Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union's African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, said she faced similar challenges in her home city.

“I look at my life in Abuja, Nigeria, where having to chair a global meeting every Thursday for the last year and a half, or two years, of global leaders on Covid, I had to organise to have a cable dug through my street so that I had the technology required to connect with the rest of the world and yet I have privilege — so what about those who don't have that privilege and capability? We're not considering them," she said.

Dr Alakija, who is also special envoy and co-chair for the World Health Organisation's access to Covid-19 tools accelerator, stressed the need for diversity in technology such as AI, which can sometimes be biased towards the people who helped develop it.

“The world has forgotten that more than half of the world doesn't have access to the basics of electricity that enable them to enjoy the benefits of tech,” she said.

“During Covid, people died because the little oximeter that is meant to measure the levels of oxygen in their blood did not measure properly for brown bodies and for black people because we were not involved in the co-creation of that.

“What Covid showed us is the disparity. We live in a world of have and have-nots in tech and where big tech controls what tech looks like. Artificial intelligence does not recognise black and brown bodies. We need to be involved from the discovery to the delivery part of the equation.”

Updated: March 03, 2023, 6:02 PM