The Arab world should set the tone for the future of AI technology

We cannot leave it to American and European voices to dictate the direction and future of this technology

The fifth edition of UMEX & SimTEX 2022 exhibition in Abu Dhabi in February. Wam
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During a visit to the UAE this month, OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman said he was “hopeful that the region can play a central role in a global conversation” about the use of artificial intelligence.

Mr Altman has undertaken a global tour that also included stops in Israel, Qatar, India, South Korea and Japan – and his statements have received a lot of attention.

This is to be expected. His opinions, thoughts and comments have been closely followed, as they should be, given the proliferation of generative artificial intelligence technology since OpenAI’s ChatGPT was released into the public domain at the end of last year.

Most acknowledge now that it appears as if we are on the cusp of a new era of advancement that brings with it risks and opportunities.

Much has been discussed, especially in recent weeks, about what these could be. However, little has been said about what the specific experience of the Arab world has been – or rather, should be.

There are expert voices in this region, of course. If you listen to Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for AI, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications, speak about artificial intelligence, it is clear that he is one of the world’s leading sources of knowledge on the subject. We also have in Abu Dhabi Eric Xing, the president of Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, who is plugged into an unparalleled network of academics working on AI around the world.

The Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority is also making great strides on a dedicated framework for AI, and supercomputer capacity in the region is growing. The data and machine learning infrastructure is being developed, including by innovative companies such as Botim owner Astra Tech, the building of which is very important for the region’s global role.

If the 20th century was defined by nuclear powers, the next 100 years will be dominated by those who dominate AI technology

We also need to be philosophically robust. The idea of AI in the Arab world should be explored in its own right, with the aim ultimately to create principles of best practice for the technology’s deployment to meet the region’s specific strengths and weaknesses and, in particular, serve the Arabic language.

This last point underscores how Arabic has been relatively underserved by the world wide web and digitilisation so far. Partly, this has been because those of us who live and work here have lagged behind other regions by design. We have been content simply to purchase their innovations rather than develop our own, or because of a lack of concerted effort by the countries and companies of the region.

That is the past. There is, arguably, far more at stake in the present and in the future. If the impact of the first Industrial Revolution was to turn the Arab world into a member of the Third World, the AI Revolution threatens to make a new Third World for those nations and regions unable to get a seat at the table. If the 20th century was defined by nuclear powers, the next 100 years will be dominated by those who dominate AI technology.

How can the Arab world take charge of its destiny?

First, set the tone on the future of artificial intelligence technology, including how it should be regulated. Don’t wait for Washington, Brussels or Beijing to lead the way.

When executives from technology companies visit the region, it is wise and appropriate to listen to them and for the dialogue to inform our path forward. But if these conversations occur in a landscape where there are fewer Arab voices, then we risk falling into the trap of adopting another region’s model instead of one that is tailored for the Arab world.

Some of the success of Gulf economies such as the UAE has been in charting its own course, learning from elsewhere but steadfastly adapting to what works best regionally. This has also led to the creation of globally renowned experiences and businesses. We must not allow these accomplishments to be eroded in the next era of economic development, nor should we allow ourselves to forget that we have achieved so much despite the challenges and conflicts we face every day.

In the final three months of this year, there will be a number of big global events taking place in this region, including the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, the FII conference in Riyadh, and the IMF summit in Marrakech. This means there will be plenty of energy and interest gravitating around our part of the world at that time, and a focus on AI during that period would be of huge benefit and interest to Arab audiences.

Let us here in the Arab world pioneer the use of generative AI in Arabic across sectors, no matter how small-scale, to plant a flag and make a statement – as well as for efficiency and productivity reasons. For now, it might feel like a gimmick and the use cases may appear narrow. However, the experience of the past 25 years tells us that rapid development means exactly that. It’s better to be an early adopter feeling a little foolish than miss the train to greater cost in the future. Of course, this takes courage and vision.

When have we not needed both in the Arab world, and how often we have come up short over the years. But it is time to believe Arab economies can become global leaders in AI.

Published: June 15, 2023, 2:00 PM