Controversial facial recognition software can serve 'greater good', says minister

Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, said companies must be allowed to take risks to ensure innovation

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 11 DECEMBER 2019. SALT Abu Dhabi in partnership with Mubadala at the Emirates Palace. The Implications of Advanced Artificial Intelligence. His Excellency Omar Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, UAE. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Dan Anderson. Section: National.
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Controversial new technology can still serve a “greater good” despite raising potential ethical concerns, the UAE’s artificial intelligence minister has said.

Omar Al Olama stressed that pioneering companies prepared to take risks should not be overregulated to point where innovation was quashed.

Citing ongoing debate over the use of facial recognition in internet searches, he said the benefits of technology could sometimes outweigh privacy concerns.

Google has so far refused to introduce the software in its image searches while other firms, including some in Russia, have made the feature widely available.

“There is a big debate today on facial recognition,” said Mr Al Olama during a talk on AI at the Skybridge Alternatives (SALT) conference in Abu Dhabi.

“[It] really created an outcry for privacy - it created a lot of issues when it comes to ethics.

“But it [also] created an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to be able to input pictures of criminals and actually find out who that person is.

“So instead of putting a name and getting a picture, they are able to put a picture and get a name.

“Big companies will never experiment with things like that, and they will never actually do them, because yes, there are issues and moral implications.

“But sometimes, if you look at the greater good, someone might come and say we need to have this kind of thing come out.”

Mr Al Olama, 29, became the world's first minister for Artificial Intelligence in 2017.

He emphasised the growing influence of the sector and warned that both governments and individuals needed to be aware of its impact.

Specifically referencing education and schools, he said more should be done to ensure children had the skills to respond to emerging technologies effectively.

He said innovation in AI was likely to come from small start-ups rather than technology giants, which he said were typically more timid when it came to making contentious new tools available to the public.

“Some people are going to be optimised by AI and some people are going to be replaced by AI,” warned Mr Al Olama, noting that millions of truck drivers would lose their jobs “if autonomous trucks became mainstream tomorrow”.

“If you look at education systems globally, we are taught what to learn, not how to learn.

“So if something new comes up we can’t actually be in a position to meet the criteria of these jobs or learn the skills necessary.

“When you are replaced by AI, there is another job, but can you actually fulfil the need that is necessary in that new job that is created?

“An app developer did not exist in 2005. Were we able to reposition people who were normal coders or in other spaces to become app developers? Yes we were.

“Can we reposition taxi drivers to become social media influencers? No, we can’t. So I really think there needs to be an increased investment in education.”

The conference also heard how the UAE was well-placed to take advantage of a boom in AI, with efforts underway to position the country as a global leader alongside the likes of the United States and China.

Eric Daimler, chief executive and founder of Conexus, an AI company, said he believed the impact of the technology would be even larger than people expected.

“AI is going to affect every industry,” he said. “We read about AI in the popular press quite a bit, it’s getting quite a bit of hype.

“But I’m going to say that it’s actually underhyped. Every business will become an AI business.”