What do you do with a degree in AI? First UAE graduates see a world of opportunity

Graduates from Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence share their plans for the future

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Is there anyone more full of promise than a new graduate? These days, perhaps one with a newly minted degree in artificial intelligence holds the most potential.

On Monday, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence held its inaugural graduation.

Fifty-two students graduated in the class of 2022 — 20 with a master's in computer vision, a strand of AI that trains computers to understand the visual world — and 32 in machine learning, a popular field that trains computers to mimic human intelligence.

While automation and AI technologies have been around for decades, only recently has the business case been made for their mainstream use. There are many factors going into the rise of AI, but the falling cost of computing power and the proliferation of data gathering are the main drivers.

There is much hand-wringing over whether robots will replace us at work (with a little boost from the recent popularity of generative AI tool ChatGPT), but the broad consensus is that AI is a net positive for job creation.

According to the World Economic Forum, digital technologies will create at least 12 million more jobs than they eliminate, as people with the right skills will be needed to program, maintain and repair them in the next several years.

To better understand the career aspirations of AI experts, The National spoke to graduates on the sidelines of MBZUAI's commencement.

The university's first class, a third of whom are women, come from 24 countries, with the UAE comprising the largest proportion, followed by India, Jordan, Kazakhstan and Morocco.

Nearly two thirds of the students are going into employment, PhD placements, paid internships or start-up businesses — and of those, 91 per cent plan to remain in the UAE, the university said.

University president Eric Xing said he hopes to bring AI “out of the ivory tower” and put it into practice, with graduates going on to be engineers, executives and government officials in the UAE.

A chance to lead the climate-change charge

Mohammed Al Zaabi, an Emirati in his 20s, was working as a reservoir engineer for Adnoc when he decided to apply to study at MBZUAI.

"At work, the name artificial intelligence kept popping up," he said. "It was always focused on artificial intelligence as a beacon of the future."

Wanting to continue his education, he decided to apply. Now, with the UAE hosting the international climate meeting Cop28 later this year, and a target set for the country to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Mr Al Zaabi said he is excited by the role AI will play in the energy transition at Adnoc, where he is returning to work.

"It [sends] out a message that the UAE is the place for the future. That's the thing that I'm really proud of being an Emirati citizen. Having this knowledge [of AI] ... it made me more assured that I am in the right place," he said.

As a person of determination, he emphasised that the university did well to accommodate him, and he hopes others will be inspired to follow the path he set.

Boosting business dreams

Akbobek Abilkaiyrkyzy, a 24-year-old graduate, said the UAE is a growing market for jobs in AI with opportunities in the public and private sector or academia.

"For MBZUAI graduates, some of us are continuing our studies to do a PhD and some of us are pursuing industry careers in the private sector for positions such as data scientists, machine learning engineers, or computer vision engineers,” said Ms Abilkaiyrkyzy, who is from Kazakhstan.

She is in the process of searching for a job and said she has had several opportunities in the energy sector and consulting in the Emirates.

"Since this is a rapidly growing space, especially in this country, I think maybe in the span of another year, the range of positions is going to only increase,” she said.

She said AI graduates often looked for a minimum salary of Dh15,000 to Dh20,000 a month but this varied greatly based on experience, education and industry.

Ms Abilkaiyrkyzy is hoping to work for a few years and gain industry experience, but intends to be an AI entrepreneur and launch her own company in the energy and technology field.

She said that once AI becomes mainstream it will be a blessing and a curse.

“It is a blessing because so many are interested and this will increase in terms of research, activities, openings, funding ... there is increasing force that will encourage bigger and better progress,” she said.

“It may be a curse on the other hand as the market can get very saturated, and it may become tough for companies or for the industries to find skilled and experienced specialists."

Ms Abilkaiyrkyzy said she has started using ChatGPT for day-to-day tasks to increase efficiency.

She sees more advantages than disadvantages to AI systems taking on more human tasks, because it will free people up to work creatively while the machines can do the monotonous, repetitive work.

A key to start-up success

Toulwani Aremu, a Nigerian machine learning graduate at MBZUAI, said job prospects are strong with a few on offer before he graduated, but he wants to give himself up to five years to try his hand as an entrepreneur.

Mr Aremu is interested in using artificial intelligence to promote health through wearable technology.

With a few job offers in hand, he hopes to work but is also considering doing a PhD.

"I’m glad I studied AI. My ambition is to create my start-up or brand or a group of different brands,” he said.

"Every day we hear news of different start-ups and we see UAE establishing different routes between different countries, so I think the UAE is the best place in the Middle East, even in the world, to start a business especially in AI.

"As one of the first AI graduates in the world I do feel sought after and a lot of recruiters have reached out to me. This degree is something that makes you sought after in the world."

The degree of the future

Saarah Abdulla, a Somali-Canadian citizen, decided to apply to MBZUAI when some projects were stalled during the pandemic at her job in the energy industry.

"I took that time to reflect and figure out what's next for me. I saw the impact that AI was having globally and the amount of effort and involvement that the UAE is putting into this technology," she said.

The degree has given her the gift of flexibility, and she's eager to consider job offers that will let her develop AI tools that can improve the status quo.

"You want to stay flexible, that's the beauty of AI: it can be applied energy, health care, transportation, the sky is the limit. So I'm looking for the best opportunity in terms of growth and development and learning," she said. "I'll also want to explore the gaps that are currently available in the market where we can leverage our extensive skills and knowledge and improve upon what's currently being done."

Helping to build a better future

Abdulaziz Aleissaee, 26, is a computer vision and cybersecurity specialist and an MBZUAI graduate.

He is currently working as an IT security specialist at Abu Dhabi Media. He wanted to combine his knowledge of AI and cybersecurity and hopes to pursue a PhD.

"AI can open a variety of opportunities for me, whether it’s academia or research based. I am very interested in applying my AI knowledge in entrepreneurship and coming up with solutions to help better the UAE,” Mr Aleissaee said.

He said he was coming up with solutions to convince his employers that they could skip miles ahead if they used artificial intelligence rather than mundane solutions.

"I am interested in everything sci-fi and everything technology. It was a no-brainer for me. When I found out there was an AI uni I had to apply. AI is changing every day,” he said.

Updated: February 06, 2023, 7:06 AM