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UAE minister draws on the past to seize possibilities of AI future

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Omar Al Olama, the UAE’s minister of artificial intelligence, laid out his country's approach to AI, stating, “We do not believe that we need to wait and be followers in the AI revolution. We need to take the lead.”

As the United Arab Emirates’ minister of artificial intelligence (AI), Omar Al Olama may have one of the most exciting and impactful portfolios in the Middle East: how to embrace the promise of artificial intelligence while avoiding the perils of missteps amid the AI revolution. 

The UAE, recognizing the vast potential of AI and in line with its forward-thinking approach to governance, appointed Al Olama the world’s first AI minister in 2017. “With our leadership today, we are blessed to have this vision,” said Al Olama, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor conducted Sept. 28 at the UAE’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. “We do not believe that we need to wait and be followers in the AI revolution. We need to take the lead.”

Al Olama began the interview with a powerful lesson from history, remarking that the failure to adopt the printing press in the 16th century set back economic development in the Middle East for two centuries. The takeaway today for Al Olama and the UAE leadership is to get ahead of the curve and stay there in advancing and adapting disruptive technologies to 21st-century governance. 

“To do that,” said Al Olama, “we needed to scan the horizon and see what's going to be the biggest economic and social disrupters in the future. AI was the common outlier.… So we had to actually focus on setting a strategy where we can become the leaders in AI.” He added, “The only thing that might stop us is fear of ambiguity, fear of the future.”

Far from fearing the future, however, the UAE has embraced it. Speaking with Al Olama, one senses a minister and a country that conduct business with an urgency to apply the latest technologies to governance, but in a methodical manner and in line with the best practices of business management and strategy. 

Spending on AI-related technologies in the Middle East and Africa is expected to grow by 43% this year, to more than $374 million, with South Africa (20.5%), the UAE (19.7%), and Saudi Arabia (15.7%) accounting for the bulk of investments, according to the International Data Corporation, as reported by “The National.”

Al Olama remarked that the first order of business in the UAE's AI revolution is “building the human capacity that's going to lead this revolution.” His ministry has worked with educational institutions around the world, including Oxford University, to educate UAE government officials and citizens in AI best practices. AI literacy, Al Olama explained, is essential if officials are to make effective decisions about AI governance applications.

The UAE is also addressing AI literacy among students. Working with US companies, the Ministry of Artificial Intelligence established AI Camp for Emirati students to attend during holidays. They expected 1,000 students for the first camp, but more than 6,500 showed up, 60% of them young women and girls. The camps are expected to continue and grow.

Al Olama explained that the UAE’s AI strategy also depends on international partnerships, stating, “We are a country that doesn't believe in exclusivity.” He also noted, “We are technology importers today, so we need to work with everyone and anyone from around the world to ensure that we can benefit our people.”

“Our policymaking is very agile and very dynamic,” Al Olama asserted. “So if you are thinking of deploying something elsewhere, and the policymaking process is very slow, you can come and use the UAE as your test bed to ensure that you have something that’s proven.”

According to Al Olama, the UAE has the “Holy Grail of datasets,” explaining, “In the UAE, the population [includes] 200 nationalities. You have Indians, you have Europeans, you have Arabs, you have Chinese. You have everyone. So deploying an AI solution in the UAE means that your solution will be ready to be deployed around the world from day one.”

Al Olama does not agree that the US-China rivalry will define AI competition globally. “I do not think that it’s a two-horse race,” he said. “There are going to be many horses in the race. The UAE is going to be one of those horses, and there's going to be a run towards attracting a certain type of talent to come to your country. So there's going to be specialization, I think, as we go along, to ensure that we are able to have economic competitiveness when it comes to AI.” 

The UAE has what Al Olama considers to be the key to success in planning for the future: tolerance and coexistence. “Two hundred nationalities live and thrive in the UAE in a way that you don't see anywhere else on earth,” he said. “So that's one factor that we know is going to be true throughout.”

The interview, lightly edited for publication, was conducted by Andrew Parasiliti.

Al-Monitor:  Mr. Minister, thank you for taking the time during what I know is a busy week here at the UN General Assembly.

The United Arab Emirates has a national strategy for AI. This is unusual among countries. Even many countries in Europe and elsewhere don't have an AI strategy. Tell us about that, your vision, and the progress and priorities of the program.

Al Olama:  Thank you very much, Andrew, for coming, and thanks again for the amazing work you do. We are keen followers of the amazing content that comes out of Al-Monitor and the work that you have been doing personally as well.

Al-Monitor:  Thank you, sir.

Al Olama:  So before answering this question, I'd like to go back in history, if you allow me, and specifically go back to the year 813 AD. From the year 813 to the year 1455, the Middle East was the most advanced and cutting-edge region of the world. We used to export science, technology and innovations to the rest of the world. We used to have the most vibrant culture, the most vibrant economy and society.

That was the result of many different factors, but mainly two key factors. The first is tolerance. It was a very tolerant region at a time when the rest of the world was going through a lot of turmoil, and the second is the fact that the people in the region at the time believed that the future was a positive one, that we needed to be optimistic and embrace ambiguity.

Now something happened in the year 1455 that led our region from being the first and foremost and most cutting edge to going downhill steadily and slowly compared to the rest of the world. There was an invention in the year 1455 that brought a lot of promise and also peril. It was an invention that scared all policymakers at the time. Every single civilization on the planet —European civilization, Asian civilization — embraced it. It led to the Renaissance in Europe. It led to amazing advancements in Asia, and only one civilization on the planet banned it: that was the Muslim civilization at the time. The invention was the Gutenberg printing press.

So after its invention in the year 1455, it was banned in the year 1515 for nearly 200 years. What that led to was amazing advancement in the rest of the world, but decay and the collapse of a civilization that [failed to adapt to it].

AI brings the same promise, and AI brings the same peril. And we're learning from history, to be honest. We've been there, done that.…

Today we have one of the factors that’s going to lead to success: tolerance and coexistence. Two hundred nationalities live and thrive in the UAE in a way that you don't see anywhere else on earth. So that's one factor that we know is going to be true throughout. Now, the only thing that might stop us is fear of ambiguity, fear of the future, and not embracing the disrupters that are coming up, and AI is one of them. 

So with our leadership today, we are blessed to have this vision. We do not believe that we need to wait and be followers in the AI revolution. We need to take the lead. So that is the core reason why the AI strategy was put in place, and as well, if you look at the vision that we have, there's a vision for 2021 for us to be among the top [AI] countries in the world. 

That vision, when it came out in 2008, didn't really look like it was something that was going to be achievable. Today if we look at where the UAE is compared to not just countries in the region, but other countries in the world, we really are up in the ranks.

So we went from being a relatively small, relatively medium-size economy in the Middle East to being one of the top global players and an incubator for talent, a country that is today exporting not just oil but exporting services to the rest of the world through Emirates and BP Oil and others and also a country that is attracting the top people from around the world. And we'll talk about this in a little bit more detail.

So, after that, the leadership, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa, the president, believed that — and with him Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Mohammed bin Zayed — believed that what we need to do next is not be satisfied with where we had gotten but aim to be the best in the world. So by the year 2071, we celebrate our 100th anniversary as a country … by aspiring to be the best country in the world.

To do that, we needed to scan the horizon and see what's going to be the biggest economic and social disrupters in the future. AI was the common outlier in [all areas of] research … in the future. So we had to actually focus on setting a strategy where we can become the leaders in AI, and we will work on making sure that the UAE is a global player that sits at the table with the big countries, like the US and China.

Al-Monitor:  Tell me a little about your priorities. AI is a big topic. We could go into a number of areas. I know that in your ministry, you do not deal with the security dimensions of AI. You deal with the governance dimensions of AI. You've laid out a wide-ranging plan. Where do you start? And tell us how it's been going.

Al Olama:  So AI is going to, in fact, affect every facet of life. It's going to [affect] every sector that we're going to be deployed in, and we know that you can either be chaotic in your approach and deploy AI everywhere and nowhere or you can actually focus it. 

So the first 3 years were focused on three main pillars. The first is building the human capacity that's going to lead this revolution. The biggest risk for any government in the world, not just the Middle East, is ignorance among decision-makers. If I am a minister or I am director-general of an organization, and I have no idea what AI is, and someone comes and pitches something to me, and I say yes, there is a big risk that things can go wrong, whether it's the AI giving me ill-advised [guidance], or it actually leaks certain data points, or has [built-in] bias. There are so many concerns.

So what we spent the first year doing is working with partners from around the world to train government officials throughout the government of the UAE to ensure that AI literacy in the country is quite advanced, compared to other countries.

We also found that decision-makers, the top decision-makers, need someone that they can depend on. They can go and hire a Ph.D. in AI, but there are many different impacts of AI that are not just research or technology [based]. There's a social aspect. There's an economic aspect and others, and security aspect as well.

So we partnered with the University of Oxford and trained over 100 government officials to understand what AI is, to learn how to read code, to look at the effects component, to look at the bias component, to look at other best practices from around the world in their sectors. And then, for them to graduate from the program, we needed [them] to work on deploying an AI solution within the government agency, and come and present that deployment in front of a panel of esteemed judges that included experts from the University of Oxford, experts from the government in the UAE, and academics to ensure that we do not just deploy for the sake of deploying, but we deploy in a way that is unified. So that’s the first facet.

The second is for us to leapfrog and to really move forward very quickly with AI. We needed to look at where we are currently leading globally. So what are the sectors that we are really focused on? So oil and gas and resources is one. We have logistics as another one. We have tourism as another one. These sectors are affected, and we always want to continue to aspire to lead. So we needed to look at how we can deploy AI in these sectors to ensure that our competitive edge stays where it is.

The third anchor is there are also sectors where we're not doing too well or maybe we're not doing as well as we want to be doing, and we can deploy AI to be at the cutting edge. So health care is one of them. You have education as another one of them, and you have infrastructure development as another one.

In this regard, what you're going to see is deploying AI in health care. For example, diagnosing disease using AI is going to have a tremendous impact. You can have all your medical staff and doctors focus on actually taking people through the care process rather than focusing all their efforts on the diagnosis and making mistakes along the way.

We can also ensure that at the end of the day, we can [offer] the best solutions from around the world, so, technically, it's like having the best doctor diagnose your population throughout the country. With education, we're looking to this, and we're going to deploy, actually next semester, AI within the curriculum. So from grade six onward, every single child is going to do something with AI. They are going to learn how to code in Python. They're going to deal with this technology and engage with it. Once they graduate, AI is going to be in their lives, whether they're lawyers, they're doctors, they're engineers. It's going to enter their lives. So it's good for them to understand the technology before going into life and actually pursuing a higher education.

We're also looking at using AI to optimize the way that citizens in the UAE absorb knowledge and are educated, because we spend billions on education. How do we ensure that these billions are effective?

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned some of the industries you're focusing on. Do you see AI playing a role in the development of alternative energy, where the UAE has also invested a lot and is a leader?

Al Olama:  If you ask me about specifics, it's like asking me, “Do you think that electricity will help us boil water more efficiently?” AI is going to be in every sector, and AI is going to be everywhere. So I don't have a single doubt that AI is going to enter into sectors researching energy methods or optimizing, let's say, renewable energy generation and storage of energy.

I was actually talking at the World Energy Conference earlier this month, and one of the things that I was saying is we have a lot of inefficiencies in our consumption of energy. If you look at boiling water in a kettle, the heat that is generated in that kettle can be used for other things if we optimize the use of that heat, because today all it does is heat the water, and the kettle remains hot. But you don't do anything with that heat. There's a lot of kinetic energy that we can optimize. When we walk, we use the roads, etcetera.

So I think AI is going to help us understand more effectively and more efficiently what we can do with this lost energy that today we don't do anything with. So there are going to be new fields of energy generation that we haven't seen before. It's not going to be as big as oil and gas, of course, but if you can reduce the waste, you can increase efficiency. And you can gain a lot in terms of economics, in terms of financial returns, as well.

Al-Monitor:  You have already undertaken experimentation with autonomous vehicles. What have you seen in that field?

Al Olama:  I think the field is very interesting. It's very exciting as well. You need to also be able to maneuver between the hype and reality. The technology is not yet ready, and let me give you an example. We hear a lot about computer vision being the main driver of autonomous cars, pun intended, but the challenge with computer vision is [this]: I have a car that uses computer vision to some extent to steer or to be able to see the cars in front. At a certain time of day, the sun hits at a certain angle where the computer vision software on it is completely blinded. That is the limitation of technology today.

There's another limitation, which is if you look at LIDAR and SONAR and all these other sensor technologies, there are limitations to that. If one car does it on the road, that's fine — it's using a reflective technology to know where it is — but if a million cars on the road are doing that, there's a very high chance of reflection, of discrepancies that can lead to accidents. So I think if we look at the sector itself, there’s a lot of thinking that needs to be done.

Now, finally, if those issues are overcome — and I am sure they will be overcome — there's a lot of investment that needs to go into the infrastructure side of things. I'm not so worried about the policy side. I know that the policy side is going to be something that goes through a lot of revamp and a lot of improvements in the coming years, but the infrastructure side today is very costly. And it's going to take a lot of time.

So what I see is autonomous cars are going to be the future. That is a given, because it's just more efficient. We can be a lot more productive. Governments need this to reduce accidents. So it's a win-win situation for actually going that route.

I don't think it's as optimistic as some people think, of having autonomous cars in 3 years. I think the earliest we will see mass, good autonomous vehicles is five to seven years in the future.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned the important role of partnerships, and you talked about your partnership with Oxford University and the role it’s playing. Tell me about your engagement with American companies, private industry, in the US and worldwide. I know you're frequently in Silicon Valley and around the world, engaging leaders in AI technologies.

Al Olama:  You need to understand that we are technology importers today, so we need to work with everyone and anyone from around the world to ensure that we can benefit our people and that we can advance our civilization in this new era of AI and for the industrial revolution.

That being said, what we're seeing globally is the US is and probably will remain the only country in the world that's able to push the envelope forward when it comes to AI. There are many countries that are doing quite well when it comes to deploying AI, so applied AI, but when it comes to the actual capabilities of technology, the US really stands at the forefront.

We are working with US companies on training people. So we have something called the AI Camp happening across the country during all public holidays. That's a camp where students from across the country, the Emirates, are trained on what AI is. They are given exercises to have them work with these systems. They are engaging with them. We have prize-giving ceremonies, etcetera.

The first year of the AI Camp actually witnessed 6,500 students. We expected a thousand, to be honest, [and] 60% or more were women, so girls, you know, which was very surprising. I think it's very exciting. And this year, we're looking at, I think, 10,000 students or more. 

What's happening is we’re partnering with the likes of IBM, Microsoft and some [other] big companies to ensure that they are able to give back to the society as well. Now, that's one facet or one anchor of partnership. 

The other anchor of partnership is it’s always good to use your country in a way in a controlled environment as a test bed, because we have certain elements that other countries don't have. The first is that our policymaking is very agile and very dynamic. So if you are thinking of deploying something elsewhere, and the policymaking process is very slow, you can come and use the UAE as your test bed to ensure that you have something that’s proven. You can go back to your stakeholders and actually convince them to take certain decisions.

The second is we are blessed to have, I would say, the Holy Grail of datasets, and let me explain what I mean by that. There's a very famous saying that says if data is the new oil, then China is the new Saudi Arabia. I respect that saying very much, but I disagree with it completely, and I'll tell you why: It's not about how much data you have. It's about the quality of the data. So if you're working in the area of facial recognition and you want to make sure that your system is global, and your system is something that can be deployed anywhere on earth, if it gets exposed to a million Chinese faces, it can't operate in Africa, or it would be very unlikely for it to operate as effectively in Africa or in the Middle East or in Europe or in Latin America, because it’s been exposed to a certain type of people. So the bias there is actually quite high.

In the UAE, the population [includes] 200 nationalities. You have Indians, you have Europeans, you have Arabs, you have Chinese. You have everyone. So deploying an AI solution in the UAE means that your solution will be ready to be deployed around the world from day one.

We're working with these companies to see how we can benefit their technologies, how we can advance their efforts, but at the same time, ensure that we in the UAE are able to get something out of it, whether it's them investing and creating the infrastructure, whether it's data centers or research centers in the UAE, or looking at, for example, training certain people in the UAE, whether it's locals or non-locals. And most companies are more than happy to do that because we are the hub of a broad region of more than 2 billion people from India to Africa and the Middle East. Most people in this region, if you look at the UAE as a hub for the future and a hub for what’s happening next, in that regard, they are more than happy to attract the best Indians, the best Africans and the best Arabs to hire in their companies and take them abroad if they are [top] quality at that level.

Al-Monitor:  How do you assess China's advances in AI, and are they also partners in some of your projects?

Al Olama:  There’s a very nice book out called “AI Superpowers,” by Kai-Fu Lee, and there are many people talking about the new Cold War between China and the US. I do not think, though, that it's going to end up that way, to be extremely honest. I believe that the world is going to head towards having pockets of excellence from around the world.

If you look at what's happening right now, the UK is very advanced in specific facets of AI, whether it's expert systems or whether it's AI in diagnostics and health care, and it's much more advanced than many other countries around the world. Canada is very advanced in expert systems and smart assistants, Siri and the like, and they're doing a lot on that, and not just one. China is very advanced in facial recognition, and they're doing some work over there and let's say anything related to their social point system that they've deployed. The US on the consumer side is, I would say, the leader today on business AI. The US is very good there. 

So AI is not just one technology. It's many technologies under an umbrella. So even if you look at, for example, the anchor of robotics, if it’s industrial robotics, Germany is much further ahead than China. You have Japan’s role in terms of commercial robotics.

So what I would say is I do not think that it's a two-horse race. There are going to be many horses in the race. The UAE is going to be one of those horses, and there's going to be a run towards attracting a certain type of talent to come to your country. So there's going to be specialization, I think, as we go along, to ensure that we are able to have economic competitiveness when it comes to AI. So maybe China is going to focus on facial recognition and anything related to whatever they’re doing, whatever their focus is, but if you look at autonomous driving, the US might be farther ahead because of the infrastructure and because of the policymaking and because of the culture in the US probably.

In a country where public transport isn't as good as personal transport, I think autonomous vehicles are going to thrive. I don't think autonomous vehicles are going to be as popular in Japan, where they have an amazing public transport system, with an underground system, etcetera, compared to a country like, let’s say, India, where the public transport system still has a long way to go. And the best way for it to move from one place to another is with a car, so in that regard, I think that this is my opinion.

Now, what's happening in China is interesting because China is moving very quickly. There are two approaches. There is the European approach, and I wouldn't say it's the US approach, it's a European approach of “Let's study all the risks. Let's look at everything first and then deploy.” So the [issue] is let's finish with a theory and then go to the practical. It's the same way that we are going with education now. So we learn everything first, and then we go into the field, and we [move] to [real] life.

The Chinese approach is let's deploy and then look at the theory. So they're able to see things that others are not seeing, and there are pros and cons to both approaches. I think there are criticisms to both approaches.

What I think needs to be looked at seriously is where the theory actually hinders your competitive advantage. So if you really are going to think for 10 years about getting the policy right and the theory right, and someone else is deploying and getting the rewards and the benefits and attracting the talent, it's an issue. So that's probably one of the things where China is really advancing. They have a lot of applied AI, and I think that they are reaping the benefits to some extent.

Where we're working with China, we don't have a lot of domains of cooperation, to be honest. We have probably some outliers in some sectors. Let me give you an example. We are looking right now at how we can attract the health care side of certain Chinese AI companies with advanced diagnostics, and we're in very early talks in this regard. We’ve also been approached a lot by Chinese companies, whether it's SenseTime or others, to look at how they can work in the UAE, and as a country, you've known this — probably lots of people know this — we are a country that doesn't believe in exclusivity. We work with everyone and anyone, not in a way that harms our allies. We want to work with our allies and make sure that we are committed to them, but from a commercial aspect, there are ways for us to work with everyone and actually benefit from it.

So we are in very early talks with these companies. We are in very advanced talks with Western companies. So I think that there's a balance there as well.

Al-Monitor:  My last question is you started by talking about the future-oriented and visionary leadership of the UAE. The last time I heard you speak, you discussed a Ministry of Imagination. Is that correct?

Al Olama:  No. It's called the Ministry of Possibilities.

Al-Monitor:  Possibilities. That's right. Tell me a little about that and how it fits into these broader policies.

Al Olama:  So to explain that, let me take you first to our Government Accelerators. We had a big challenge in the government a few years back. There were many targets that were coming up slightly short in our Vision 2021. We were at 95%, but we were not able to get through the last 5%.

So our prime minister, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum — he's also the vice president of UAE and the ruler of Dubai — Sheikh Mohammed created this amazing platform called the Government Accelerators, where if a target is set and the project is nearing completion, government officials incubate in that location, and they must come up with a solution to meet the target in 100 days. So there's no blame game. If there are three entities responsible for meeting this target, we need to actually go there, work it out, and find the solution. And we have 100 days, and your leadership doesn't take no for an answer. We were able to actually achieve many of the targets and the goals that we've had in an incredible way. So that, on its own, actually created a lot of impact.

Now what happened was sometimes there were questions that were asked, or requests that were made by leadership, where the answer was impossible. “It's impossible. We can't do it.” And if you look at the history, Sheikh Mohammed is someone who has always aspired to make the impossible possible. And he's done that on many fronts. So they said it's impossible for you to create a tourist destination in the desert, where the climate is not a good climate, and you're in a very fragmented region, and he's able to do it. They said it's impossible for you to have a world-leading government, and now in terms government efficiency, government delivery, government effectiveness, we are number one globally. So every time someone says it's impossible, he makes it happen.

So then His Highness came up with a concept, which is the Ministry of Possibilities. It's a ministry without a minister, and it's a space for incubating ministers who say that something is impossible.

Let me give you an example. His Highness would come and say, “I want to have a transparent procurement process that's also effective, that uses AI to ensure that we're able to spend efficiently, we're able to budget effectively, and that we're able to combat corruption.” The first answer most people say is it's impossible. So what he does is, if it's possible, he sends you to the accelerators, and you need to go there. And you have 100 days to deliver something. If it's impossible, he sends you to the Ministry of Possibilities and says work with the guys there and make it happen. So he doesn't take no for an answer.

And, again, the requests are plausible requests. He wouldn't tell us, “I want to have Emirates fly to the moon tomorrow.” It's quite difficult for us to do that, but some requests sometimes are said to be impossible just because the person in charge doesn't want to try or because he’s happy with the status quo, or because he is satisfied with the way things are happening.

So we know today that if a request comes in from His Highness, even if a request comes in from any, let's say, level of leadership, we need to think of all the angles. If it is possible, we understand that if these are things we need, this is how we're going to do it, and we can't present a road not to do it. If we feel like it's impossible and we can't make a good argument, the Ministry of Possibilities is our location. And, actually, we need to work from there, so that becomes our office.

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