In 2017 the UAE signalled its commitment to technological innovation when it appointed HE Omar Al Olama as the first minister for artificial intelligence of any country in the world.
HE Al Olama spoke to Verdict following a government reshuffle in the UAE which saw his brief expanded to include the digital economy and virtual working. He answered our questions about the future of AI and the opportunities for countries working in this space to operate in the UAE and Abu Dhabi in particular.
Verdict: What does having a minister for AI say about the UAE’s attitude to new technology?
“This position proves to the world that the leadership of the UAE really believes in artificial intelligence as a technology and also want to make sure that we are at the forefront when it comes to this technology.
“In most countries in the world when it comes to forefront technologies there is a reluctance to invest in it and address it. In the UAE the leadership fundamentally believes that we need to be at the forefront of technology, we need to help deploy the technology when it comes to the private and public sector and we also need to ensure that our ecosystem is a compliment to the private sector rather than a hindrance.”
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Why should international technology companies consider having a base in Abu Dhabi?
“In Abu Dhabi you have 200 nationalities living in a densely populated city. This concentration of diversity means the data that is available here is really cutting edge and global. There is no other country or city that allows you to create such a wealth of data when it comes to modelling or training your data.
“The other mains points are the proximity to talent and the proximity to markets. The UAE is a hub for the broader region: for the Middle East, Africa and India. So you have ove 2bn people within six hours of the UAE. This allows talent to flow through Abu Dhabi and the UAE in such a seamless manner thay any start-up can access talent in a way that they can’t in more mature markets.
“Through the UAE you can expand into the broader region and have a business that is headquartered in Abu Dhabi but can operate in the Middle East, Africa and India.
“The government and leadership want the UAE to be a testbed – allowing companies to experiment, allowing companies to deploy technologies that are at the frontier.”
What tips would give a tech startup on how to succeed in the UAE?
“There are a lot of programmes created by the government that people can use, like Hub71, that allow people to not just experiment with the market but also to not spend a big amount of money to come into the market. Hub71 specifically is an entity where you really get a concierge service that supports you in everything you need on the ground here in the UAE. You can’t really find that anywhere else.
“Through the different platforms available you can get face time with even the most senior government officials to get what you need done, which is quite unique. If you want to get regulations changed to allow a business to thrive that is something that you can’t necessarily get anywhere else but here leadership is keen to listen and try to change the policy landscape to ensure that you can deploy your business.”
Many see AI as a threat to jobs and are concerned about the prospect of intelligent computers. What do you say to that criticism?
“Any sort of innovation is a threat. Electrification is a threat. Automation is a threat. This is the way that things are and the way that things were for the last 200 years or so.
“There is a monumental amount of opportunity but also some challenges to overcome. That will mean that we need to quite proactively sit with people and come up with a road map that makes sense for them.
“Certain jobs do not need to be replaced by artificial intelligence but the reason some governments and companies do it is because there are quick wins. In the UAE we are trying to ensure that deployment of AI matches what is going to have the biggest impact on the livelihoods of people and is going to have the least impact on job losses.
“In the UAE there is a sense that we may not have all the answers today. So being humble about it and being agile and quite quick in changing your policies and regulations is going to be key if you want to make sure that there is the least amount of disruption when it comes to this technology.
“Every time we think of science fiction there are so many challenges on the horizon that we are scared by and we think about – whether its biotech allowing people to change virus strains or using quantum computing to decipher and hack every computer on the planet – there is no scarcity of challenges out there. But there are many roadblocks that will ensure we don’t go towards superintelligence any time soon.
“We should look at the challenges we have today and try to address them. These include the amount of environmental waste and the pollution that comes from data centres across the world, there are issues around inclusion and women in tech and people of colour in tech. There are so many issues we have that are fundamental issues on tech that are big concerns. If we don’t open this technology and have access to it we always going to have greater issues in the long term than opportunities.”