In 2017, Omar Sultan Al Olama, the world’s first minister for artificial intelligence (AI), published his strategy to make the UAE a global leader in AI by 2031. The plan was approved by the UAE Cabinet in 2019.
Now, two years after ratification, the government has already taken significant steps. Whether or not the UAE becomes a world leader in AI by 2031, it certainly stands a good chance of taking the lead in its region. PwC estimates that while the Middle East will only capture 2% of the global benefits of AI by 2030, the UAE will enjoy the most growth, with AI accounting for 13.6% of GDP by 2030.
The first part of the strategy is for the UAE to be an early adopter of AI technology, primarily in government and five more priority sectors: resources and energy, logistics and transport, tourism and hospitality, healthcare, and cyber security. The second part is for the UAE to develop regional capabilities so that one day, the country will be a net exporter of artificial intelligence.
The government wants to initially “build a reputation as an AI destination”. To this end, the State Ministry for Artificial Intelligence identified uses cases in each of the priority sectors and began funding pilot projects. The government also provides incentives to local companies to partner with global players to bid on projects, hoping that some of the outside experts will set up an office in the UAE. Several pilots are already underway.
In the resources and energy sector, for example, the State Ministry for Artificial Intelligence is looking for AI services that make energy saving decisions, taking particular interest in Demand Side Response (DSR) systems, which facilitate communication between businesses and the power grid to adjust motors and pumps in response to variations in power frequency.
Another example of work in the same sector is that Abu Dhabi is actively seeking AI solutions to help residents find out exactly where water and electricity are wasted in their houses so they can minimise consumption and save money.
As for logistics and transport, both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have major international airports, serving a combined total of more than 90 million people every year. The ministry sees huge opportunities to increase efficiency by using AI solutions for traffic management, baggage handling and aeroplane boarding.
In the same sector, the UAE plans to make 25% of vehicles on the road autonomous by 2030. As part of that strategy, Abu Dhabi says it will launch a pilot project for driverless taxis by the end of 2021.
During the first stage, three self-driving taxis will operate in certain parts of the city. For the second stage, the number of autonomous vehicles will be increased to over 10 and more places will be served. Just in case the AI isn’t up to the task, a safety officer will be in the driver’s seat of the car to take over as needed.
As for tourism and hospitality, the strategy calls for using AI systems to improve the experience of tourists by predicting their needs and offering services that are customised.
To solve other problems in the sector, the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi partnered with Sojern, a US-based company that offers AI-powered marketing for the travel industry. The partners ran a pilot that reached more than three million people, increasing direct hotel bookings in the region.
One of the reasons for providing local patient data is to encourage companies to focus on some of the diseases that are prevalent in the UAE, some of which have been largely ignored by global pharmaceutical companies.
For the cyber security domain, the ministry is looking for ways to apply AI to head off a growing number of threats.
The ministry encourages local companies to partner with global players to help overcome the challenges. An example of the trend to bring in outside expertise is the case where Spectrami, a Dubai-based leader in cyber security services, partnered with CYR3CON to use AI-driven prediction software to head off threats in the Middle East.
Developing regional capabilities
In addition to having the world’s first AI ministry, the government also established the world’s first graduate-level AI university in 2019. Located in Abu Dhabi, the Mohamad Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence offers three main areas of specialisation: machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing.
The State Ministry for Artificial Intelligence is also working with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to develop AI studies in secondary schools to prepare people for jobs of the future.
In another development, the government partnered with the local technology company Alef Education to begin testing AI-based education platforms in several schools in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
To encourage innovation among coders, the National Programme for Artificial Intelligence has begun holding a series of boot camps. The third was held in August 2021 in cooperation with the National Programme for Coders. More than 15,000 attendees were encouraged to develop AI solutions to meet the challenges of the future.
The ultimate goal is to develop a healthy community of local entrepreneurs. The government hopes homegrown solution providers will not only capture a significant share of the growing global market, but also develop technologies tailored to specific local needs. To this end, the UAE is providing incubator funds and mentoring to foster an ecosystem of AI startups.
Acknowledging that AI will displace many people from their jobs, minister Al Olama has promised to work with other government agencies to fund programmes for retraining. Just to make sure there is enough local talent, wherever possible, people will be retrained with AI skills.
While the government still has a lot to do to reach its goal, one thing is becoming clear. If the UAE doesn’t become a world leader in AI by 2030, it won’t be for lack of trying.