Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

UAE ministry uses artificial intelligence to suggest the future of Islamic design

Its Swarm AI analysis resulted in the establishment of the Al Burda Endowment, a new funding scheme that aims to support the making of Islamic art in a new century

HE Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, oversaw the use of AI to meet new challenges for Islamic design - she is seen here speaking at the Al Burda Festival. Photo: Leslie Pableo for The National 
HE Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, oversaw the use of AI to meet new challenges for Islamic design - she is seen here speaking at the Al Burda Festival. Photo: Leslie Pableo for The National 

The UAE's Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development has launched the Al Burda Endowment to benefit Islamic design and craftsmanship.

The idea for the funding scheme arose in a novel way: it was the result of Swarm AI, a form of artificial intelligence that the Ministry deployed in order to analyse the results of a survey among Islamic arts experts that it conducted last November around the Al Burda Festival.

“We have achieved important results that will shape the future of the Islamic art and cultural sector, including but not limited to allocating appropriate funds for art programmes that will help develop the technical skills of creative individuals,” Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, said in a statement.

“The study also predicted that performance and visual arts sectors will witness substantial growth over the next five years, and through partnerships with the government we will be able to create a more intellectually aware audience of Islamic arts.”

The results suggested that the major challenges for artists working in Islamic design are the lack of funding and public understanding of what Islamic art means.

The Al Burda festival itself addressed the former concern in November, when the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development transformed its decade-long Al Burda prize for Islamic art into a full-day symposium on the future and possibilities for Islamic art.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Attendees experienceing the Virtual Reality at the Al Burda Festival, Shaping the Future of Islamic Art and Culture at Warehouse 421, Abu Dhabi. Leslie Pableo for The National for Melissa Gronlund’s story
Attendees experiencing virtual reality at the Al Burda Festival. Photo: Leslie Pableo

Key figures in the Islamic art world, from Shaikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, the Director General of the Bahrain Authority for Culture to British Museum curator Venetia Porter and Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, met at Warehouse421 in Mina Zayed to debate the definition and future of Islamic art in a global context. Headed by Noura Al Kaabi, it was a remarkably successful event, conducive to open discussion, and grounded by an exhibition of the work that Al Burda had supported over its first decade.

As part of the events that day, participants and guests were asked for their perspective on Islamic art, with questions on exemplary practitioners and difficulties facing the discipline. These were then analysed using Swarm AI.

The term Swarm AI refers back to the capacity — displayed by some animals, insects and fish — to function as a collective identity, while moving across terrain, hunting, or in flight. Humans lack this kind of ability: as frequent stampedes at concerts and other events with large numbers of people attest, we lack the ability to communicate as a group. If there is a mob at a concert, for instance, those in the front might get crushed because of the amount of people crowding from the back. Ants, by contrast, communicate along the length of their swarms to tell — in this same analogy — those at the back of the swarm to slow down.

Visitors view the art on display at the Al Burda Festival, in Abu Dhabi. Leslie Pableo for The National
Visitors view the art on display at the Al Burda Festival in Abu Dhabi. Leslie Pableo for The National

The Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development’s use of Swarm AI shows its commitment to new forms of technology — even in a sector, such as Islamic art, that would not seem an obvious fit, with its labour-intensive, hand-made origins and religious significance.

Indeed, this is the overall message of Al Burda, which continues to honour artists working in Islamic idioms as it becomes a higher-profile arena of debate around the discipline: in what ways can the UAE support the making of Islamic art in a new century?

Updated: February 28, 2019 09:07 PM

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