Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 January 2020

Why national agendas are suddenly driving the global AI race

Private sector investments in artificial intelligence have far outweighed those made by governments to date

The UAE's commitment to artificial intelligence has gone as far as appointing the world's first Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Omar Al Olama. Reem Mohammed/The National
The UAE's commitment to artificial intelligence has gone as far as appointing the world's first Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Omar Al Olama. Reem Mohammed/The National

The rapid growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the private sector has resulted in governments around the world including AI strategies in their national transformation agendas. The hunger for this emerging technology is the result of international awareness of AI as a solution to socio-cultural, environmental and economic challenges.

At the forefront, the UAE’s AI strategy — rolled out in 2017 — is making a compelling case for the role government can play in the race for AI implementation. As a Middle Eastern leader in the development of AI strategy, the UAE has made remarkable progress in expressing resolute determination towards incubating sound AI principles across key sectors — to the extent of designating the world’s first-ever state minister for Artificial Intelligence in 2018. Along with the US, China and South Korea, the UAE now has the highest number of AI-centralised sectors, including mobility, healthcare, education, energy and the environment. This is not a surprise, given the fact that the UAE is nurturing the understanding of AI with its youth, evident with the region’s first AI camp, the UAE AI Camp.

The adoption of AI initiatives in simple terms is about the technology’s power to catalyse economic activity, improve citizens’ well-being and living standards and refine data sharing through tangible improvements across sectors such as education, healthcare, mobility and energy.

Despite this, global governments have only recently initiated plans to formalise and communicate AI-specific strategies to propel development. Across the AI spectrum, these early adopters are signalling a rise in competition for nations to embody principles that will set the boundaries of applied AI. As such, AI positioning across nations has resulted in the rush to claim AI niches. These fall into three main archetypes, which include ‘AI adoption to bring socioeconomic benefits’, ‘leveraging existing competitive advantage to play an international role’, and ‘leading the progress of AI globally’.

AI use differs by country focus. For example, Sweden focuses on AI to improve quality of life through opening up opportunities for new skills, working methods, business ideas and services, making it a key catalyst for innovation and development to strengthen Sweden’s competitiveness and welfare, while others like the UAE are constantly evolving their AI objectives to be leaders of AI governance worldwide by fast-tracking implementing such as AI principles and AI ethics guidelines that will offer unified guidance to continuously improve collaboration and development.

Regardless of their respective AI objectives, ensuring AI strategy aligns with national strategy remains a common priority for all countries. Depending on a country’s agenda, they tend to align AI funding areas, such as research into AI development, fostering AI enterprises, AI education, and facilities to run AI tests, to sectors where they want to expand AI technology most.

However, there is a substantial effort needed for national AI systems to thrive. While there is increased interest in AI initiatives by governments and noticeable government investments into AI, when compared to investment spends of tech giants in the private sector, AI investments of private businesses remain notably larger than public sector spending. To date, AI start-ups collectively have dedicated over $12 billion (Dh44bn) to AI development. In comparison, Canada, Germany and France have only invested $5.5bn on AI, combined. On the contrary, the US, as the global AI leader, is projected to invest approximately $35bn into Artificial Intelligence through to 2025.

The UAE is in a position to leverage advantages unique to the Middle East, like limited legacy infrastructure, centralised data with the government, and an abundant, young workforce that is enthusiastic about the potential of AI and data. There is also strong public momentum towards digital transformation and smart city agendas.

In particular, the UAE is taking its participation in AI leadership to another level by establishing a unique stance surrounding AI governance and ethical standards. While there is a varying range of national approaches to AI governance, the UAE has underlined potential pitfalls of AI applications that could be detrimental to the social and economic progress of the nation, such as inclusiveness, where the focus is on ensuring the benefit of AI systems spread through society and maintain respect for people’s dignity and rights (such as ensuring privacy of data and information, and eliminating surveillance and intrusion). By bringing together key stakeholders from across the emirates (such as Smart Dubai, e-Government, Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future…), the UAE Council for AI is blazing a trail for discussing the implementation of AI-friendly ecosystems across the country. This is expected to set a robust foundation for AI’s proliferation and indirectly attract more skilled workers, which in turn will have an impact on the talent pool from which the private sector can select expertise to shape a transition to AI-driven business models.

The race for AI leadership is evident globally, and the nascent technology’s ability to disrupt a wide array of industries grows in importance with every passing day. From a government perspective, AI is proving to be a competitive arena for innovation among high-tech nations. In light of this, the AI future won’t just belong to those willing to adapt and adopt AI strategy; it will also belong to those willing to lead policy and governance about how AI is applied for all of society to prosper.

David Panhans is a managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group Middle East

Updated: October 2, 2019 07:08 PM