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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Year in review: UAE embraces artificial intelligence 

From flying taxis, to smart cities and a dedicated minister for AI, 2017 was a giant leap for robotkind

Artificially intelligent robots like Kuri will soon be entertaining children and caring for the elderly and infirm.  Mayfield Robotics
Artificially intelligent robots like Kuri will soon be entertaining children and caring for the elderly and infirm. Mayfield Robotics

Kuri will arrive in our homes early in the New Year. The chirruping 50 cm high robot can trundle around entertaining your kids, take photographs when it thinks you are doing something interesting, wake you up in the morning and greet you at the front door.

All yours for US$799 (Dh 2,934).

The makers of Kuri, an American start up backed by Bosch, believe that robots like this, and jibo, a similar product, are the future we will all live in.

Artificially intelligent household robots, they are betting, will perform more and more of the mundane tasks in our households. Within a relatively short time they will also become increasingly sophisticated and smarter, serving us and our children in all sorts of ways, understanding our needs and making life easier.

Some believe they will even be able to look after our children, or the elderly and infirm, as well as any human carer.

The implication for a country like the UAE are enormous. It is estimated that around 95 per cent of children here are cared for by a nanny, either live-in or part time.

The number of nannies working here is estimated at around 750,000, almost all women from low income countries, and often supporting families of their own back home.

What happens globally when it makes more economic sense to spend several thousand dirhams on a robot nanny rather than employ a flesh and blood one?

This is just one of the implications of the advances in artificial intelligence. For some this vision of the future is troubling.

In a 2010 paper for the University of Sheffield, The Crying Shame of Robot Nannies, the authors, Noel and Amanda Sharkey, wrote: “Our concerns are about the evolving use of childcare robots and the potential dangers they pose for children and society.”

One of their worries is that young children will form an emotional attachment with their robot carers, and have difficulty distinguishing real emotions and interactions from artificial ones.

Others have an even more apocryphal view of the role artificial intelligence in our future. Stephen Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist, believes that we will all be eventually replaced by artificial intelligence.

In an interview with Wired this November, he predicted: “I fear that AI may replace humans altogether.

“If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans.”

Not everyone shares this terrifying vision of the future that seems to come straight from the Terminator series.

Omar Al Olama was earlier this year appointed to the UAE Cabinet as the world’s first Minister of Artificial Intelligence. In his first public engagement he enthused at the potential of AI to help us meet environmental challenges, from energy efficiency to combating climate change.

“Everyone is looking at AI either as a utopian or dystopian scenario, either good or bad,” the minister said.

The reality, he said, was that AI is still at such an early stage, that predictions of doom were “Still a long time away.”

The world, he promised, would not: “See the negative any time soon.”

At the age of 27, the minister will live a life in which AI plays an increasingly important – or intrusive, depending on your point of view – role

But the building blocks being laid down by the UAE Government now, extend potentially even beyond his lifespan

The UAE, in particular, sees artificial intelligence as a fundamental building block for a more prosperous future.

The country’s strategy on artificial intelligence was unveiled in October and is the first project in what has been called UAE Centennial 2017, when the UAE celebrates its 100 birthday - and the minister will be 81 years old.

The uses of artificial intelligence go hand in hand with what is increasingly being called Smart Government, meaning services that are in tune with the demands of consumers and are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

It also offers potentially huge savings at a time when the UAE is transitioning to a post-oil economy.

The AI strategy estimates a reduction annually of 250 million paper transactions by the Federal Government, a cut of 190 million man hours, and will save customers driving 1,000 million kilometers to obtain services. As a result, the cost of Government is predicted to be halved.

The sectors the UAE envisage as being crucial to the AI strategy range from health, transport, and education, to traffic, renewable energy, and outer space, where the country is already envisaging a city on Mars by 2017.

As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid wrote in a column for The National in 2015: “In this age of rapid change, those who lag behind become irrelevant – in a heartbeat.

“Countries whose governments grow old face the same fate as outdated companies. Their choice is simple: innovate, or become irrelevant.”

The advances in artificial intelligence locally certainly provided some of the most eye-catching headlines of 2017. Dubai, for example, has stated its intention to have one in four journeys made by autonomous vehicles by 2030.

Driverless vehicles depend heavily on some form of artificial intelligence to help them navigate safely and efficiently. Nowhere will this be more important than in the flying taxis the city is hoping to introduce in the near future.

These computers controlled machines – essentially flying drones capable of carrying two fare-paying passengers – will place people’s lives in the hands of AI. The first unmanned test flights have already taken place, inching a vision of the future ever closer to our everyday lives.

Read more: World's first self-flying taxi coming to Dubai 'within months'

The UAE is not alone investigating the potential of artificial intelligence, but is seen internationally as a pioneer. It means increasingly that international businesses look at it as place they need to do business in.

Siemens, the software giant, is developing a transport and logistics centre next to Dubai World Central Airport and the site of Expo 2020. The company’s strategy is based on AI as a job creator rather than a job destroyer.

“If you would have worried about the people feeding the horses and taking care of them in the past, we would never have combustion cars,” Siemens chief technology officer, Roland Busch, told The National earlier this month.

“It’s technology rolling in, it kills certain jobs, you don’t need so many horses anymore. In these kind of disruptive changes you always some jobs which are transformed and others which are created.”

It was back in 1955 when an American computer scientist John McCarthy developed the first modern theory of artificial intelligence, as the creation of a machine that could perform tasks like a human, including problem solving and self-improvement.

Is that goal any closer, 62 years later? At the University of Maryland, a robot has learned basic cooking skills by watching instructional videos on YouTube.

“Chatbots” are computer programmes that deliver responses to questions in a human like way. Increasingly they are used for customer service hotlines, while sales of responsive devices for the home and smartphones, like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home have exploded this year. Along with Apple’s Siri, they are now embedded in our daily existence. Sometimes we do not even realise we are using them.

But human-like is not the same as human. In October, it was reported that a robot called Sophia, and developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics, had been given citizenship by Saudi Arabia after “addressing” a future investment conference in the Kingdom.

This was, it was claimed, the first time a robot had been given citizenship in any country. Later, Sophia’s creator, Jimmy Fallow, who had previously claimed his creation was “basically alive”, reported that the robot since had become an advocate for women’s rights, an observation that seemed more to reflect his own agenda as the robot’s programmer.

If Sophia serves as anything, it is to highlight the gulf between the perceived abilities of AI and the current, and likely near future, reality.

“An AI system, or a robot, cannot have any opinion. An AI program has nothing to offer in a debate. It doesn’t even know what a debate is,” Raja Chatilia, head of the Global Initiative for Ethic Considerations in Artificial Intelligence, told one interviewer when asked about Sophia.

“In this case, it doesn’t even know what women are, and what rights are. It’s just repeating some text that a human programmer has input in it.”