Interview: Omar Al Olama

What expectations have been set for the UAE’s position in the field of artificial intelligence (AI)?

OMAR AL OLAMA: When the printing press democratised knowledge in 1455, the innovation was welcomed in every civilisation except in the Arab world, where it was banned for 200 years. AI is at our doorstep and the UAE has decided to embrace it. We live in a digital world in which we are so interconnected through technology that we need to be ahead of the curve instead of outside the action. Every country is talking about the importance of AI, but there is little action being taken. However, the UAE is different, and we are in a good starting position. Because of the international nature of the UAE’s economy and society, our data is not biased. We also have a new and up-to-date infrastructure compared with other countries. Lastly, the UAE leadership approaches trends proactively. In 2002 the ruler of Dubai said that the future would be digital, and that vision laid the foundation that will help implement AI in the country.

Which sectors stand to benefit the most as a result of the implementation of AI, and how will these changes affect the overall economy?

AL OLAMA: Humans are not replaced by AI, but are part of the revolution. As such, we take into account how job markets, social environment and national security are impacted by the developments. Infrastructure, a sector with considerable investment in Abu Dhabi, can benefit greatly without much controversy, leading to efficiency gains, higher safety and security, and an improved end product. Other sectors also stand to benefit globally, such as health care: over the next five to 10 years all radiology and pathology will be done by AI, without requiring from doctors. Since AI is much more effective at finding and predicting diseases, doctors will focus more on curing rather than making diagnoses. We can also expect AI to uncover insights hidden in our data, which will improve various aspects of the health sector.

To what extent will risks of privacy infringement and data theft be minimised through regulatory reforms on the social and business uses of AI?

AL OLAMA: When deploying AI, we must focus on sectors and applications that do not infringe on human rights. Recently, we gathered 200 AI industry leaders and brought them to the UAE under an initiative called the Global AI Governance Forum, focused on governance of development. We gained major insights on ethical issues, which are applied in policy making. The aim of this change is to increase efficiency in the economy, but our motto is “B.R.A.I.N: Building a Responsible AI Nation”. As such, accountable development and deployment are key to the roll-out of AI.

How is entrepreneurial activity being promoted to strengthen the link between innovative, disruptive technology and economic growth?

AL OLAMA: There should not be a public or private sector approach, but a collaborative effort. Our leadership thinks in advance and has created an ecosystem where talent comes to the UAE to have access to technologies and ideas, creating companies of international stature. Many AI start-ups are coming out of the UAE, like Careem and, both of which were bought because of their innovative capabilities. We have constructed an extensive strategy that will allow us to grow talent locally, instead of importing it.

Moreover, we are developing the right policy framework for this ecosystem. Within it, we will focus on research, so that the advancement of innovation is happening here in the UAE. The goal is for us to be the country that people associate with AI. As such, a federal initiative called Regulations Lab has been implemented to test technologies in a sandbox and develop future legislation. After six months, we check if we can implement them or return to the drawing board. This approach will help us become a global centre for AI technology and export our solutions across the world.