Worlds first AI minister stated that the United Arab Emirates is pursuing more than just economic gains in its quest to become a global leader in the field.
The UAE’s minister of state for AI, Omar bin Sultan al-Olama, said “quality of life” considerations were key, and also stressed the importance of a “responsible” rollout—with impacts potentially reverberating for decades.
“We are looking at AI as a tool,” he told AFP in an interview in Dubai. “It’s a tool that we need to use to unleash the quality of life aspect.”
The UAE also calls AI “machine intelligence“, defining it as a branch of technology enabling systems to “think, learn, and make decisions like humans”, which can support everything from virology to transport.
“Yes, economic gain is something that every country wants, and we want it too,” Olama added. “But… we want to ensure the development and deployment and the use of AI is responsible.”
Olama was only 27 years old when he was appointed to the cabinet-level role in 2017, entrusted with establishing the oil-rich Arab nation’s strategy in a field that encompasses everything from speech and facial recognition to commerce and self-driving automobiles.
His appointment comes a year after the UAE named ministers for happiness and tolerance, with the goal of creating a “happier society” in the Gulf country where foreigners make up the majority of the population.
The UAE’s stated goal is to become one of the leading AI nations by 2031, generating up to 335 billion dirhams ($91 billion) in additional development and new economic and business prospects.
According to consultancy firm PwC Middle East, nearly 14 percent ($96 billion) of the UAE’s gross domestic product will come from AI by 2030.
“The UAE was the only country that appointed someone to actually oversee this mandate seriously,” Olama said.
As it diversifies its economy and lowers its reliance on oil, the wealthy Gulf country has spent heavily in technology over the last decade.
Its bets include driverless cars, with self-driving taxis currently being tested on the streets of Abu Dhabi’s capital, and Dubai, one of the country’s seven emirates, aiming to make a quarter of its transportation driverless by 2030.
The world’s first graduate-level AI university, Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, opened to students last year, and the UAE has developed a number of start-up clusters and training schemes.
However, the UAE has also drawn concern over its high levels of surveillance, and in 2019 it denied reports that a popular mobile app was being used for government spying.
Olama said a big part of his job was instilling public confidence and avoiding costly errors when AI systems are put in place.
The dangers of AI include inadvertently introducing bias against certain groups of people, which could prove damaging in areas such as public services.
“It entails that there’s no controversy around the deployment,” Olama said of his role. “It entails that we focus on deploying it today, but in a way that makes sure it does not impact future generations negatively.”
An important step in the project, he said, was to properly explain AI to senior officials, to “demystify” the technology and reduce the “element of fear”.
“If you’re dealing with something you don’t understand, you will have an aspect or element of fear associated with it, it’s human nature,” he said.
“One program… is focused on training senior government officials on understanding what AI is, understanding the ethical dilemma, understanding what good and bad deployments are, how do you remove bias.
“Today, these people are our AI army. They are the people that are deploying AI across government, and really have a very strong foundation that they can build on.”
The UAE also has ambitions of becoming a major player in other areas of science and technology, sending its first astronaut into space in 2019 and launching a probe in 2020 that went into Mars’ orbit the following year.
This month, the country announced a digital economy strategy—including a council headed by Olama—hoping the sector will contribute 20 percent of GDP within 10 years.
“I don’t think in the next quarter-of-a-century there’s going to be an economy in the world that is not dependent for the majority of its economic activity on the digital realm, and AI is a big component of that,” said Olama.
“I also think we have not seen the true impact of AI on the economy.”
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