Rise of the machines: Will a robot take your job?

‘Sophia,’ a humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics, was granted Saudi citizenship in October. One day, robots could be doing more and more ‘human’ jobs. (Reuters)
Updated 20 November 2017
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Rise of the machines: Will a robot take your job?

LONDON: A once-distant future of flying cars, household robots and talking appliances is rapidly approaching and no one is sure what to expect.
Technology companies developing innovative artificial intelligence (AI) applications promise a life made easier as machines take over everyday tasks from making coffee to driving to work. People, they say, will be free to focus on rewarding and creative pursuits while benefiting from more leisure time.
But what about those whose jobs can be managed more efficiently by machines?
Alongside the cab drivers replaced by driverless cars and flying taxis, the list of potential cast-offs includes construction workers, couriers, journalists, paralegals, retail sales people and doctors.
In the UAE, the impending arrival of driverless buses, delivery drones and even robot police officers is an indication of how wide-ranging the advance of AI will be.
Some sectors, including banking — no stranger to technological disruption since automated teller machines (ATMs) replaced traditional clerks 50 years ago — have already started adapting to AI.
Mashreq Bank in the UAE recently announced plans to cut 10 percent of its 4,000-strong workforce within 12 months as it makes way for new AI and robotic technologies.
“AI will provide the competitiveness to the early adopters and in a few years these will become generic features with all banks,” said a spokesperson for Mashreq.
“In the region, the banking sector will see an uplift on service quality and enhanced self-service capabilities with the increased penetration of AI tools.”
Research by McKinsey claimed that 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent of their constituent activities automated, and last year the Future of Jobs report published by the World Economic Forum estimated that automation could lead to the net loss of 5 million jobs across 15 developed and emerging economies by 2020.
Speaking to Arab News, Rigas Hadzilacos, global leadership fellow at the World Economic Forum said, “This is a very short timeline and probably a conservative estimate so there is a huge amount of urgency attached to finding ways of exploiting the benefits of AI while mediating the negative impact.”
“In the long run AI will also create new jobs related to the development, maintenance and oversight of artificial intelligent agents — and other completely new jobs we cannot imagine at this stage.
“However in the near future, the rate of job displacement will be much higher than the rate of new jobs created. And this is something that every government needs to prepare for.”
Key to this is bolstering the ability of local workforces to harness the AI and robotic revolution. Santhosh Rao, principal research analyst at Gartner, a technology research and advisory firm with offices in the Middle East, described the skills shortage as a major roadblock for regional governments adopting AI.
“AI engineers are a rare commodity globally because it involves not just programming but advanced mathematics, statistics, electronics and complex algorithm designs,” he said.
Meanwhile, a lot of lower-skilled jobs will become obsolete, Hadzilacos added, pointing to the impact on large numbers of expat workers from the Middle East and Asia employed in Gulf states.
“On the flip side, a new flow of expats needed for the high-skilled labor to support this transformation can be expected,” he said.
David Llorente, CEO of Narrativa, an AI startup with a client base in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Europe, believes AI will change societies across the region and contribute to a shift away from reliance on oil and gas as Gulf countries cultivate knowledge economies.
Countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are ripe for AI adoption, he said, outlining the potential to reduce dependency on foreign labor.
“Gulf states have two standout qualities: Lots of available cash and a very big deficit in human labor,” Llorente said.
“Increasing automation will enable them to do more with less, helping them to become more productive and competitive.”
He spotlighted Saudi Arabia as the next major growth area for AI in the region.
“Saudis love technology and there’s huge market potential,” Llorente said, adding that AI adoption could help companies in the Kingdom to internationalize and place the country on a par with the region’s biggest AI player — the UAE.
Last month, Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum tweeted about the appointment of Omar Bin Sultan Al-Olama as the country’s first minister of state for artificial intelligence.
The move followed the launch of the UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, outlining the country’s aims to enhance performance and productivity by investing in AI.
“We believe that by harnessing the potential of the latest technologies we can offer innovative services to enhance citizen experiences in Dubai,” said Aisha Bin Bishr, director general of the Smart Dubai Office, which is providing AI training to government and private-sector employees.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, recently unveiled plans to invest $500 billion in Neom, a fully automated city where citizens will travel in driverless vehicles, enjoy access to free Internet and live in zero-carbon homes.
The project website describes a digital oasis in which “repetitive and arduous tasks will be fully automated and handled by robots, which may exceed the population, likely making Neom’s GDP per capita the highest in the world.”
Speaking at the Saudi Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh last month, Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and partner at Founders Fund, described “hybrid solutions” based on people working in synergy with computers.
“AI will make certain sectors more efficient and then it will free people up to do other things,” he said.
Jacob Crandall, professor in computer sciences at Brigham Young University, who spent 10 years in Abu Dhabi, agreed. “In my opinion, technologies simply alter job prospects rather than eliminating them. AI is not likely to eliminate the need for human creativity, but rather opportunities create new needs for human creativity.”
But according to Thiel, there is a tipping point at which people could become redundant in an increasingly automated world.
“It’s mainly a game of complementarity; it becomes a game of substitution only at the end if you have an AI that can do everything better, smarter and cheaper than any human being, and then that will be very scary.”


In sluggish Russian economy, halal sees growth

Updated 21 July 2019
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In sluggish Russian economy, halal sees growth

  • Ever more producers are catering for the domestic Muslim community, which accounts for around 15 percent of Russia’s population
  • The halal economy, worth more than $2.1 trillion globally, is far from limited to meat

SHCHYOLKOVO, Russia: The manager of a sausage factory near Moscow, Arslan Gizatullin says his halal business has been feeling the pinch — not so much from Russia’s sluggish economy but competitors vying for a piece of a growing Islamic market.
Ever more producers are catering for the domestic Muslim community, which accounts for around 15 percent of Russia’s population and is set to expand, and in some cases are also setting their sights on export.
“In the last few years in general, halal’s become something of a trend in Russia,” said Gizatullin, who has been at the Halal-Ash plant in the city of Shchyolkovo for seven years.
The factory was among the first of its kind when it opened two decades ago, recreating Soviet-style sausages in accordance with Islamic law, among other products.
“Now I go to shop displays and I see sausage from one, two, three producers... I see that competition is growing,” he adds from the factory, which employs 35 people and puts out up to 1.5 tons of produce a day.
The halal economy, worth more than $2.1 trillion globally, is far from limited to meat.
Cosmetics firms and services such as halal hotels have received licenses from the body that oversees Islamic production in Russia, while state-owned Sberbank is looking into creating an Islamic finance entity.
The Center for Halal Standardization and Certification, under the authority of the Russian Council of Muftis, has approved more than 200 companies since it opened in 2007.
The center says that number is growing by five to seven companies a year — from a standing start at the collapse of the anti-religious Soviet Union.
Rushan Abbyasov, the deputy head of the Council of Muftis, told AFP the Russian agriculture ministry was supporting the center in its efforts to increase exports to the Arab world and Muslim-majority ex-Soviet republics.
“We’ve looked at international experience in the Arab world, in Malaysia, and we’ve developed our Russian (halal certification) standard following that model,” Abbyasov said in an interview at Moscow’s central mosque.
“We’re doing it in a way that matches international halal standards as well as the laws of the Russian Federation.”
The mufti pointed to an annual exhibition of halal goods and producers in the Muslim-majority Russian republic of Tatarstan, which this year saw its biggest ever turnout, as an example of the sector’s growth.
Tatar officials told Russian media the halal food market accounted for around 7 billion rubles a year ($110 million) — or just over three percent of the region’s gross agricultural output.
But they said the sector was growing at a rate of between 10 and 15 percent a year.
The certification center said Russia’s overall halal economy was also growing at a rate of 15 percent every year, but declined to give a breakdown of its figures.
Russia’s overall economy is stagnant, with the government predicting growth of only 1.3 percent this year, after 2.3 percent growth in 2018.
Alif, a Moscow-based cosmetics firm, is a new company at the forefront of the move toward exporting halal goods from Russia.
Manager Halima Hosman told AFP that, a year after launching, Alif’s products were being sold in the Muslim-majority Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, as well as ex-Soviet Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
“Our priority targets for export now are France, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia,” she said, adding that the company had non-financial support from the halal certification center.
The 28-year-old, who was born into an Orthodox Christian family in southern Moldova but converted to Islam as a teen, said promoting halal products was about more than business.
“It’s a way for people who don’t know about Islam, who aren’t Muslim, to find out about what ‘halal’ actually means,” Hosman added of the alcohol- and animal fats-free cosmetics.
Lilit Gevorgyan, principal economist for Russia and former Soviet states at IHS Markit, said the growth in Russia’s halal economy seemed impressive but was coming from a “very low base.”
Further growth in the sector was likely to be driven more by export than by domestic demand, she said.
This is mainly because household incomes have yet to recover from a 2014 crisis caused by a fall in global oil prices and Western sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
“Halal food is more expensive due to its production costs, and for Russian consumers... every ruble counts,” she said, adding that much of Russia’s Muslim community was non-practicing.
Changing Muslim countries’ perception of Russia will be key if Moscow is serious about increasing halal exports, Gevorgyan added.
“Branding is important,” she said, adding that Russia — as yet — is not seen as a major halal producer.