The automation game in the’s time to crack the code

The automation game in the’s time to crack the code
The region should become a hub for maths and computer science talent. (Getty Images)
Updated 03 October 2018

The automation game in the’s time to crack the code

The automation game in the’s time to crack the code
  • The Gulf leads the world in youth digital literacy as automatic production threatens to displace 400 million workers
  • Becoming AI literate will prove challenging, but necessary, for global governments

DUBAI: As technology continues to change the world we live in, the Gulf is looking to its growing youth demographic to take it into the future, leading the way with artificial intelligence, robotics, automation and machine learning.

By 2030, 15 percent of the world’s jobs — and 400 million workers — could be displaced by automation. But tech experts believe it could also create new jobs and lift the economy.

Regionally, a number of organizations, such as Udacity a company teaching nanodegrees — basic programming skills — are at the forefront of this movement, with Arab citizens entering the field of nanotechnology and coding in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.

“Leaders in the Arab world are embracing the future and taking aggressive steps to leapfrog past limitations,” said Clarissa Chen, chief operating officer at Udacity. “The region is heavily investing in education, with an average of 18 percent of total government spending versus the global average of 14 percent. This is coming from a place of necessity as the region experiences a boom in the youth population.”

In the Gulf, 60 percent of the population is currently under the age of 25. “A large number of young people would historically be considered an asset to the economy,” Chen said at the EmTech MENA conference on emerging technology in Dubai last week. “However, the region also has one of the world’s highest rates of youth unemployment, as 30 percent is double the world’s average. And many of those jobs are not contributing to the local economy but instead are consuming government resources.”

The education system has a challenging job to prepare many of those people for private sector jobs. That is beginning to change as well, she explained, as Arab millennials are more digitally connected than ever before.

Udacity has partnered with multiple governments in the region to augment that education system while leveraging the digital literacy in young people. 

“No other region has ever done this at this scale,” Chen said. “It’s a significant commitment from the region to the future.”

According to Omar bin Sultan Al-Olama, the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, science and technology will have the greatest impact on the region in the future. 

“In general, these topics enlighten people throughout history,” he said. “As a young man, throughout my life, I’ve always tried to understand why the Muslim world was stagnating while the rest of world was progressing. It was technology — it took us from being science-advanced to backwards compared to other countries.” 

He mentioned the printing press, which was banned from the Muslim world for 240 years. “When you look at technologies that will shape the next century, AI is at the forefront of that,” he said. “And if we don’t embrace it, we’ll be in the Dark Ages compared to countries that are.” 

Al-Olama spoke of challenges that the region needs to address and opportunities it needs to grasp. “It’s important for all governments to look at it that way,” he added. “The region isn’t isolated — whatever applies here applies to the rest of world and there are aspects of technology we need to pay attention to, such as AI, cloud computing and storage, and biotechnology. The region needs to embrace that wholeheartedly. If the region embraces AI and these technologies openly, whatever happened with the printing press will not happen in the future. It’s about keeping an open mind, testing these technologies and working in a constructive way.”

Gulf countries are focusing on attracting tech-makers from around the world. Al-Olama believes it is vital for any government or country to identify a niche or specific area of focus. “We understand and we are very conscious we cannot compete with China or the United States because China graduates a million engineers a year,” he said. “One thing we are very conscious about is that we can become leaders and attracters of talent if we create an ecosystem that tests their thinking, implements their ideas and improves their technology.” 

The region has the potential to become a hub for mathematical computer science talent. “We live in a tough neighborhood,” he added. 

“But there are 350 million people in the region, and we can attract the top engineers and mathematicians — if 1 percent are talented, it’s really a big number, and it’s a pool the whole world would want to tap into.”

Becoming AI literate will prove challenging, but necessary, for global governments. “When governments speak to private sector entities and talent, they’re quite backwards because they don’t understand the tech and it requires some sort of education,” Al-Olama said. 

“So we’re taking our government back to school, teaching them what AI is, the ethical and technical questions, opportunities and challenges, and they have to implement an AI system in their government entity to have a positive impact to be able to graduate from that. Companies will then feel governments can understand and discuss AI openly with them.”

AI will not progress if people are not at the forefront of it. “Governments need to first create platforms that allow people to go from one job to another,” Al-Olama said. “Jobs that will be created after AI and other technologies, robotics and automation, will be a variety of jobs — some of which require people to be skilled and have talent, others are more social, emotional or psychological. We are in a future where jobs that are created cannot be forecasted.”

He spoke optimistically of the impact of AI, robotics and automation on the region and the world, and the ability to acquire services conveniently and to contribute to decision-making based on valuable data. 

“Companies can use data to optimize lives,” he explained. 

“A wealth of information is available through the Internet, and the way AI optimizes that information means we can become much smarter as a species. We will reach a point where we are much more informed and capable. It’s important for all countries to be tech-informed.”

Sadeem Al-Marri was named as winning innovator under 35 at EMTech MENA in Dubai. (Shutterstock)