How the Arab world's job market can meet the automation challenge

The rise of AI has caught the attention of many Arab governments. (Shutterstock)
Updated 27 November 2019

How the Arab world's job market can meet the automation challenge

  • Many activities and fields are being shaped by developments in artificial intelligence and technology
  • Saudi Arabia has issued a decree to establish an AI center in order to spur big-data innovation

DUBAI: We live in an age in which talking to a machine is no longer a futuristic concept.
Many activities and fields are being reshaped by developments in artificial intelligence (AI), a phenomenon that is fundamentally altering the nature of human interaction, consumption of information and, more controversially, the nature of employment.
Adoption of innovations such as voice recognition, virtual agents and biometrics could be the only way for humans to survive in the coming age of automation.
Amid the surge in human-machine cooperation, many people nevertheless are eager to find out what the future holds. Will robots outsmart humans and steal their jobs? Or will they boost human capacities to a level beyond imagination?
Gregg Cross, CEO of Soul Machines, a company focused on the future of customer experience, believes that the two worlds — real and virtual — have already started to merge.
Speaking during a session on the “Future of Work” at the recent EmTech MENA conference in Dubai, Cross cited the phenomenon of “virtual” influencers, models and news anchors as a classic example of the merger of the real and the virtual worlds.
Miquela Sousa, an online model with over 2 million followers on Instagram, is paid to advertise luxury brands such as Prada, appear in some of New York’s high-end restaurants on her social media posts, and give interviews as a celebrity icon for music festivals such as Coachella.
As part of the same trend, a UAE-based online icon “Laila Blue,” known on Instagram as “Chasing Laila,” is hoping to climb the online celebrity ladder after becoming the Middle East’s first virtual influencer in 2018.

Major technology companies are using artificial intelligence to help customers solve common problems with technological personalities — or “digital humans” — like IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri. (Shutterstock)

Fashion models and social-media influencers have good reason to fear their jobs are at stake due to the advent of virtual competitors. But they have plenty of company.
Cross said that a project is underway to “resurrect” one of the most influential figures in the history of Western art, Vincent van Gogh, by creating his digital twin.
This will enable van Gogh fans to try to solve the mysteries behind some of his best-known artworks.
“We also saw Tu Pac, a musician who was killed years ago, touring in a holographic concert across the US last summer,” Cross said, illustrating the growing demand for AI application in the entertainment industry.
He also said that “in a big project launching next month, we have created a digital twin for one of the world’s most famous musicians.” He did not reveal the musician’s name.
“This musician will delegate some of his tasks to his digital twin and give his fans the opportunity to interact with him on a one-on-one basis,” he said.
The project highlights the changing nature of employment through the adoption of AI, he said.
“As we enter the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is a theory that says we can predict the future based on what rich people have today,” said Cross.
“If we take the banking and finance industry, wealthy individuals are likely to have their own private bankers.”
Cross said that in another two to three years, it is possible that every bank customer will have a personal banker.
“Now imagine a world in 10 years’ time,” he said, “where every person on the planet has a personal financial companion that helps them make decisions on how they spend and save their money on a day-to-day basis.”
Digital agents, increasingly known as “digital humans,” are becoming common in many fields in the form of robots, automated self-service machines and even digital companions, he said.
IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri have tech consumers increasingly relying on machines to respond to their daily concerns and queries.
While some societies have welcomed AI, others remain reluctant to engage with “robots.”
“We believe that because we as humans build relationships and trust on a face-to-face basis, by providing these machines with more human-like behavior, we will be able to enjoy them and trust them a whole lot more,” said Cross.
Soul Machines’ first digital human couple, Sam and Ronan, each have a digital brain that has been carefully modelled and built with the help of neuroscientists and psychologists.
“One of the most important things we can do by putting a face on AI is being able to synthesize human behavior in real time, a concept that democratizes personal experience,” he said.
This could change the way big brands engage with their clients, by creating a more personalized experience, for example.
It might also enable individuals to create a digital version of themselves that would lighten their workload considerably.
“Imagine what we can do in the world of education and health care. We can use digital teachers and healthcare professionals in communities where we don’t have enough real people to perform those roles,” said Cross.

Some technology experts believe that the real and artificial worlds have already started to blend. (Shutterstock)

Clearly, AI’s possibilities are almost endless. But where does it leave modern-day governments whose responsibility is to push innovation forward while maintaining a secure space for their people?
As far as the Middle East is concerned, the rise of AI has certainly caught the attention of governments, with the UAE accelerating its push into tech-based innovation.
In 2017, the country appointed the world’s first minister for artificial intelligence, Omar bin Sultan Al-Olama, who is heading the UAE’s mission to build homes on Mars by 2117.
The UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy was launched the same year to boost investments in advanced technologies and AI, and to accelerate projects in transport, health, education and space.
Saudi Arabia, too, has been quick to embrace AI-driven applications. In September, the Kingdom issued a decree to establish an AI center in line with the Vision 2030 objective of spurring AI and big data innovation.
The Kingdom will also host the Global Artificial Intelligence Summit in March next year.
“Governments exist to put law and order in place, and civil society looks at government as a form of protection,” Abdulla bin Touq, secretary-general of the UAE Cabinet, said at the EmTech MENA conference.
“But in the world we are living at the moment, governments have to evolve.”
Pointing to a common dilemma confronting countries worldwide, Touq asked: “How can we design government for change?”
One way is to strike a balance between the speed in which new technologies are introduced into the UAE and the regulations with regard to such innovations, he said.
To this end, the “RegLab” initiative was launched in January 2019 after a federal law was issued authorizing the UAE Cabinet to grant temporary licenses for the testing and vetting of innovations that utilize future technologies and AI.
It involves close interaction between federal and local lawmakers on the one hand, and private-sector and business leaders on the other to develop legislation for the use of future technologies.
The lab is open to innovators as well as members of the public, and welcomes creative projects and tech proposals, thus encouraging “talent mobility,” Touq said.
“Let’s meet, talk, challenge, question, design, collaborate, co-create and build with each other,” he added.

China’s tech titans fight for cloud control

Updated 04 July 2020

China’s tech titans fight for cloud control

  • Tencent flexes its muscles in race with arch-rival Alibaba as pandemic opens new business frontiers

HONG KONG: For Chinese cloud services companies, the coronavirus outbreak has become a rainmaker, bringing in new business far and wide as firms shift work online, and authorities develop apps and systems to help contain outbreaks and manage social restrictions.

For Tencent Holdings, in particular, it has also become the perfect time to flex new muscles as it seeks to catch up with Alibaba Group Holding, its arch-rival and the dominant player in the country’s cloud market by far.

Tencent began to display a new level of aggressiveness after positioning its cloud business as a major area of growth in September 2018, and that has only amped up amid the pandemic, employees say.

“The competition with Alibaba is so fierce right now, the sales teams are fighting them for every deal,” said a source in Tencent’s cloud division who was not authorized to speak on the matter and declined to be identified.

This year alone, Tencent has hired more than 3,000 employees for its cloud division. And as China went into lockdown and demand for corporate video bandwidth surged in February, it added 100,000 cloud servers in eight days to support a two-month old product, Tencent Conference — a feat the company says is unprecedented in Chinese cloud computing history.

It has expanded use of cloud servers designed in-house, pledged to speed up construction of a digital industry center in Wuhan to handle cloud and smart city projects in central China and joined a central government initiative to support pandemic-hit small businesses with free cloud services.

The social media and gaming behemoth also announced in May it will invest 500 billion yuan ($70 billion) over five years in technology infrastructure including cloud computing — just weeks after Alibaba said it would invest 200 billion yuan in its cloud infrastructure over three years.

Poshu Yeung, vice president of Tencent’s international business group, notes huge interest in shifting further into the cloud from businesses and for online education.

“We actually see more demands, requests coming in,” he said in an interview in April. “It’s a good wakening call for a lot of businesses.”

During the first quarter, China’s cloud infrastructure services market grew an impressive 67 percent from a year earlier to $3.9 billion, data from research firm Canalys shows.

Alibaba commanded 44.5 percent of the market while Tencent, which started its cloud business in 2013, four years after Alibaba, had just 14 percent. Huawei Technologies also had 14 percent.

“Although Tencent came to the space later than Alibaba, I believe the company is willing to endure a relatively long period of investment cycle for this business, hoping to catch up or one day becoming the No. 1 player in this field,” said Alex Liu, tech analyst at China Renaissance.

Tencent’s cloud division accounted for more than 4.5 percent of its annual revenue last year while Alibaba’s cloud computing division accounted for 8 percent of its overall revenue.

Tencent employees have told Reuters the company is working hard to become more adept in business-to-business sales where products are often designed from the ground up for one client, as well as in government relations.

 Those are areas where Alibaba excels while Tencent’s strength lies more with consumer-centric products and design.

“Tencent has great genes in business-to-consumer, but in business-to-business, we either didn’t have product managers or we just hired folks with a business-to-consumer background so it took a bit of time to convert their thinking,” said a second Tencent source in the company’s cloud business.

Tencent declined to comment on staff observations.

One area where Tencent has gained ground in recent years is government contracts — a relatively small part of the market in revenue terms but one that brings prestige and helps attract private-sector clients.

Underscoring its determination to win tenders, Tencent in 2017 offered to complete a Fujian province government information platform project for 0.01 yuan.

From 2016 to 2017, Alibaba scored 28 cloud-related contracts for government entities, state-owned enterprises, and academic institutions, while Tencent landed just seven, government procurement records show.

But in 2018, they secured 28 each before Alibaba took the lead again last year with 49 compared with Tencent’s 46.