Tech experts share insights at Middle East forum on the digital future

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Taavi Kotka, first chief information officer of Proud Engineers, (right) and Amir Husain, founder and CEO of SparkCognition. (Supplied)
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Amir Husain, founder and CEO of SparkCognition. (Supplied)
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Experts say the advancement of artificial intelligence will nudge societies further into the digital realm. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 12 February 2020

Tech experts share insights at Middle East forum on the digital future

  • Saudi Arabia shifting gears as part of plan to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Milken MEA Summit told
  • Advancement of AI and other 4IR elements will give rise to digital citizens and domains, expert says

ABU DHABI: All sectors of society will have to change their purpose and functions if they intend to maximize the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution, participants in a Milken Institute panel discussion in Abu Dhabi said on Tuesday.
The session, with the theme “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Transformation of Society,” addressed the various elements of a phenomenon now commonly referred to as 4IR.
Participants said the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, genome editing, augmented reality and other 4IR elements will nudge societies into the digital realm, promoting digital citizens and domains.
Among the countries shifting gears in an attempt to embrace the 4IR transformation in every sector is Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a brave new world,” said Ibrahim Saad Almojel, director general of the Saudi Arabia Industrial Development Fund (SIDF).
“The most ambitious goal of Vision 2030 is transforming the Kingdom into an economic and industrial powerhouse and a logistical hub.”
Almojel acknowledged that such changes are difficult due to their complexity and rapid pace alongside the struggle of keep tracking of them. The time allocated to understand the changes is also becoming shorter.
“The classical systems that exist are not sufficient anymore,” he said. “Customization and automation in manufacturing enable us to have an opportunity to leapfrog and set up a hub for advanced manufacturing and leverage our access to the market.”
Explaining the SIDF story, Almojel said it was set up 45 years ago as a “courageous player,” which evolved and expanded its sectors to include mining and logistics.
The fund then expanded its project offerings from financing mostly small and medium-sized enterprises and changed the way in which it conducted business, going from being passive to proactive.
The SIDF launched the Tanafusiya program, which enables industrial manufacturers to increase their energy efficiency and reduce their energy cost, while supporting operational improvements in manufacturing processes through technological upgrades and digitalization.
It also provided $800 million for the transformation of companies active in such fields as manufacturing, logistics, mining and energy.
“We believe that the private sector should lead, but we should make it easier for them,” Almojel said. Oil and gas is another area that will undergo massive changes with the 4IR revolution, he said.


4IR includes mobile supercomputing, intelligent robots, self-driving cars, neuro-technological brain enhancements, genetic editing.

Amir Husain, founder and CEO of SparkCognition, which specializes in autonomy technology, said AI will be able to detect production-impacting events on oil rigs. Predictions can be transformed into scheduled maintenance, saving millions of dollars.
He said there is a basic chain of autonomy components: Perception, decision and action.
“AI applications can be enabled with one, two or all three components,” Husain said.
“In the particular case of oil and gas, you can do very well just by perceiving better than a human analyst looking at a set of gauges.”
Husain noted that AI is perceived as having power that is orders of magnitude “beyond our own power of perception.
“In that sense, it can find patterns where humans may not and in ways humans may not think of,” he said.
He added that: “In physical reality, there are huge numbers of variables and human beings approximate physical reality.
“AI is the first comprehensive system through which we can truly get closer to a real understanding of what reality is.”
Husain cited the defense industry as among those undergoing drastic changes with the ongoing shift towards autonomy.
Citing a recent demonstration by Boeing of an autonomous flight of an electronic warfare aircraft, he said: “Autonomy is being brought to the fore at a pace that changes the fundamental way in which wars are fought.”
Husain said intelligence will be the defining characteristic of sixth-generation aircraft, outmaneuvering human experts who have trained their entire lives in such scenarios.
“With automotives, when we think of self-driving cars, we think AI will drive the car but it’s just the beginning,” Husain said.
“When it does that stage, the car will become a cognitive information space and workspace because our attention will be focused on what the environment interacting with AI is producing.
“There’s a revolution (underway) in many industries.”
Estonia is widely lauded as the world’s most advanced digital country and is likely to play a leading role in shaping the 4IR.
On hand at the Milken MEA Summit on Tuesday was Taavi Kotka, the first chief information officer of Estonia-based Proud Engineers, who believes what will differentiate countries in the near future is the ability to combine data sets from the private sector with government information.
“The government has a huge amount of information about health care, education, taxes and the economy,” he said. “But only some countries — Northern European states, China and Singapore — can combine that data with private information.”
Kotka said the “definition of a country, the services available and the ways in which we operate” are changing. Under the circumstance, countries that are able to combine government and private sector data will be the winners of the future.
Even though countries like Sweden and China have different models of governance, the core of how data is collected, exchanged and combined is the same from an engineering perspective, he said.

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.