Advancing artificial intelligence in times of crisis

02 September 2020
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Updated 02 September 2020

Advancing artificial intelligence in times of crisis

With Saudi Arabia’s approval of the national strategy for artificial intelligence this week, the Kingdom is moving ahead with major plans to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) into wide-ranging government services and contribute about SR500 billion ($133.3 billion) to the country’s gross domestic product over the next decade.

By streamlining government performance, reducing redundancy and informing decision-making processes, some experts have predicted that AI integration will result in savings of up to SR40 billion for the Kingdom.

In recent years, AI has been deployed across the Kingdom for a variety of uses. It has been used to promote agricultural efficiency and food security, as well as for traffic management, sustainable waste management and e-commerce. The annual hajj pilgrimage, which welcomed nearly 2.5 million pilgrims in 2019, has served as a testing ground for smart services and AI-powered technologies, such as movement tracking, real-time translation and frictionless customs clearance.

It is no coincidence that the AI strategy’s launch comes amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These exceptional circumstances have provided countries with the opportunity to develop and refine their artificial intelligence capabilities. A recent PWC report detailed how regional powers can use AI to enforce social distancing and limit the spread of the virus, as well as monitor potential outbreaks and ensure business continuity amid an increasing reliance on digital services.

In the Saudi health care sector, discussions on the use of AI have gained traction, with health experts gathering at the Riyadh Global Digital Health Summit earlier this month to address ways to integrate technology and digital services in the country’s medical offerings.

Efforts to maintain Saudi Arabia’s competitive edge in the region in health care technology have accelerated in recent days, with innovators, entrepreneurs and medical professionals looking to adopt novel applications for AI. The market for these technologies can be immensely profitable, and the immediate impact on patients and the public is tangible.

The results of AI exploration so far have been encouraging.

In July, the South Korean government announced plans to export its “Dr. Answer” technology to Saudi Arabia, where six government-led hospitals will conduct clinical trials to diagnose an array of diseases using machine learning. Through enhancing diagnostic accuracy and employing less invasive medical protocols, AI can guarantee patients a better hospital experience.

AI in the health care sector has also increased the Saudi public’s access to medical services through the expansion of telehealth solutions. A partnership between Saudi Telecom and Royal Philips announced last year was part of a launch of telehealth services to diagnose and treat patients in rural areas throughout the Kingdom, with AI and cloud computing tracking patients’ status and analyzing illness patterns.

Riyadh-based doctors have also partnered with digital health service startup Nala to launch the first-ever Arabic-language AI platform for rapid diagnosis and the development of personalized care plans with mobile accessibility.

While these AI applications are designed to address immediate challenges in the health care sector, the Kingdom is also working towards building long-term capabilities to solve tomorrow’s medical issues.

At NEOM, the Kingdom’s largest-yet lifestyle, technology and innovation epicenter under construction, the HealthTech Hub is said to be part of plans to foster local and regional research and development while providing space for next-generation talent incubation. With the use of dedicated digital infrastructure and AI technologies, NEOM promises “digital twins” to residents who will one day inhabit the territory.

By 2030 and after, this goal should become a reality. In the meantime, 2020 will be spent exploring how AI can be used to enhance national responses to COVID-19. The country is well-positioned to test emerging technologies and possesses the necessary financial and technical resources to do so. It is a worthy investment for the Kingdom, particularly at this moment in time, as new technologies are pressure tested by the pandemic.

• Madison Clough is a strategic communications professional residing in the Gulf. She holds a master’s degree in international security from George Mason University and specializes in communications on geopolitical and cultural issues.