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The Strategic Pursuit of Artificial Intelligence in the United Arab Emirates

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is expected to mark a paradigm shift in the fabric of our society. To harness the societal and economic benefits of AI and be best prepared for future challenges, it is more important than ever to be strategic about investing in AI. As such, the pursuit of AI in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been unique and visionary in recent years. Here, we provide a high-level overview of key efforts that are significantly contributing to the UAE's strategic pursuit of AI, namely the national vision and strategy, research infrastructure, capacity-building, AI adoption, and cross-sector collaborations.

The UAE government's vision is to make the UAE a world leader in AI by 2031, as per the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy launched in 2017.1 The strategy's objectives include positioning the UAE as a central AI hub in the region and globally, developing capabilities and local talent, and adopting AI in both public and private services to boost performance. The launch of this strategy also coincided with the appointment of the UAE's, and the world's, first Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence HE Omar Sultan Al Olama and the launch of the Emirates Council for Artificial intelligence and Digital Transformation. Several initiatives have also emerged under the leadership of the National Program for AI, which builds and shares resources in the pursuit of the UAE's policy objective to be a global participant in the responsible use of AI2—the motto of the National AI Program is "B.R.A.I.N: Building a Responsible AI Nation." This includes annual AI Everything Summit for Governments and Businesses, the AI Code Hub platform that hosts open source software developed locally in the UAE,4 and an AI retreat that attracted more than 350 AI experts from the public and private sectors.2 As such, the government's visionary approach to investing in AI has become a key driver to AI developments across all sectors in the country.

Figure. Attendees at the first AI Everything Summit in Dubai on May 1, 2019.

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Research Infrastructure

Investment in a strong research infrastructure is one of the key endeavors of the UAE's AI pursuit. According to the AI Hardware Infrastructure Report that was published in November 2020,4 the UAE has "the 36th most powerful high-performance computer in the world" according to the Top500 list for November 2020. This reflects a heightened interest in enabling research and development efforts through investing in computational hardware infrastructure. While 89% of the total processing power is dominated by the private sector, academic institutions are also home to state-of-the-art high-performance computing (HPC) systems. For example, at New York University Abu Dhabi, the HPC system, also known as "Dalma," supports research in computer vision, health informatics, natural language processing, ocean and climate modeling, computational astrophysics, and bioinformatics. The United Arab Emirates University also owns three HPC systems to support a variety of scientific research projects. Increased research activity in AI in both academia and industry will have a long-term impact on the region's global competitiveness in knowledge creation, innovation, and talent development.

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Building Talent and Capacity

To develop capabilities and talent in AI as part of the strategy's objectives, several learning development initiatives have been implemented to target different audiences and age groups. For example, in partnership with Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, the National AI Program developed an executive-level course-work program to train UAE nationals in key government positions to accelerate the delivery of the national strategy.2 The UAE AI Camp was also the first in the region to offer spring and summer camps for high school and university students. Most recently, the Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence was launched as a graduate-level institution offering MSc and Ph.D. programs specialized in AI. It is expecting its first cohort to arrive in 2021.5 Such opportunities will lead to informed use and adoption of AI on a national scale and will also further attract global talent through the competitive graduate programs.

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Adoption of AI

The strategic national AI vision in the UAE has driven entities in the public and private sector alike toward the adoption of AI. A Microsoft AI report conducted in 2019 found that UAE organizations show a "lead in proactiveness in adopting AI solutions, when compared with global peers. Some 70% of double-digit growth companies in the UAE intend using AI within the coming year to improve decision-making, as opposed to 46% worldwide."6

The UAE government's vision is to make the territory a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2031.

The UAE healthcare sector is a good example of how government entities are striving to capitalize on these opportunities. The Ministry of Health and Prevention developed and released Medopad, a smart application that continuously monitors and analyzes patient data to predict life-threatening medical conditions and allow for proactive healthcare services.7 Dubai Health Authority and Agfa Healthcare have partnered together to utilize AI-enabled workflows in medical imaging to enhance the diagnosis of TB.8 Robotics also presents a promising opportunity in the sector, presented in the adoption of robotic surgeries and pharmacies.7

Similarly, other government entities launched new AI pilots by collaborating with established and rising technology companies to augment their services using AI. Rashid, Dubai Smart Government's call center virtual agent, offers official answers to customers' questions about procedures, documents, and requirements needed to conduct various transactions in Dubai. The virtual assistant was developed in the Dubai AI-Lab, in cooperation with the Smart Dubai Office and IBM, using WatsonAI. Dubai's Road and Transportation Authority has been following a similar trajectory, gradually integrating AI into its services, with autonomous taxis—the first in the region—being one of their top projects.9 In October 2020, the authority announced a new data strategy, aligned with the UAE 2031 AI strategy, to enhance efficacy and reduce costs using AI. Those initiatives illustrate a strong public commitment to meet the objectives of the strategy and to enhance efficiency of public services.

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A Collaborative Ecosystem

The strategic synergy between academia and research, private sector companies, and government agencies has produced a plethora of promising use cases that cannot be covered fairly within the scope of this article. AI companies in the private sector have had a significant impact on the progression of AI in the country through the use of their own proprietary research and innovation. In November 2019, the UAE launched an initiative under the name "UAE AI Network," with the goal of bringing together public and private sector organizations and academic institutions under the umbrella of helping achieve the nation's AI strategy.2 This is crucial for harnessing the best ideas in the development of AI and to achieve societal impact.

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Future Outlook

The UAE has become a central AI hub under the guidance of its national strategy. The aforementioned initiatives are only examples of numerous existing and emerging efforts. According to research conducted by the IDC, the spending by federal/central governments on AI across MEA is projected to see the strongest growth of the region's top five verticals, increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 26.3%.10 This investment, as what is happening in the UAE, is likely to continue to lead to significant development of local talent in the region and increase in innovation and the quantity and quality of research and development projects, both in industry and academia. To leverage the advantages of such a fast-paced field, various stakeholders must continue to aim for constant learning, talent development, and reinvention. In the next decade, AI will begin to play a pivotal role in our daily activities across several domains, such as healthcare, transport, and education, to name a few. The prioritization of the responsible use of AI as a guiding principle of the UAE AI strategy will ensure the adoption of AI will serve the betterment of humanity.

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1. UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence. The Official Portal of the UAE Government;

2. National Program for Artificial Intelligence Official Website;

3. AI Code Hub Github;

4. AI Hardware Infrastructure Report UAE. National Program for Artificial Intelligence;

5. Mohamed bin Zayed University (MBZUAI) Official Website;

6. High growth companies in the UAE ready for AI adoption: Microsoft AI report. Microsoft News Center Middle East & Africa;

7. Robotics and AI applications. The United Arab Emirates Government Portal;

8. Late-breaking abstract: Use of AI in accurate diagnosis of TB using medical Imaging: A promising result from UAE. European Respiratory J.52, 62 (2018);

9. Building an AI nation: Accelerating artificial intelligence adoption through agile policymaking—The case of the UAE. Dubai Policy Review;

10. Annual Spending on Artificial Intelligence in the Middle East & Africa to Top $530 Million by 2022. International Data Corporation;

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Farah E. Shamout is Assistant Professor Emerging Scholar at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Dana Abu Ali is a software engineer at MEA Clients Center at IBM Dubai.

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