The UAE has made the right investments in infrastructure to create a knowledge economy. Now is the time to start attracting top global talent.
By Xische Editorial, July 11, 2018
China is vying to lead the global race for dominance in artificial intelligence (AI). While this reality might be off-putting for some (especially in the United States), China is investing an incredible amount of resources to position itself as a hub for AI innovation, research, and application. Since its July 2017 launch of a development plan to lead AI, the country’s AI industry has developed at breakneck pace. A recent Chinese government whitepaper puts AI enterprises at more than 4,000, which, if accurate, would only increase with the planned development of a $2.1bn technology park in Beijing dedicated to AI research. By comparison, the US spent $1.2bn on unclassified AI research according to recently released government records. Companies like tech behemoth Baidu, which enjoy close links to government funding pools, are leading the way into an AI future in everything from self-driving cars to AI assistants.
The Chinese tech ecosystem isn’t immune to setbacks. Public departures of leading scientists and tech executives have dealt a blow to Chinese companies, particularly at Baidu. Lu Qi, one of Baidu's high-profile AI executives responsible for the self-driving car unit and AI assistant, left his position in May. Andrew Ng, Zhang Tong, Adam Coates, and Wang Jing, star members of the AI team, have all left within the past 18 months. Departures from companies like Baidu and others present an opportunity for the countries in the Gulf to accelerate their own AI ambitions and, ultimately, create a viable knowledge economy.
We don’t know exactly why these executives left, but it’s clear there’s talent on the market. The UAE stands to win big with AI — the technology is projected to contribute up to 13.6% of GDP in the UAE by 2030. The country is turning to AI to power economic growth, increase government efficiency, and spur innovation. UAE investment was on track to surpass $8bn by the end of 2017, up 70% since 2014. Last year, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, appointed the world’s first minister of AI and launched the UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy. With AI playing such a large role in the UAE’s strategic plans, attracting top talent will only help push the boundaries of innovation further. This will have surprising knock-on effects in society beyond the technology realm.
For an AI scientist or engineer, there are clear factors why the UAE would be an attractive place to work beyond government investment in the sector. First and foremost are potentially transformative applications of automation and robotics technology. The UAE imports more than 88% of its workforce, which creates a burden on state resources and a clear incentive to decrease the reliance on foreign labour. According to a study by McKinsey, automation could most heavily impact occupations in retail, food service, manufacturing, resource extraction, and construction. With most of its workforce in three of those five sectors, the UAE could be an interesting test case for the effects of automation. An engineer wanting to have a measurable impact in machine learning and robotics has access to a real-life laboratory for AI experimentation backed by handsome government investment and world-class infrastructure.
Then there is the quality of data in the UAE compared with other countries. While China is a relatively homogenous society, the UAE is home to more than 200 nationalities. As such, the quality of data about how humans interact with society and each other is diverse and can yield unique insights into behavioural patterns. AI tech is heavily reliant on data, and that's certainly not in short supply in the UAE.
Given the instability of oil prices, the UAE and other Gulf countries have been investing heavily in creating a knowledge economy. The UAE has made the right investments in infrastructure. Now is the time to start attracting top global talent. With the right scientists and engineers, the country’s knowledge economy will kick into gear. As such, the departures at Baidu should be a call to action and the start of the next phase of building the Emirati technology sector.