UAE’s AI Minister: “There’s an Undeniable Need for Israel and the UAE to Collaborate”

Artificial intelligence (AI) applied to big data derived from the increasingly automated and digitized production and logistic processes will drive the efficiency of the global economy as more countries are developing policies for integrating these technologies at scale.

As part of Start-Up Nation Central’s Industry 4.0 Global Leaders Summit, I had the pleasure of speaking with HE Omar Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence of the United Arab Emirates, to discuss his country’s unique vision and strategy around a multitude of AI applications.

Appointed to his position in October 2017 by the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Mr. Al Olama is the first (and so far the only) minister of AI in the world. I was very interested in his unique perspective on developing a country-wide AI strategy.  

Question: As the first and only Minister of Artificial Intelligence in the world, it must be a complex task to coordinate all the activities around such a core technology in the country. You have recently unveiled a long-term AI strategy. Could you please describe your strategy and how it will help the UAE achieve its goals?

Answer: Let’s go back to the early 20th century and the late 19th century, with the advent of electricity, automobiles, telecommunications, etc. Back then, we would not have considered having a minister of electricity, while today all countries have ministers of energy, who mostly deal with electricity. Nowadays, AI has become a necessary office, and we view this Ministry as critical to ensure that we develop these technologies and deploy them in the right manner. Now, we see different people and different intellectual leaders talking about the importance of AI, but unfortunately there isn’t enough incentive globally to actually establish a Ministry for this. And it is important to have such a Ministry because the government is going to be affected by AI.

In fact, we see things happening across academia and across the private sector that trickle down to government and change the way governments do business, so it’s really just a matter of time until they realize their need in a Ministry. And we do believe that citizens’ expectations change because of the way the private sector does certain things. The private sector today uses AI to give you more tailored services, and is more proactive, thus we believe the government needs to go through this transformation as well.

When we think about the way the government works, there’s the economic vertical, there’s a social vertical, a security vertical, and all of them are going to be touched by AI in one way, shape or form. Some effects are going to be negative and some positive. It is imperative for us, the government, to not just look at technologies as something that’s nice to have, but rather something that needs to be regulated to prevent the negative effects, and which needs to be invested in to promote the positive ones.

Q: When I had the privilege of visiting Dubai recently, I was very impressed by how the government of the UAE thinks strategically and long-term by making investments that are not necessarily warranted by today’s challenges, but which open platforms for the future. Where do you see Israeli AI companies being useful in achieving the UAE’s AI goals, and how should they go about connecting to the UAE’s strategic initiatives and vision?

A: First, there is an undeniable need for us to collaborate, this is a fact. Because of the nature of our countries – we are medium-size countries with a lot of innovation – but unfortunately, we don’t compete with giants globally, so the only way for us to actually have a seat at the table is for us to work together.

Second, since both countries are medium-sized markets, there is a challenge to scale up and enable continuous growth, so it’s important to work together and open up our markets to surrounding countries and growing economies. The UAE is a hub for the Middle East, Africa, India and Asia, the way that Israel is a hub for European and American investments. Working together makes the markets much bigger; it makes investments more appealing and also allows us to create systems and companies in these two countries that can compete with the big giants, and even become giants of their own.

Third, I believe that the strength of being an agile government, the strength of having 200 nationalities – the diversity of the population in the UAE – will allow for Israeli companies to do a lot more a lot faster. At the same time, it’s important for us to bring our talent and ideas from the UAE to Israel to learn and grow together towards a win-win situation.

Finally, the UAE has developed robust AI capabilities based on the “3 Vs”: the velocity, variety and volume of data. These 3 V’s ensure that the UAE today is one of the best markets when it comes to artificial intelligence. For instance, our logistics companies operate over 70 ports around the world. So, the amount of data that we have is the Holy Grail of logistics data when you look at the volume, variety and velocity. And I think that the UAE and Israel can work together and actually make use of this data, and create the next unicorns, when it comes to leading these fields. If we work together, we can dominate the AI world.

Q: Using AI to digitize physical assets – in your case, in the mining, logistics and aviation industries – means applying AI to drive operational efficiency and resilience, while at the same time increasing the sustainability and the flexibility of the processes. What is your advice to companies in these sectors on how to establish collaborative efforts with potential partners in and outside of the UAE? Who are their most likely partners?

A: The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the world is completely changing, and globally, we are becoming a lot more agile. People are working virtually, and are hiring people to work for them virtually around the world, and they’re also trying to move much more aggressively with regards to deployment. In this regard and others, I would recommend looking at the UAE as a gateway to Africa, India, and the Middle East.

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