by Jamila Qadir

GITEX: Middle Eastern IT leaders confront challenges to AI deployment

Oct 26, 2021
Artificial Intelligence

AI took centre stage at GITEX 2021, the Middle East's biggest tech conference, with a host of industry and government representatives highlighting how enterprises and municipalities are using artificial Intelligence to enhance public services and create new business opportunities.

Credit: IDG

AI took centre stage at GITEX 2021, the Middle East’s biggest tech conference, with a host of industry and government representatives highlighting how enterprises and municipalities are using artificial Intelligence to enhance public services and create new business opportunities.

Analytics based on advanced AI techniques like machine learning are being deployed by  enterprises in various business sectors, healthcare providers, and public administrations throughout the Middle East. Recognizing the importance of AI to economic growth in the region, GITEX, which closed its doors last week, was held under the motto ‘GITEX Global x AI Everything’.

Globally, AI is certainly gaining momentum in business. AI will enhance business productivity and add US$15.7 trillion in value to the global economy by 2030, according to PwC, which estimates that of this amount, the Middle East’s share will be 2%, or $320 billion.

“In absolute terms, the largest gains are expected to accrue to Saudi Arabia where AI is expected to contribute over US$135.2 billion in 2030 to the economy, equivalent to 12.4% of GDP. In relative terms the UAE is expected to see the largest impact of close to 14% of 2030 GDP,” according to a PwC report.

The overwhelming majority of top managers of large companies associate the next technological revolution with AI, judging from GITEX speakers and attendees who shared their own experiences with the technology and offered tips on what CIOs need to consider before becoming an AI conduit for their companies.

CIO meet AI challenges

Experts debating on GITEX panels suggested that the rapid development of AI requires CIOs to constantly monitor developments in the technology in order to be able to assess the applicability of a particular AI application in their company, select the necessary IT specialists, set tasks for them and monitor their implementation.

This work, which is challenging itself, is complicated by the fact that CIOs need to make a decision on how to apply AI technologies in the near future, rather than in three to five years, GITEX speakers said.

Pressure is on CIOs because the topic is hot and enterprise management often expects immediate results from AI projects (including those spurred on by marketing assurances from solution providers). In addition, in times of crisis such as the recent (and ongoing in some areas) pandemic, quick returns are expected from any IT project.

The use of AI will bring innovation to business operations, but the challenge is how many people or companies understand the possible applications or the technology itself, said Matar Suhail Salem Al Mehairi, chief innovation officer, Innovation & The Future, at Dubai Water and Electricity Authority (DEWA). The utilities company has been using AI for some time now.

Dubai Water and Electricity Authority taps AI

DEWA is using AI for maintenance in their operations to, among other things, detect stressed assets or problems like water leakage, for instance, that might occur in its substations or services.

To enhance the company’s ability to do predictive maintenance, a programme is underway to have contractors apply for licenses to take pictures of the utility infrastructure that are then examined by engineers who will approve or reject the images. Approved images are submitted to build a machine learning model for a maintenance application to detect and forecast problems.

“We need to study at least 10,000 pictures and use cases, thousands of scenarios [to] teach the machine learning about the case, and then AI will identify what is wrong.  The challenge is how to unify and standardise pictures and how to make AI understand all types of pictures and mistakes,” Al Mehairi said.

The main challenge for leaders of AI projects are first, to identify what exactly they need the technology for, and secondly, to have clean data, Al Mehairi said.

Finding capable programmers is also a big problem. “When we call some 100 programmers, we end up with only two or three who are capable to do the work,” Al Mehairi disclosed.

The combination of all this is not an easy task for CIOs, he says, noting that DEWA has a three-year digital transformation road map: “We had 500 projects that we shortlisted to 61 top ones. It is expensive and needs a thorough approach.”

AI in the service of child safety

Offering an example of government use of AI for safety, Lt Colonel Abdulrahman Ahmed Altamimi, Director of the Child Protection Centre at the UAE Ministry of Interior, said the agency is currently working with UNICRI (United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute) on a project called ‘AI for safer children’.

It is a project that is being backed by the government of UAE and the ministry will focus on using AI capabilities to protect children online and provide their safety and security in day-to-day life, Altamimi said.

“We are looking at a number of referrals that come from national and international databases and use them to monitor, prevent and combat online child exploitation and abuse to ensure the safety of children in the digital world,” he added.

Altamimi said the centre is connected to databases throughout the world and is using different types of technologies to combat crime and abuse of children online. UNCRI itself has been using AI for some time.

“Facial recognition technology can enable the identification of numerous missing children and national authorities are actively exploring how they can use machine learning to, for example, identify child abuse images on confiscated devices or to rapidly analyze the vast number of reports of potential child sexual abuse material online in order to swiftly identify children in real danger,” according to a UNICRI report.

Young talent is need in AI field

A big challenge for AI deployment going forward is to prepare young talent to handle the complex programming tasks required, according to Dr Tariq Al Gurg, CEO and vice chairman of Dubai Cares.

“In future it can take us to heights that we cannot imagine today. If you ask me whether this technology with its existing talent pool will be able to take AI quickly to those highs, the answer will be probably not. What we need is young blood, the youth who understands more that technology, who was born with it,” Al Gurg said.

Youth with proper education and training and the right tools will take AI to the next level. School children who are provided with the right ambiance, thinking and ecosystem can become part of that future, he said. “We have to rely on future generations to do that and we have to empower them now with those who are experienced in this technology monitoring and guiding them.”

AI ecosystem grows

Meanwhile, AI is already part of the UAE economy, in different segments of businesses and government services, said Ammar Al Malik, managing director of Dubai Internet City (DIC) and Dubai Outsource City. For enterprises, practical AI applications can manifest themselves in all sorts of ways, depending on their organisational needs and understanding of business intelligence.

The number of companies involved in AI and using it to analyse data is on the rise at DIC, Al Malik noted.

Businesses can use AI for everything from social data mining to driving engagement in customer relationship management (CRM), as well as logistics and efficiency optimisation in  tracking and managing assets, he added.

UAE seizes AI opportunity, minister says

The UAE is making efforts to cultivate investment and become a leader in the AI field, and is already attracting 50% of FDIs (foreign direct investments) in what can be considered the digital economy in the Middle East, said the world’s first minister for AI, the UAE’s Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy & Remote Work Applications.

The focus on AI comes from top government officials, he said. “When HH Sheikh Mohammed [UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum] says that we are going to lead in AI the question comes how we will do it.”

The fundamental requirement of AI is to have good quality data, and with 200 nationalities living in the country, AI systems in the UAE have diverse data, he noted.

Mentioning the National Program for Coders, which aims to attract 100,000 of the best coders from around the world to the UAE, the AI Minister said that there are currently over 30,000 coders in the UAE and that the country will close the year with nearly 60,000 top coders.

Overall, AI is going to play a major role in all businesses, Al Olama said. Technology leaders need to determine how AI is best-suited to play a role in optimizing business processes, he said.

“If you look at most of the major companies today most of them are either AI companies or AI enabled companies and that is not going to change and will increase further,” Al Olama said.