Can AI Solve for Food in the Middle East?

Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could change the demographics of Gulf societies. Here's how.

By Xische Editorial, August 20, 2018

Source: Small Smiles/ Shutterstock

Source: Small Smiles/Shutterstock

Given the pace of innovation in robotics, it can be difficult to judge what developments will end up having a profound societal impact. Most people do not encounter humanoid robots at the supermarket or mechanic, and humanoids are not flying airplanes or overseeing public transport networks. Robotics innovation is subtle, incremental, and unfolding in unlikely places. Take the issue of food security in the Arabian Gulf. Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could change the demographics of Gulf societies. Here's how.

The Middle East is famously devoid of substantial freshwater resources, exacerbating mounting concerns over food insecurity. While water insecurity can be mitigated by technology, and irrigate the boutique horticulture that supplies farmers’ markets, it is impossible to intervene against nature to sustainably create enough fresh water to supply large-scale agriculture - the type needed to fill supermarkets and feed growing countries. There have been creative technological solutions crafted to address food insecurity in this region, but they all suffer from the fundamental problem of scale. The solutions replace one set of resource demand with another - a commodities shell game that still ends up with a deficit. But there might be a way around this: robotics and AI.

The solution is not in increasing the supply of food but in lowering the food demand required to keep Gulf countries growing. On the supply side, innovative agricultural techniques - such as vertical farming - could allow Gulf countries to grow their own food instead of importing it, but not at a large enough scale. Another solution - purchasing large tracts of arable land around the world - still does not ensure security. In East Africa and Central Asia, for example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have purchased land and agribusinesses to ensure control over their food sources. This model has been successful, but it is a fundamentally insecure method of establishing food security because there is no guarantee that a future government will not nationalize its private holdings or reserve output from those farms for the home nation during a crisis.

Gulf countries must think beyond supply for long-term food security and consider lowering demand. Barring Saudi Arabia, Gulf nations have small natural populations. Because of the demands of a modern economy, they have had to recruit foreigners to operate the levers of commerce. That, however, was the requirement of a 20th-century economy. As Gulf nations are re-engineering their economies for the 21st century, they need fewer people from abroad to help generate the same amount or more of GDP.

With advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics, many of the jobs occupied by low-skilled foreign workers could soon be replaced by machines. Developments in the AI space are impossible to ignore. Amazon, for example, recently opened a grocery store in Seattle that has few physical employees. Imagine if these stores came to Dubai, along with gas stations that required no attendants. The reduction in population would be immediate and dramatic. A transition toward greater dependency on AI and robotics in every sphere of life in the Gulf would reduce the number of foreign workers needed - and thereby reduce the demand for food.

The reduction of low- and mid-skilled workers through the embrace of AI and robotics would signal the beginning of a new chapter in the development and sustainability of the region. Most analysts argue that replacing low-skilled jobs with AI and robotics will encourage higher productivity growth.  In this new world, workers – fewer than before – would be brought in with the high-level skills required to help build and maintain a genuine knowledge-based economy. The Gulf could put this thesis to the test.

This idea highlights the subtle but revolutionary impact that robotics and AI can have if employed smartly. Currently, the UAE is focused on the application and service-delivery side of robotics. There is an opportunity for more.  If Gulf countries re-engineer the economy with the smart use of robots and AI, they could dramatically reduce their food security burden. We do not need robots flying airplanes to facilitate a sea change in how society operates on a fundamental level. This is precisely the promise of the innovation taking place in the AI and robotics realm.