Why Size Doesn't Count For AI

Smaller economies such as UAE and Estonia can punch above their weight to be AI-ready.

This op-ed by Xische Reports CEO Danish Farhan appeared in Gulf News on 14-May under the headline 'Size Doesn't Count in Building AI."

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Do American lawmakers understand the inner workings of the internet?

In the course of hearings over Facebook’s handling of data in the US Congress this month, the answer was painfully clear. The highly-anticipated hearings devolved into a farce. The ignorance of lawmakers garnered smirks among the more digitally aware populace, but such shortfalls could spell disaster for the brewing international arms race over artificial intelligence (AI).

Put simply, how governments respond to the peril and promise of AI will help to define the next era in geopolitics and global economics. While retrenching old battles between powerful countries, the nature of AI development allows small states to have a seat on the global stage and contribute to the profound technological innovation already underway.

AI was born in the US way back in the 1950s. We text our friends, cue playlists, and drive to work with the support of AI algorithms developed in American universities and laboratories. But while the rest of the world is waking up to AI, the US government doesn’t appear have a coherent plan for the technology moving forward.

As such, world leaders are jockeying for position. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, warned in 2017 that the US stands to lose its status at the forefront AI within the next five years, citing a failure to invest in basic research and industry development. This has been compounded by the Trump administration’s lack of interest in funding computer research programmes.

To compete on AI, nations need to do three things: lead with a bold vision, invest in research and development, and cultivate a skilled workforce. Today, the race for dominance in AI is wide open. Small states such as the UAE and Estonia with a track record in digital transformation can compete with the US, the European Union and China.

China is undoubtedly in the lead. Last July, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a $2.1 billion (Dh7.71 billion) “national research park for AI” to drive the nation’s march toward an envisioned $150 billion AI economy by 2030. Jinping’s goal is to catch up to the US by 2020 and emerge as the undisputed leader of AI by 2030.

Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba have established research labs and are recruiting elite programmers away from the likes of Google and Microsoft to join the nation’s AI pursuit.

The Chinese are not alone. In March, French president Emmanuel Macron shared his vision to bring France into the age of AI, unveiling a $1.85 billion plan to invest in AI research and development through 2022. Under the strategy, France hopes to become a new testing bed for home-grown AI solutions, enticing both companies and individuals to set up shop in the country.

In an address to schoolchildren in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of plans to make 30 per cent of all military equipment robotic by 2025. This month, 24 EU member states pledged to cooperate on a joint “European approach” to artificial intelligence, in a direct bid to complete against America and China.

With so much money invested from powerful countries, it might seem as though small states will be left out of the AI development push but the opposite is true. The UAE and Estonia are demonstrating how small countries can punch above their weight in the AI arena.

In Estonia, lawmakers see AI as the “next logical step for e-governance” for the digitally savvy nation. Estonia is leading the debate on a legal framework for AI that balances appropriate liability with the protection of individuals.

The UAE joined the race for AI leadership last October, when it became the first country to appoint a Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence. At the same time, the UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence was announced to boost government performance at all levels and advance preparedness for AI across all sectors in the UAE.

The strategy will build on the success of the country’s internationally recognised smart government programme to deliver a 50 per cent annual cost savings from AI by 2031. The strategy will also build on the country’s investment in fostering a knowledge economy to develop employee capabilities and skill sets for AI. Critically, the UAE has also identified skills training for government leaders as a core theme of the nation’s AI strategy.

The UAE has the right ingredients to compete on AI: bold leadership, public sector investment in future technologies, and a commitment to fostering a skilled workforce. This commitment to AI, in light of dynamic changes taking place in the sector, will pay dividends on the international stage, especially as the US retreats.

This op-ed by Xische Reports CEO Danish Farhan appeared in Gulf News on 14-May.