- “We Need to be Leaders in the AI Revolution”
“We Need to be Leaders in the AI Revolution”
Ahead of COP28, the government of the UAE is using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze...
Omar Sultan Al Olama, UAE’s Minister for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy, and Remote Work Applications, has an ambitious plan to turn his country into a global leader in the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the ongoing economic and societal shift spearheaded by AI and automation.
Ahead of the UAE’s presidency of the 28th UN Climate Change Conference in November and December 2023, Minister Al Olama sat down with the OPEC Fund Quarterly to explain how technological innovation can turn the tide for development and climate change — through efficiency gains, scenario planning and mobilizing millions of young people. Essentially, helping the next generation to shape a fairer and more sustainable future for all.
OPEC Fund Quarterly: Beyond hosting COP28 and the Headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the UAE leads the Arab region in many areas, particularly AI. From your ministry’s perspective, how can AI contribute to climate action?
Omar Sultan Al Olama: The UAE’s hosting of COP28 is a continuation of our efforts and belief that we need to be Good Samaritans for the planet – as countries, companies and individuals – and that we need to take a pragmatic, realistic approach in transitioning to a sustainable world. The UAE has been doing this for many years with investments in solar power thanks to the creation of companies such as Masdar, hosting IRENA and contributing to many other endeavors around the world.
When it comes to AI and climate action, we all need to remember that climate change is a problem that doesn’t have a specific cutoff point. It’s an ongoing problem and we need to collect vast amounts of data to understand exactly what is happening and to grasp the full picture. So humanity needs to leverage AI to analyze all the data, understand its impact and do something about it.
AI can become the advisor that crunches all the information, helps us understand the impacts, and simulates what we can do to mitigate and hopefully even reverse global climate change. There’s a lot of different utilities for AI where we can use it to address specific issues and industries — whether by increasing efficiencies, reducing emissions, or doing more with less.
OFQ: The OPEC Fund is mandated to assist developing countries, which we see not just as beneficiaries but as partners. How can AI make a difference for international development?
OAO: AI can be a tool and a force for good when you have structured processes and vast amounts of data. For industries like agriculture, AI can be leveraged to increase output: It can reduce the impact of climate change on crops and cut the cost of developing infrastructure in difficult areas. The potential impact is huge.
The UAE perspective is that you first need to look at the start of the value chain before investing in AI. For example, the Middle East has many young people who can create opportunities for the future. For example, [UAE Prime Minister] Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched an initiative that I oversaw named the One Million Arab Coders initiative, which taught a million people in the Arab world how to code. These young coders are now creating the companies, which are creating the jobs, which are creating truly sustainable solutions. Tens of thousands of companies have already come out of this program across various regions; and there are so many opportunities for people to have jobs that are not necessarily local, but global, through the internet and other digital spaces.
Another such initiative is The Digital School, which was launched by Sheikh Mohammed during the COVID-19 pandemic and which aims to provide structured school-based education for people in the most vulnerable areas around the world. The Digital School now has more than 50,000 students around the world. AI is something that we’re utilizing to understand how we can be more efficient in providing education and in training teachers. Giving people the skillsets necessary at the beginning of this value chain will allow them to utilize the tools, systems and opportunities arising from AI in the future.
OFQ: What success stories from your ministry in the UAE could be replicated elsewhere?
OAO: Around the world right now we’re seeing a transition to the digital economy. Some of the biggest companies today are focused on AI. We need to grasp this in the Middle East and the developing world by empowering individuals to build companies that are “Digital First”.
The UAE has launched a plethora of initiatives for building a digital economy. One is focused on teaching youth how to create apps that can become the businesses of the future. Over a thousand people have gone through this program and hopefully we’re going to see many companies that come out of this. If one of them becomes a “unicorn” (a startup company worth over US$1 billion), that will be a huge success for the UAE and the region — because they’re also going to provide jobs, opportunities and economic output.
Another challenge is that the cost of “training algorithms” is very high, especially for start-ups,, so the government is now covering that cost. We invested in a super-computing cluster, which is free for start-ups, and academia. This cluster can be used to train your algorithms, if you need to do simulations, so it reduces the barriers to market entry.
Finally, returning to the One Million Arab Coders initiative, we’ve created a vast network of people operating in the digital economy and building businesses in their home countries. We are now linking them to funders from around the world that can support them and that can hopefully create the next Facebook, Tesla or Amazon — based in the Middle East but catering to the rest of the world.
OFQ: Beyond the UAE's national strategy, what is your personal vision for making the most of AI?
OAO: I genuinely hope that the Middle East becomes a beacon of development while leading the future of technologies such as AI. I can already see the incredible opportunities that AI is going to bring, as well as the potential disruptions that it is going to cause.
The UAE has invested significantly in this sphere. But now, instead of being followers, we need to be leaders. We need to have a seat at the table where all the key players are deliberating the future of humanity as a whole. We need to make sure that the future is bright for the region, for the world and for the next generation.
Profile: Omar Sultan Al Olama
Omar Sultan Al Olama has been the UAE Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence since October 2017, becoming the world’s first minister in this field. In July 2020, his role was expanded to include Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications. Most recently, he was also appointed Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office in 2023.