U.A.E’s Commitment to Innovation at The World Government Summit

Artificial intelligence, the Mars 2117 Program and society at large

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The World Government Summit, in Dubai, was a 3-day interactive conference on technologies and advancements for the betterment of humanity. This invite-only event has established itself as the premier gathering of business leaders, advisors, entrepreneurs, innovators, celebrities and thought-leaders alike, to share, engage and explore the vehicles flourish during the technological revolution.

Among the hot topics of the conference, two stood out as integral to the advancement of The UAE: Artificial Intelligence and space travel. In an effort to get the inside scoop, I spoke with two prominent leaders in each field. His Excellency Omar bin Sultan Al Olama is the Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence at the Government of the United Arab Emirates and Saeed Al Gergawi, the Mars 2117 Program Director at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center.

Al Olama is working on studying the potential outcome for artificial intelligence and how it is going to impact governments, the private sector, and civilian lives. And top of his mind is what will happen to people once their jobs are replaced by artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence – intelligence demonstrated by machines – is already here. According to the Future of Life Institute, the AI as we currently know it is more specifically referred to as narrow (or weak) AI. This can take the form of Google’s search algorithms or IBM’s Watson to even autonomous weapons – and it is already growing and expanding to the likes of SIRI and self-driving cars.

Looking forward, the main goal of most researchers in the field is to create General AI – also known as SGI or strong artificial intelligence. And while narrow artificial intelligence can perform better than humans at it’s specifically programmed task (such as playing chess), AGI would be able to outperform people at virtually any cognitive task put to it.

But where does that put humanity?

His Excellency Omar bin Sultan Al Olama is the Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence at the Government of the United Arab Emirates. He’s working on studying the potential outcome for artificial intelligence and how it is going to impact governments, the private sector, and civilian lives. And top of his mind is what will happen to people once their jobs are replaced by AI.

Said Al Olama, “We don’t want to end innovation, that is something we do not want to do. At the same time, we don’t want people to move down the streets and be homeless or not have a job. That’s not cheap. So I think it’s a unique discussion that is really addressing the elephant in the room.”

How far away is “human-level” AI? At a 2015 AI safety conference held in Puerto Rico, scientists posited it would be with us in just over 40 years – by 2060. But before it gets here there are many questions that need answering as this open letter that has Elon Musk as one of its many signatories stated: “We recommend expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial: our AI systems must do what we want them to do.”

Al Olama could not agree more. “That’s why you need to have people from different backgrounds, working on different things from all over the world, to come…together. These outcomes would be discussed and shared at the end of the day,” he said.

But thanks to movies, books, and comics, a fear exists that AI will take over from humanity, even going so far as to enslave it. Former Chief Executive at Google, Eric Schmidt – who is now a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – believes AI will do just that, saying “All the movie-inspired death scenarios…I can confidently predict to you that they are one to two decades away.”

It’s certainly an extreme scenario. But there’s a far more normalized fear concerning artificial intelligence and that’s the loss of jobs.

However, a report from PwC India says that while 65% of participants agreed that artificial intelligence is likely to have a severe impact on employment in India, a majority believed the benefits outweigh any employment concerns as AI will open up opportunities for people to do more value-added work, apart from allowing for greater flexibility and work-life balance.

Added Sudipta Ghosh, PwC India’s Leader, Data & analytics, “The market reality we exist in today demands that we not only work towards upskilling our people but also produce the smartest machines that can work with us.”

Al Olama agrees, saying “The challenge that we have, in particular to artificial intelligence is the aspect of job replacement, and how many jobs it can do but no one is coming up with the solution. The only solution that we’ve heard of is UBI. But not every country is going to invest the basic income I think that is a challenge that we need to address.”

And artificial intelligence won’t just be affecting trade and manufacturing. It will affect governments too. One participant, John C. Havens, of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, said “…if we do not act now, we lose, and we will lose everything. I’m not trying to be negative, but it has to happen now.”

Al Olama sees a bright future–, especially for governments. “The reason why governments are inefficient is that everyone working in the government thinks that they know what they are doing – and they probably do, but there is no personal entity or program overseeing their performance. [AI] makes it more efficient.”

He adds “Governments are actually supposed to govern, they are not supposed to provide services. When governments provide services it’s because there is a lack of private sector involvement in that tech. Now, what happens with governing, if you don’t have the data inputs that give you the insight that you require, you put in place a policy that doesn’t make sense. Then you’ll see a negative impact on society, architecture, [and] your ecosystem. But imagine if every single data point and government was overseen by artificial intelligence.”

Artificial intelligence still has a ways to go. According to a contemporary McKinsey report, adoption of the technology is at an “early, experimental stage” and a survey of more than 3,000 AI-aware C-level execs in ten different countries, showed that only 20% have embraced AI at scale in a core part of their business while 40% were waiting to see where AI went before working with it.

According to Government Executive, a brand new IBM Center for the Business of Government report states that “to enable successful use of artificial intelligence in government, leaders must design and implement governance and policy that promotes a skilled workforce that collaborates with academia and the private sector, risk management frameworks, secure systems, and modern technologies.”

Al Olama has the last word. “I think artificial intelligence will always be [an] adviser to the government. AI will always have a lot of potential in terms of government, but we need to have some sort of understanding of what the importance is of that system that can give us advice. The economy we are looking at is going to be transformed. The advantage will no longer be talented humans; it will be talented humans plus very sophisticated artificial intelligence.”

Saeed Al Gergawi shares the prospect of the Emirates Mars Mission. “We [have been] playing a backseat role where we’re just looking and [watching] the scientific community moving forward. However, with the Emirates Mars Mission, it was the first time where we went to the scientific community and said you know what we have this mission.”

Despite the UAE’s space agency not being founded until as recently as 2014, their ambitions are open-ended. In 2020, the Emirates will launch their first Mars Mission, blasting off sometime in July, and set to arrive on Mars in 2021 – coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. The UAE Space Agency, who is in charge of the mission, says the mission will last somewhere between two to four years.

The spacecraft itself, named Hope, will be a small, hexagonal-sectioned and built from aluminum. About the size of a compact car, it will contain solar panels, spectrometers, imagers, thrusters, and 20 gigs of data storage. The mission is designed to advance human knowledge about the atmosphere and climate on Mars.

Specifically, Hope’s goals include global weather mapping, understanding climate dynamics, linking the layers of surface weather to that in the upper atmosphere, and studying how the Martian atmosphere is losing both oxygen and hydrogen. It will also search for connections between today’s Martian weather and the ancient climate of the planet named after the Roman God of War.

The Emirates Mars Mission goes further than any “other Arab country is aspiring to” notes Jorg Matthias Determann, author of “Space Science and the Arab World.” Other countries in the area, such as Qatar have been searching for exoplanets and Moroccan scientists contributed to the recent discovery of a number of Earth-like planets – but in terms of scale and technological ambition, the Emirati Mars Mission is, excuse the pun, light years ahead.

According to CNN, the UAE is also taking this opportunity to launch a half-a-million dollar seed fund to pay for both researchers and projects that chase the dream of human space living. “We are looking to attract the best from every discipline,” said Noah Raford, COO, and futurist-in-chief at the Dubai Future Foundation, which is managing the search.

Ideas submitted to the Space Settlement Challenge go through the Guaana website. The submissions process has also been simplified as they’re expecting ideas from all over, not just the scientific community – but, as per Raford, each team that submits a proposal must have at least one person with a Ph.D. or equivalent title.

Space exploration is big business. Morgan Stanley – the US investment bank – recently issued a report that predicted that the global space industry could be worth as much as $1.1 trillion annually by 2040; a figure that has shot up exponentially from $350 billion just a few years ago in 2016.

According to Bloomberg, Hope will launch with help from three universities in the US and is being worked on by a team of almost 160 Emiratis—40% of whom are women—with an average age of 27.

“It’s something that’s enormously expensive to seed overnight and the chances that you’re going to generate something genuinely new are limited. The ambition seems genuine and laudable, but the external restraints are formidable,” said Crispin Hawes, who works at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consulting firm based in London.

So how can businesses in Dubai/UAE contribute to the Mars Mission? Says Al Gergawi, “we’re already in partnership with Tawazan, a company based in Abu Dhabi that’s developing parts of the Emirates Mars mission.” The company, known for manufacturing car parts, is now being trained to develop material for space.

“We’re not hesitant toward taking risks and we have an understanding of what risks are,” said Sarah Al Amiri who was appointed Dubai’s minister for advanced sciences last winter.

And the agency isn’t stopping there; they have plans to build a Martian colony by 2117 and last year unveiled plans for its Mars Science City project starting off with a simulation colony built for $136 million in the desert outside Dubai. Says Al Gergawi of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, “it allows us to look at the right parallels and how can we improve everything here on Earth prior to going to Mars.”

Al Gergawi is excited. Very excited. “So we currently have the Mars 2117 program which is the 100-year space exploration program that is [examining] the similar shared challenges that we see on Mars. So when we look at this region there’s water food and energy security [and] these are the same challenges that humanity is facing on Mars.”

The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is funding the 2117 mission. Said the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center’s director general, Yousuf Al Shaibani, “The UAE’s entry into the space world and technology field, constitutes a major development in its journey, relying on the minds and ideas of a promising generation of its qualified people, with their various scientific knowledge.”

Until then, however, everyone’s eyes are set on the Hope, the first-ever Arab mission to another planet. With the UAE’s space industry currently valued at $300 billion dollars and with the added value of existing UAE space-related investments estimated at over $20 billion dollars, the sky’s the limit.

The conversation I was able to have with Saeed and Al Olama exemplify the magnitude and breadth of knowledge that spanned throughout the 3-day conference. It was an honor to be involved in such an advanced community with people that are writing history as we speak.

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