How Qatar plans to become a global leader in artificial intelligence

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Countries around the world are becoming increasingly cognizant of the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to become a source of growth and development. Many have released official strategies for planning how they would put AI into effect in their societies and have outlined the possible allocation of resources.

Such is the increasingly important role AI is expected to play in the future, that Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, went so far as to declare, “AI may become more profound than fire or electricity.”

Qatar is one of the countries that are vying to clinch an important position of power in the future of AI. As artificial intelligence continues to show its impact across all facets of human society—education, transportation, healthcare, business, art and entertainment, and warfare among others—Qatar is aiming to position itself as a hub of innovation in those fields.

“If countries miss the AI revolution, it will have an impact on the economy going forward. Every country has an opportunity at this time to lead, and to play an important role in the evolution of AI. We therefore think it is important that Qatar has a national AI strategy,” says Dr. Sanjay Chawla, Research Director of Data Analytics at Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), a member of Qatar Foundation.

Aligning with this rising global revolution, the Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence (QCAI), part of QCRI, has released a blueprint for a “National Artificial Intelligence Strategy for Qatar,” stating that Qatar needs an overarching AI strategy that supports the country’s national vision while being rooted in its local context.

The blueprint was created with the intent to inform and advise Qatar’s leadership on AI, its potential and challenges, and to propose a path forward.

QCRI’s role in helping Qatar become a hub for AI

Since its inception, QCRI has had an active role using AI in the areas of computing research, and its work has had a positive impact for Qatar’s society and its citizens. “Qatar is a forward-looking nation and its National Vision 2030 clearly demands that it uses its economic advantage derived from fossil fuels to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy. The investments that Qatar has already made in research and development efforts in AI can serve as a foundation to build strong capabilities in the area, and provide a head start to developing globally recognized AI-based solutions,” says Dr. Chawla.

Regarding the progress being made in this field, Dr. Ashraf Aboulnaga, Research Director of Distributed Systems at QCRI, said, “We’ve moved from CS+X—the idea that computer science can be added to any field—to now having AI+X, where you can take AI and add it to any field to make it better and be able to transform any field with AI. Our vision is for AI to be so pervasive in all aspects of life, business, and governance in Qatar that everyone looks to Qatar as a role model for AI + X.”

The race for AI talent

To keep pace in an ever-evolving AI world, QCRI needs to attract the best in the field, and Dr. Stephan Vogel, Research Director of Arabic Language Technologies at QCRI, believes it can become a global hub for attracting AI talent.

He says, “The competition has risen tremendously over the last two or three years because the big companies battle it out by offering big paychecks and perks, but QCRI did very well in bringing in some top-notch people right from the start.

“By bringing in people who were known in the field, they were able to attract other talented people because good people want to work with good people. When you look at the financial aspect, Qatar can compete better than many countries, and the quality of life here is good as well.”

Dr. Aboulnaga echoes those sentiments, adding, “In the nine years since QCRI began, we’ve had success and that helps us to attract the best. For example, people in Stephan’s group know they are joining one of the best teams in the world in this field.”

Collaborative efforts

QCRI is collaborating with MIT on a joint AI project which saw a roundtable held in Doha earlier this year. CEOs of local companies learned about the proposed AI strategy and how their companies can leverage advances in computer science, especially in AI.

QCAI collaborates with the likes of Karwa, Qatar Airways, Al Jazeera, and Sidra Hospital to find interesting data patterns and design new machine learning programs.

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Separating the reality from the hype

Part of QCAI’s role is to help stakeholders in Qatar separate the reality from the hype with AI. Dr. Vogel explains, “AI is about discovering patterns in the data that can be used to produce innovative research; it is not about what we see in science fiction movies.

“We have very specific innovative algorithms that can detect lung cancer effectively, but the same AI algorithms cannot play chess or predict a taxi route. AI can do very narrow but really great things, though if you talk about AI many people think the Terminator is coming.”

Regarding the public misconception of AI, Dr. Vogel adds, “AI is considered to be a magic bullet that should be able to do anything, but that is not the case. AI actually means you have data in which you find patterns and interesting regularities, and you can apply these to new data. If you don’t have the data, there is no AI; it does not come out of nothing.”

Qatar is uniquely positioned to reap the benefits of AI. More than 94% of the Qatari population uses the Internet, which is one of the highest rates in the world. With such a technologically savvy population, Qatar is perfectly placed to embrace AI and become a world leader in this field.

To achieve this goal, Qatar needs to produce world-class AI applications in areas of national interest and have a business environment that enables the use of AI as a driver for innovation.

It is in this context that QCRI believes a national AI strategy would become a powerful technological enabler for the Qatar National Vision 2030 (QNV2030), and that AI is indispensable for each of its four pillars of sustainable development: economic, social, human, and environmental.

Qatar’s proposed national AI strategy and its pillars

The AI Strategy blueprint developed by QCAI presents six pillars as the foundation for building an AI research and innovation ecosystem in Qatar, and from which appropriate recommendations and action plans can be expected to emerge:

Pillar 1 “Race for Talent in the AI+X Era” – focuses on adopting strategies for developing local AI talent and attracting international AI talent. AI is likely to be embedded in all aspects of human activity, a phenomenon that can be called “AI+X.”

Pillar 2 “Data Access is Paramount” – suggests that Qatar develops data governance rules that respect cultural norms, and encourages Qatar to initiate diplomatic efforts for data-sharing among other countries.

Pillar 3 “The Changing Landscape of Employment” – encourages local businesses to embrace AI solutions and use the AI revolution to move towards a knowledge-based economy, in line with QNV2030.

Pillar 4 “New Business and Economic Opportunities” – focuses on wealth creation and how Qatar can present itself as the ideal nation for the creation of AI businesses.

Pillar 5 “Qatar – The AI + X Nation” – stresses investment in strategically important areas where Qatar naturally has an advantage (Arabic content business, oil and gas, etc.).

Pillar 6 “Ethics and Public Policy” – recommends that Qatar creates a framework to address questions of ethics; Qatar should consider the local context but still align with international norms.

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Implementing the AI strategy in Qatar

Considering the implications of an AI future for Qatar, Professor Georgios Dimitropoulos, associate professor at HBKU’s College of Law, envisions that the government would play two major roles: to constrain and to enable, both of which are considered in the blueprint and its six pillars.

Constraint would primarily manifest through the protection of data and privacy. Qatar already has a basis for developing the appropriate legislation, having developed the Protection of the Privacy of Personal Data Law No. 13 in 2016. Since constraint by itself will likely inhibit innovation and put Qatar behind in the AI race, the government would need to encourage the development of AI technology. Enablement is therefore the second role that the government must take on, and this can be accomplished through R&D incentivization or the development of regulatory sandboxes and innovation hubs.

“The law is absolutely crucial in bringing together the physical and the intellectual infrastructure of this country,” says Professor Dimitropoulos. “The law has to play its traditional role here, which is the constraining one and the enabling role.”

Other considerations arising in an AI future

Professor Dimitropoulos and Dr. Sanjay Chawla, Research Director of Data Analytics at QCRI, anticipate two issues arising due to the spread of AI, and both must be taken into account. First and foremost is the question of accountability. What would the consequences be with a machine making the decisions? Acknowledging that a machine has a legal personality, in a way, raises issues of liability. For example, if a driverless car were involved in an accident, who would be responsible?

A second issue is how to regulate the development of technology, which researchers have yet to determine.

“Despite the ethics framework that would be established, there are still privacy concerns to consider,” adds Professor Dimitropoulos. “AI would make regulating citizen behavior easier, but many would have qualms about being monitored. The way in which the data is used could impact the social structure of society.”

Dr. Chawla expects inertia to be one form of response to AI—as with any new technology. People are likely to be uncomfortable with certain jobs becoming automated, which in turn raises a question of social rights. To what extent do machines have the right to take over the jobs of citizens who need to earn a living? On the other hand, AI will also be expected to create new jobs in new sectors that will emerge.

“One must look ahead and try to capture all these issues before they actually manifest,” says Professor Dimitropoulos.

The role of the AI blueprint

QCAI will continue to develop and promote the use of cutting-edge AI innovations and the 2022 FIFA World Cup will provide a perfect opportunity to collect data and pilot AI application ideas that could also benefit Qatar in the long run.

Dr. Chawla believes the new variables arising due to the event (the opening of the Doha Metro, the expected influx of match spectators, tourists, etc.) can be utilized to gather huge amounts of data. Possible benefits could include the optimization of the transportation system, and the creation of programs that can produce personalized itineraries based on tourist interests and preferences, to attract more visitors to Qatar.

QCAI believes Qatar can become a key player in AI in the future and hopes the AI blueprint—or a variation of it—will be adopted as the national strategy.

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