I remember when I visited Boston as teenager in the early 1990s and was confronted for the first time in my life with the magical term 'internet'. Creating websites was the latest thing in marketing and experts were already discussing how e-commerce would revolutionise our daily lives, how many jobs would vanish and the new economic sectors that would be created that would require new skills. It was frightening for a teenager who was not far from starting his own life and didn’t even have an e-mail address.
More then quarter century later, I have exactly the same feeling when I hear tech experts such as Elon Musk being bullish, or Mark Zuckerberg having second thoughts on the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of humanity. Osman Sultan, chief executive of DU Telecom in the United Arab Emirates, is warning that through automation and robotics, entire professions will be eliminated and we have to be aware of the destructive force of innovation. Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma is building fully automated warehouses for his company, Alibaba, and demanding a revolution in school education to prepare next generations for co-operation and competition with AI.
Despite different scenarios, most projections are showing a positive economical impact of AI globally, including in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region. PricewaterhouseCoopers expects “game-changing” effects from AI leading to an impact of $320bn in the Middle East until 2030. Today’s investments by the UAE and Saudi Arabia will result in a 12% to14% contribution of AI to their GDP by 2030. Digitalisation, robotics and other fields of AI can contribute to the diversification of Gulf Co-operation Council economies and thus to their independence from oil.
So the benefits of AI are evident and worth investing in. But to profit from the full potential of AI, a country must have a state-of-the-art infrastructure, a modern education system, a vibrant R&D sector and an innovation-driven and open economy. The history of the internet has shown the drivers of the new economy have their roots in the US, creating the biggest tech companies such as Apple, Alphabet and Facebook.
The MEA region is mainly the consumer of products coming from overseas. If the region wants to benefit sustainably from the AI era, structural changes and substantial investments are needed soon. Otherwise, the technological gap will lead to even bigger social disparity than already exists, within the region and beyond.
Mazdak Rafaty is managing partner of Ludwar International Consultancy and SME adviser to the joint Emirati-German Chamber of Commerce. E-mail: email@example.com