Beyond Secret Cyber Deals, Israel and UAE Ties May Be a Boon for AI

The UAE is the only country in the world to have an artificial intelligence minister and it has even opened a university dedicated to the field - they have much to gain from cooperating with Israel

Uri Eliabayev
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A man in the UAE reads a newspaper announcing normalised ties with Israel. Will the two states cooperate on AI too?
A man in the UAE reads a newspaper announcing normalised ties with Israel. Will the two states cooperate on AI too? Credit: AFP
Uri Eliabayev

The recent announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have normalized their relations, with the latter lifting its economic boycott on Jerusalem, has sparked great interest in the potential cooperation between the two countries on a wide range of issues. 

On Monday, the first direct commercial flight by Israel's flagship carrier El Al landed in Abu Dhabi, carrying U.S. and Israeli officials including President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Alongside this excitement, it’s important to note that even though the official announcement was just recently made public, the Israeli government and many Israeli companies have been active for years in the Gulf States, selling them various types of technology. Granted, these were generally cyber or high-tech deals that were signed in secret. But as these ties come out of the shadows, there’s another field that could bring cooperation between the two countries out from under the cloak of darkness and into the forefront of technological development – artificial intelligence.

Government officials in the UAE realized several years ago that this field might well generate a technological and economic revolution for them. They therefore decided to do everything in their power to secure a place for the UAE at the forefront of the lucrative field. 

Consequently, in October 2017, the UAE became the first country in the world to appoint a minister for artificial intelligence. Omar Al Alama’s appointment as the minister in charge of this field was proof of how seriously the government takes AI and of how important the government thinks it is for the UAE to be a leader in this particular technology.

That same year, the UAE unveiled a national strategic plan for artificial intelligence that was meant to place the country as a global leader in the field by 2031. Like strategic plans for AI in many other countries, this plan covered a wide variety of fields in which governments are interested in making greater use of the technology – transportation, health, renewable energy, the environment, water and even space.

What’s interesting about this particular strategic plan is that it also stressed the importance of creating knowledge and developing expertise in AI as a way of bolstering technological development within the country in general. The government recognized that to do so, it must also invest in developing its human capital, which has prompted it to invest a fair amount in training programs, courses and academic research in the field.

As an outgrowth of this approach, one of the most significant steps the UAE has taken in the field was opening a university dedicated specifically to artificial intelligence in 2019. The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence offers advanced degrees in several specialties within this field.

The subjects taught include most of the common fields – machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing. Local and foreign students can pursue either a master’s or a doctorate in these fields (the next class will enter in 2021). 

Since this is a young university, it unsurprisingly hasn’t yet produced groundbreaking journal articles or pioneering research. Nevertheless, its substantial research budgets and the powerful computing infrastructure the university plans to install may turn it into a magnet for researchers from around the world.

The UAE is just starting out on this journey, but it’s clearly willing to invest a lot of money and other resources to place itself at the forefront of this field. And that’s exactly where Israel could assist – by sharing the knowledge and experience it has accumulated in AI.

Israel is a world leader in the field of artificial intelligence. It has a long list of outstanding academic researchers and unique start-ups that are at the forefront of this field.

Israelis could therefore take all the experience that they have accumulated in recent decades and cooperate with researchers and companies from the UAE to produce technologies that could now, for the first time, be talked about openly, not just behind the scenes. Joint research and studies in academia, advanced training, developing commercial technologies, improving research processes or just some of the arenas Israel could prove a key partner for the UAE.

The UAE’s hunger for progress in this field, combined with the substantial knowledge and experience that exists in Israel, could be a great force multiplier for both sides and help give birth to a strategic partnership in a field of great importance to both countries.

Uri Eliabayev is a business consultant in the field of artificial intelligence and manages the Machine and Deep learning Israel community

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