The use of Artificial Intelligence technologies has found its way to almost all aspects of our lives, yet the contribution of different parts of the world to the creation, use, and consequently, benefits extracted out of AI continues to see significant disparities.
As the utilization of Artificial Intelligence in the different sectors such as agriculture, water, environment, healthcare and infrastructure is significantly growing in Arab countries, there is an opportunity to develop a common strategy to leverage synergies between countries for the development and use of AI to achieve sustainable development.
On 2 December 2021, in a roundtable discussion organised by Egypt’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology in cooperation with the League of Arab States at the ITU and UNESCO Regional Digital Inclusion Week, panellists discussed the challenges and opportunities for the development of a common AI strategy for Arab States.
Importance of Capacity Building
The use of digital technologies is engendering new challenges at the intersection of technology and society. Addressing these challenges require enhanced capacities for governance. In order to bridge this gap, UNESCO works on AI Capacity Building at multiple levels – from programmes in education to supporting journalists and judges in strengthening their capacities. Prateek Sibal, Programme Specialist in UNESCO’s Digital Innovation and Transformation Section, highlighted that “the government itself is one critical area for capacity development”. As such, UNESCO is developing a digital transformation competency framework for civil servants. He invited countries in the region to work with UNESCO to strengthen capacities of civil servants, judges and parliamentarians for digital governance and digital transformation.
Challenges of AI in Arab Countries
For AI systems to be accessible and inclusive, there is a need for AI tools that use native languages and dialects rather than rely on the English language for Natural Language Processing (NLP). “Translating Arabic to English might be easy, but translating English to Arabic is very difficult,” noted Dr. Salwa Hussein Abdel Fattah El Ramly, an Engineering Professor at Ain Shams University in Egypt. The written forms for the two languages are very different as well, she added.
Moreover, national priorities for AI may differ within the region. For example, some countries may focus on attracting foreign investments, while other countries may target advancing their international standing, said Dr. Golestan Radwan, Advisor to the Minister for Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in Egypt. In the same vein, Dr Mustafa Ahmed Ali Al Mahdi, Programme Officer at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Arab Regional Office, emphasised that for a cohesive regional strategy, countries must first align their objectives with the rest of the region and consider the differing levels of national resources and capabilities as well.
The Path Forward
Despite the challenges, “eagerness and ambition to implement AI technology is a common theme in the Arab region,” said Radwan. Coming up with a guideline that includes regional objectives will be helpful, said Mahdi, supporting a multi-stakeholder approach that will help countries in the region develop their own technological capabilities and ensure the ethical use of technology.
Moreover, Rehab Alarfaj, Strategic Advisor at the Saudi Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence in Saudi Arabia, highlighted that a Common Arab AI Strategy will allow Arab countries to develop valuable AI solutions, unify the region in the field of AI, and allow all countries in the region to work on UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together.
Some suggestions for the path forward include bringing all AI researchers in the Arab Region together with a new hub, encourage learning and sharing knowledge between countries and building a robust infrastructure with skilled people to support the use and development of AI.
A Common Arab AI Strategy will “allow Arab countries to develop valuable AI solutions, unify the region in the field of AI and allow all countries in the region to work on the (UN’s) Sustainable Development Goals together,” said Radwan.
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