robotics Archives — Carrington Malin

July 13, 2021
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AI diplomacy has added a new dimension to international relations and the United Arab Emirates is working hard to build bilateral ties that boost its AI capabilities. It’s also using its AI successes in government and forward looking AI policies to enhance its international reputation.

The UAE’s appetite for artificial intelligence is plain to see for anyone browsing its daily news media. The country’s leadership was one of the world’s first to identify AI as a top priority for government planning and policy, announcing the UAE’s national AI strategy in 2017 and appointing the world’s first minister for AI.

This focus at the top has helped make AI a priority across business, education and the whole public sector. These days, the prospect of AI seems to be embedded into every government programme, public initiative and commercial deal.

It has also now become commonplace to see diplomatic communiqués that mention artificial intelligence. It seems, AI diplomacy is on the rise. The UAE’s foreign relations meetings and forums over the past few weeks with Azerbaijan, Japan, France, Greece, Luxembourg and others have all touched on artificial intelligence.

The GCC has always relied on foreign technology firms and so technology has always had its place in the region’s diplomacy. Over the past few years, the AI race has brought new focus to technology in foreign policy, in particular after the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Israel-UAE tech collaboration on the fast-track

The historic agreement to normalise bilateral relations between the Israel and the UAE last August became the diplomatic event of the year. The agreement considered many economic, trade and security issues: cooperation in energy, water and developing a coronavirus vaccine were pinpointed at the time. However, much of the engagement between the two countries that followed has been tech-centric. In fact, the UAE’s minister of state for AI, Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, last year called the new technology collaboration between Israel and the UAE an ‘undeniable need’.

Shortly after the accord was signed, Abu Dhabi-based AI firm Group 42 announced the opening of a wholly-owned subsidiary in Israel, following memorandums of understanding with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., and this year formed a joint venture with the latter. The group’s Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) signed an agreement Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science to create joint AI research and development programmes.

A number of other significant partnerships were signed between Israeli and UAE business groups in 2020. Businessman Abdullah Saeed Al Naboodah partnered with Israeli venture capital giant OurCrowd to form Phoenix Capital, a $100 million fund to back technology investments between the two countries. Meanwhile, the UAE’s in-person tech trade events have seen planeloads of Israeli businessmen attend over the past year.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that the UAE is inclined to ‘put all its eggs in one basket’. The Emirates has a long-standing policy of building bilateral relations with almost all countries across the world, but AI diplomacy has given some of these new purpose. Reem bint Ibrahim Al Hashemy, the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation, recently described Finland as one of the country’s most important partners in innovation and artificial intelligence. The UAE also seems to have stepped up engagement with Estonia on the back of the Baltic state’s success in leveraging big data and smart systems.

China-UAE relations bring R&D to the fore

One of the UAE’s most significant, and perhaps most under-reported on, technology collaborations is its deepening relationship with China. Although diplomatic relations have been established for many years, President Xi Jinping’s 2018 visit to the UAE seems to have taken relations with China to a new level. This has included cooperation on combatting the coronavirus pandemic (the UAE fast-tracked human trials of Sinopharm’s Covid-19 vaccine), energy, trade, investment, infrastructure, and high technologies including 5G, big data, and AI.

Increasingly, the Chinese and Emirati institutions are collaborating on technology, research and innovation. An MoU on higher education was signed with China’s ministry of education during an official visit to Beijing by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2015. That MoU has paved the way for partnerships between universities and research institutions. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (now part of Khalifa University) signed an agreement with Tsinghua University, sometimes referred to as China’s MIT, during the state visit.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed returned to Beijing in 2019, where he met Wang Zhigang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology at Tsinghua University and was awarded an honorary professorship by the university for his role in supporting science, technology and innovation.

Khalifa University of Science and Technology signed a joint research agreement with Tsinghua University, during the same visit. Khalifa University, which opened its Robotics and Intelligent Systems Institute the same year, also has agreements with Georgia Tech, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), among others.

The UAE mission to Beijing also returned with a deal signed between Abu Dhabi Investment Office (Adio) and Chinese AI giant SenseTime to locate its Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) AI Centre of Excellence in in the emirate.

New collaboration opportunities are being reviewed on a regular basis. China’s top scientific institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, signed a joint agreement on scientific research earlier this year with the United Arab Emirates University. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, Dr. Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber, UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, and managing director & group CEO of ADNOC Group, spoke about the two countries growing technological cooperation at the 2021 Pujiang Innovation Forum in Shanghai.

Expo 2020 Dubai to grandstand tech cooperation

The biggest opportunity for the UAE to strengthen and build on state-backed technology cooperation this year is Expo 2020 Dubai (1 October 2021 – 31 March 2022), at which China has one of the largest national pavilions. Covering 4,600 square metres of space, the ‘Light of China’ pavilion will highlight the country’s achievements in information, science, technology and transportation. Exhibits include FAST (the five hundred metre aperture spherical telescope), the Beidou satellite navigation system, plus the latest 5G and artificial intelligence technologies.

Expo 2020, which is taking place under the theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, is sure to be the most heavily tech-focused World Expo ever to take place, where visitors will be able to experience how AI, AR, VR and other future technologies can be used for education, green energy, urban mobility and many other fields.

Many of the GCC’s biggest trading partners are naturally using Expo 2022 to showcase their countries’ science and technology capabilities. For example, the USA Pavilion will showcase innovations and technology from urban mobility to quantum computing.  While, according to Simon Penney, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner (HTMC) for the Middle East, artificial intelligence will be a key theme for the United Kingdom Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, reflecting already strong collaboration between the UK and UAE in AI and advanced technologies.

Half of Expo 2020’s twelve premium partners are technology-related, including Chinese AI and Internet of Things (IoT) company, Terminus Technologies which, as the official robotics partner, will deploy 150 service robots across the expo. Other premium partners include Accenture, Cisco, SAP, Siemens and UAE telecom provider Etisalat.

With 190 countries expected to participate in the six-month long exhibition, we can expect Expo 2020 Dubai to facilitate plenty of opportunities for AI diplomacy, AI collaborations and new AI deals.

This article was originally published as ‘A letter from the Gulf’ in The AI Journal.

Also see the previous ‘Letter from the Gulf’


May 3, 2021
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GCC technology investments are growing, as private investors, investment banks and sovereign wealth funds switch focus from traditional investment assets such as bonds, equity and real estate.

In October 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans to build a $500 billion smart city of the future called NEOM and made headlines around the world. It’s a grand scheme to create an AI-driven city that crosses the borders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – and, mainly thanks to NEOM’s massive scale and expense, some have found the plan, simply, hard to believe.

However, that same year, with far less media coverage, Saudi also launched its nationwide smart cities programme, selecting 17 cities for digital transformation projects, with the support of $500 billion earmarked for modernising urban developments across the Kingdom. Although the largest of its kind in the Gulf, other government-planned smart city initiatives have already been set in motion in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf states have always been big buyers of technology and one could describe today’s government digital transformation policies as fearless! The UAE, for example, has a history of enacting bold initiatives that, rightly or wrongly, would require many years of debate and review elsewhere. The race to embrace facial recognition technologies is one such area of digital policy and a key milestone in this month’s news is that residents of the Emirates can now use biometric facial recognition to access thousands of public services.

Naturally, the GCC’s affinity for new technology has made the region a fast-growing market for 5G, AI, blockchain, Edge and IoT technologies and the past month has had no shortage of commercial announcements from tech companies competing for a slice of the pie.

The buzz around the Gulf’s smart cities market

It’s no secret that partnerships are key to developing sustainable smart cities and these are being put in place at all levels across the Gulf.

This week, digital energy management leader Schneider Electric and NXN, a leading regional provider of smart digital services for the smart cities sector, announced a partnership to collaborate on smart energy solutions. Meanwhile, Chinese AIoT solutions developer Terminus Group and UAE solutions provider Injazat signed a partnership targeting urban digitalisation in the region.

Urban mobility is also seen with increased frequency in the Gulf’s news media. A Huawei exec was quoted recently as being bullish about the market for 5G-enabled self-driving cars in the Middle East and he’s not alone. In fact, overall, the interest in autonomous vehicles seems to have entered a new phase and signing up potential ecosystem partners has become a priority.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), which has a strategy to transform 25 percent of total trips within the city to driverless transport by the year 2030, just signed an MoU with the World Economic Forum related to its Safe Drive Initiative Framework (SafeDI Framework). This was also the month that Dubai’s Crown Prince H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum confirmed that GM-backed autonomous vehicle company Cruise will supply the emirates’s robotaxi shuttles. Cruise could operate its Origin ride-sharing shuttles in Dubai as soon as 2023.

Facial recognition? That’ll do nicely, sir!

Following a cabinet decision in February to approve the use of facial recognition for public and private services, the UAE government has announced the integration of facial recognition into the national public services app, UAE Pass. Users will be able to use biometric facial recognition to gain access to 6,000 services provided by over 130 government departments and public authorities. Private sector payment services using biometric facial recognition ID are expected to follow in the near future.

The UAE is not shy of using facial recognition technology for security purposes either. Already in use by police across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah emirates in public CCTV systems, police vehicles and radar cameras, the number of pilots using facial recognition technologies are growing fast. This week, Sharjah Police disclosed that it has multiple trials in action using drones equipped with facial recognition technology to help police search for suspects or wanted criminals, police public areas and monitor suspicious behaviour.

Robots move to front-of-house in Gulf retail

Robotics has been in use by major retailers and distributors in the GCC for some years for warehousing and stock control. Supermarket giant Carrefour has Tally robots (manufactured by Californian automation startup Simbe Robotics, Inc.) in use across eleven of its retail malls in the UAE, for auditing and stock control. Now the group has started to use robots for customer service, opening its first fully-automated store in Dubai Financial District last year, with app ordering and a robot delivery service.

The idea seems to be catching on and a number of retail automation projects are in various stages of development across the region. This month, national telecom operator Omantel announced plans to partner with Oman Oil Marketing Company to enable the first AI and IoT-powered smart store in the Sultanate of Oman.

The growing curiosity about robots has also given rise to a number of Robo-diners in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. ‘Restaurant Robot’, a new Asian restaurant in the southwestern Saudi port city of Jazan, recently made the local press. Conceived and run by a young female engineer, Reham Omar, the restaurant’s six waitress robots (manufactured by Chinese robotics firm CSJBOT) have proved to be quite a hit with diners.

Increased focus on GCC technology investments

Despite the region’s high spending on acquiring technology, the vast proportion of Gulf investment managed by large private investors, investment banks and sovereign wealth funds has historically gone into traditional investment assets such as bonds, equity and real estate. When tech has been a target, it has typically been the blue-chip stocks and certainly not new, unproven tech ventures. Today, the attitudes of both private investors and fund managers are changing rapidly. A Financial Times exclusive a few weeks ago revealed that Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala, is turning away from its roots and ramping up investments in technology, healthcare and disruptive industries.

Last year Mubadala announced that it was investing $2 billion in a 25-year strategy plan led by tech-focused private equity firm Silver Lake. Earlier this month, Silver Lake disclosed that it is investing about $800 million in Abu Dhabi AI and cloud computing company Group 42 (G42), in a sign of the private-equity firm’s deepening relationship with the emirate. The week afterward, Group 42 announced an AI and Big Data joint venture with Israel’s state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Although this might look like a game of venture capital pass the parcel, the key takeaway is that big Gulf funds are now looking to new technology and global tech-focused funds are keen to partner with them.

Saudi funds are targeting emerging tech too. Upcoming venture capital investor, backed by one of the world’s largest oil companies, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures was among a group that awarded $50 million to Seattle-based industrial analytics startup Seeq Corp., as part of its Series C funding round this year. Meanwhile, Riyadh-based Future Investment Initiative Institute (FII-I) has invested in German electric VTOL aircraft startup Lilium.

Funding is also being used as a lever to bring research and development into the GCC. Abu Dhabi-based ADQ‘s Alpha Wave Incubation (AWI) fund invests in Asian startups on the condition that they establish an R&D operation in the city. This month, ADQ announced an investment in Indonesia-based edtech startup CoLearn’s $10 million Series A funding round. As a result, CoLearn is already hiring for its new Abu Dhabi-based R&D team.

UAE National AI Strategy

Lastly, if you are curious to learn more about the UAE’s National AI Strategy, I can recommend watching this new video of the Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications, H.E. Omar Sultan AlOlama who presents a concise overview of the country’s strategy and its implementation.

This article was originally published as ‘A letter from the Gulf’ in The AI Journal.

Also see last month’s ‘Letter from the Gulf’