Are you ready for the speed of change? A conversation with the Minister of Artificial Intelligence in the United Arab Emirates

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates With an expansive global view of the rapidly changing world and a humility born from the Arabic expression, inshallah or God willing a glimpse of the future came more clearly into focus at the World Government Summit in Dubai, at the close of the World Expo here in the United Arab Emirates.

Today we are so interconnected that everyone needs to know whats happening outside their general domain. But they also need to understand how it will affect them, said His Excellency Omar Sultan Al Olama, the minister of state for artificial intelligence for United Arab Emirates.

The World Government Summit centered on a theme of Shaping Future Governments. Government leaders, thought leaders from business and academia, and media members from dozens of countries participated in presentations touching every part of the global economy, and comes at a time of war in Ukraine and after years of the global coronavirus pandemic.

So what is to be done? How does the world capitalize on technological advances while solving problems exacerbated by those same advances?

My colleague Hal Boyd and I sat down with Al Olama to discuss the rapid rise of Dubai as a global center of business and finance, and to learn of the solutions put forth by the UAE and those attending this important conference. He has held his ministerial position as the head of artificial intelligence since 2017, with responsibilities added in 2020 to become minister of state for artificial intelligence, digital economy and remote work applications. The office has a simple statement emblematic of its importance and the challenges ahead: AI will change the world.

Here is our conversation, slightly edited for clarity and length. The interview was conducted in English.

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His Excellency Omar Sultan Al Olama, the minister of state for artificial intelligence for United Arab Emirates, left, speaks with Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks during a Q&A in Dubai on March 29, 2022.

Photo courtesy of World Government Summit

Deseret News: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us. The Deseret News was founded in 1850, carved from the desert much like Dubai and the UAE. Now we are going national and internationally. So we are here to learn and glean the best ideas going forward. Put another way, what is it we should concentrate on and bring to our readers?

Al Olama: Well, I had a very interesting conversation with a few friends in media a while back. Its very easy to cover the topics that are today at the forefront as they are the most important topics particularly as it relates to your geography. Some focus on the neighborhood, others focus on the region or the country. … But I think the words matter a lot more.

Today we are so interconnected that everyone needs to know whats happening outside their general domain. But they also need to understand how it will affect them. Let me give you a few examples.

Weve seen how the civil war in Syria, how the Arab Spring affected the migration crisis in Europe. Just because its far away today doesnt mean its irrelevant. And we need a global outlet today that is able to give us a neutral, proper view of what is happening around the world, how it will affect us. It doesnt necessarily have to be something that is very cynical or very negative or talking about war all the time. There are good things that are happening around the world that will affect us positively. And understanding what these things are, understanding how they will affect us, will help us shape a world that is better for our children.

Let me give you a few examples. Im very excited about what is happening in Africa. Not enough is being done to showcase the quality of talent, to showcase the incredible resilience of the people, the development we see and also to show us that we will depend on Africa more and more as, for example, our food baskets become a lot more stretched as we require more resources to run our daily lives, we will realize its a very important place to tap into. Does the general reader know that? No. And its our job to do that.

So I think your point was quite good. I think that your outlet having a heritage, means that you are the right outlet to showcase these points of view that are typically forgotten.

DN: Its certainly what were trying to do. We want to branch out. We want to be a source of truth and light. We shine a light where there is a problem not just to point out the problem, but to find a solution. Finding truth can be difficult today as people struggle with fake news, among other things. As the minister of AI do you worry about that and the technological challenges ahead?

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His Excellency Omar Sultan Al Olama, the minister of state for artificial intelligence for United Arab Emirates, left, speaks with Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks during a Q&A in Dubai March 29, 2022.

Photo courtesy of World Government Summit

Al Olama: Absolutely. There is a challenge. The current technological landscape allows us to find an echo chamber and be stuck in it. So you can actually find a point of view that you like. And that artificial intelligence algorithm is going to assure that you dont see anything else but that point of view. So what should governments do about it? My job is to work with other governments and with the private sector to try to eliminate these challenges. Because the outcomes of these challenges are outcomes that can be very hard to reverse. They can take generations to reverse. Its not something that you think overnight can change. 

The other thing that is important as well, is if certain outlets or certain platforms can use this activity it also means that everyone can use it the same way that we learn that you can actually do the best services online using the internet from the private sector, from the Googles and Amazons, today governments are doing it to provide government services. I also think that you cannot be (effective) unless youre on the internet. So whatever happens on these platforms today is definitely going to trickle down into every other aspect of our lives. So we need to deploy Im not against deployment Im also for having constant dialogue to ensure that deployment does not have a negative effect.

DN: Whats the balance between government controls and private sector work and innovation?

Al Olama: You know, this is a very very interesting question because most people think about government as the only player. And I dont think that this is the case. Because as you know the private sector will flock to whatever embraces them. So if you are going to regulate with the stick approach, they are going to look for the carrot. We need to have a balance. And balance starts with dialogue. The reason why the UAE government has a platform like the World Government Summit is to have a dialogue. We dont believe that we know everything. We dont believe that we are the best. But we believe we are the most agile. We believe that we are the most open to having a dialogue. And we also believe that we need to learn from everyone and anyone.

Some of the conversations, and I urge you to look at the previous summit cycles, some of the sessions of the summit have shaped policy today. Ill give you a great example. So in 2018, the director general of the World Health Organization came … to the World Government Summit and said that there is a coming pandemic. Some people laughed and ignored, other said there are conspiracy theories. We said, as a government, we need to be neutral and we need to be pragmatic. What does this mean? So if someone comes and says that, what is the most reasonable, the most responsible thing you should do as a government?

So the next year, we convened a forum, called the Disease X Forum. That focused on looking at what are the coming pandemics, how can you best effectively put (in place) the mechanisms to combat them, and what does an effective means for combatting this pandemic look like? What are the metrics. We took it seriously and we invited all countries of the World Health Summit to take it seriously as well. Some did, others ignored it. But when COVID-19 hit, it was very easy to open that guideline and say, Oh we have a playbook here. We dont need to discover and find our way in the dark. We can see if it works, make alterations based on what this pandemic is, and see the outcomes.

If you look at the Bloomberg COVID Resiliency Index, the UAE ranks No. 1. We had the shortest lockdown period six weeks. Life went completely back to normal, our economy boomed, that I think is a perfect justification of why governments need to have constant dialogue. Constant dialogue is a definite plus. I have never seen anyone who has gotten a negative cost because of dialogue. It is always good for humans.

Residences and hotels contrast in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Residences and hotels contrast in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

DN: The lockdown was very hard in the beginning. Very strict, the first three or four weeks, is that not correct?

Al Olama: So let me tell you, the first three weeks was only at night, so 10 p.m. lockdown. Then the next three weeks were complete lockdown. And then after that was completely open. So no curfew, no restrictions. You were only required to do two things: wear a mask and take care that you dont expose others. Slowly but surely we were able to adapt to get the best outcomes. 

DN: Were you able to get the vaccine? Was the government able to help with that?

Al Olama: So with the vaccine we did a few things. The first thing is we gave people the ability to get any vaccine you want. You were not forced to take a specific vaccine. There was the Chinese vaccine, the Russian vaccine, the Pfizer, AstraZeneca. So you have a suite of vaccines, choose the one you want. There was no need in the beginning and even now to push people to do it. People can choose. We dont claim this is the best approach for everyone. You need to understand that we have a younger population. Its a smaller number. We have cutting-edge infrastructure. So it worked for us. And we are happy to share it with anyone. But being agile, being adaptive, is key.

DN: This morning in the plenary and its an amazing event by the way they talked about the speed of change, that its coming very very fast, that what were doing in the next 10 years will outdo what has occurred the past 100 years. Can you talk about the speed of change from your perspective?

Al Olama: Let me give you something pragmatic. The last two years have seen more change than the last 10. So 2010 to 2020. 2020 to 2022 we have seen more change in terms of technology adoption, in terms of the impact on the stock market, in terms of impact on energy prices. The volatility in energy, it went from minus per barrel to $120 in the span of two years. We havent seen that weve seen the stock market and volatility with the crashes and the booms and the busts in two years more than the last 10.

Weve seen technology adoption more in the past two years than 10. So we are at the point of accelerated change. Its not good or bad. What it means is we need to be adaptive as a government, because it is our responsibility. Every single person who chooses to call your country home, whether he is a local or a nonlocal resident, he or she is your responsibility. So as governments, seeing this rate of change, means that we need to actually change our systems to be as agile and as adaptive. We need to move as fast as the trends, or faster. If we move slower, we will be disrupted and I think we would reach a point were people are going to ask, why are these people doing what theyre doing? It doesnt make sense. Because things have already leapfrogged 10 times and you guys are still thinking of the first jump.

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Attendees enter the World Government Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

DNLet me turn to my colleague Hal Boyd who has a question: How do you balance agility with maintaining ideological diversity. Because its difficult to get everyone on the same page and have government represent the people in a way they are comfortable with. That may be more applicable in our Western culture but Im sure its applicable here.

Al Olama: Its a great question. People fear the unknown. Some people embrace the unknown, which is a great thing, but generally, people fear the unknown. And I think upscaling and enlightening peoples knowledge of the subject matter is very important. Just telling people Im going to deploy AI is very negative. Because what resonates, then, is the Terminator scenario, they are going to come after our jobs, its going to destroy us. Not that all this is going to improve our quality of life.

So that I think is the first thing that you need to do, because for a person to have an opinion, he or she needs to build it on a foundation. If their foundation is based on science fiction movies. The second element that is also very important is dialogue, not just with the players that are most vocal, but as many different groups as possible is very important. What tends to happen with governments, is, Im a government representative so people like to represent whichever (government) is representing in the room. (We bring together traditional private sector players) and it becomes a very curated discussion.

We said were going to change things. And again, were talking about AI here. What we decided to do is we said, First were going to do an open call. Were going to put out our data protection policy, our data protection bill. Our approach was not that we know what the right bill to do is, we said we want all the private sector players to be with us there in the room.

We said, Guys, we know there are so many data privacy laws around the world, what have you learned from analyzing all of them? Because they pay millions of dollars to analyze these bills and abide by them. We then said, Lets draft a skeleton with you guys, to ensure that we understand a framework. We then said, Lets do an open call to the public. If you want to help guide or shape the data policy of the UAE, come and give us your point of view. Then we said, This is the skeleton that we have, what do you think is missing or what do you think needs to be changed?

So some people said, Oh, there is a problem on ethics. Great. Tick (check). Another said, Im, I dont think I can abide by this. Tick (check). And we will never get it perfect. No government has gotten it perfect yet. I have never seen a law or legislation that hasnt been criticized. But when you have this level of pragmatism in developing your policy and legislation, you realize that you tick (check) as many boxes as possible.

Then the other aspect that people dont get, is you can make mistakes and then change. You know, this is not the word of God. Its not that I put the policy and it can never change and I can never touch it. I put the policy or the law or legislation and in three weeks, in three months in three years things change, I should be courageous enough to say, guys, this does not make sense lets change it.

The problem that we have with government, and I think this is something that the system of government has never been required to face so much tremendous change in such a short period of time, but the problem that we have is the fact that we feel like we cannot touch legislation, because the more you touch it you go through a long process. It shouldnt be the case.

We launched something in UAE called the reg lab. The reg lab is a regulations laboratory, thats the idea, where we can say we launch legislation (like for a self-driving car) and it has an expiring date.  So an expiring date is six months, for example. After six months we bring everyone in the room and sit around the table and tell them what we have learned, should we keep this legislation and make it law, or should we change it? And if enough people want to change it it goes back to the drawing board. But when you put that legislation with the thought that this needs to be decreed into law forever, then its very hard to get back in the room.

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The sun rises in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

DN: Let me ask, many in our readership are people of faith. So from your perspective, how does faith inform what your government does and the motivations of your people. How is strength drawn from that faith-based culture?

Al Olama: You know, that is a very interesting question. We are a country that has 200 nationalities. We have every religion, and every sect and every ethnicity living in this one country. And what we realized in time is that if you look at the core essence of faith, it is really quite similar.

We all want to ensure that we live in a society that collectively is stronger together, we all want to serve a higher purpose, whoever you are, whatever your belief is, you want to serve a higher purpose, you want to have a positive impact, you want to ensure that the guidelines are set are to protect you and your family and your love ones. So we said, Lets go back to the fundamental tools. And then allow people to practice whatever they want to practice. And do it in a way where the collective society is going to be more positive for everyone.

If you look here, you have Jews and Muslims living in perfect harmony. You have Catholic and Orthodox living in perfect harmony. You have that in other countries, but what we tend to emphasize here is you can be you and you shouldnt be scared. And you can be you and actually befriend other opinions, and youll create a better society this way. We are embracing for change. I dont think we are a country in the world, I think we are the world in the country, if I may.

DN: Thank you so much for your time Your Excellency.

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Attendees talk during a break at the World Government Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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