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Saudi Arabia embraces AI-driven innovation

September 2018

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Saudi Arabia’s, Deputy Minister of Technology, Industry and Digital Capabilities, Dr. Ahmed Al Theneyan, talks about his country’s ambitions to drive innovation and economic growth using advanced digital technologies to deliver on its bold reform program, Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing an ambitious economic reform and transformation program known as Vision 2030. Digitization and AI are central to the delivery of that transformation (Photo: HansMusa / iStock / Getty Images Plus).

What role does artificial intelligence play in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030?

Saudi Arabia is undertaking the largest and most ambitious economic reform and transformation program in its history. A broad range of initiatives is being rolled out to realize the objectives of Vision 2030. Digitization and artificial intelligence (AI) are key enablers of these wide-ranging reforms. Our digitization initiatives support our Vision 2030 objectives in various ways, and in particular, by building an information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure fit for the 21st century. All technologies rely on this, so it’s a top priority.

We are also working to enhance the digital capabilities of the workforce to align with AI and technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain, to build, maintain, and operate the solutions and services that will emerge from the Vision 2030 transformation. This is an enormous undertaking that involves major educational reform to make sure students acquire the digital skills for the jobs of the future. That’s why we are now introducing digital skills in K-12 education. To meet the changing demands of the workplace, we are working with the Ministry of Education so that school and university curricula match future needs and build skills in areas such as AI, data science, data security, and so on. This is absolutely essential. We need to prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future.

We’re also building a robust localized technology sector to support Vision 2030 programs. Our aim is not only to supply local demand, but to export our technology and compete with leading international providers. Vision 2030 programs also promote innovation, the widespread use of open data – which we believe is the fuel of the 21st century – and efficient government.

I believe that AI and robotics have huge potential to improve our lives and boost productivity. We just need to employ them and use them in the right manner.

Dr. Ahmed Al Theneyan, Deputy Minister of Technology, Industry and Digital Capabilities, Saudi Arabia

In summary, Vision 2030 commits to building sustainable cities and communities, improving the health and well-being of our citizens, improving the quality of education, providing decent work, and fostering innovation-driven economic growth. This is a huge undertaking, so we are rolling programs out gradually; we are starting by building the technical infrastructure and enabling its use. Only then will transformation and innovation come about. AI is at the heart of this endeavor. It permeates all aspects of Vision 2030.

What prompted your digitization initiatives?

All countries now rely on technology – and emerging technology in particular – for their sustainable development. Our Vision 2030 programs are designed to achieve efficiencies in government through greater automation, and that requires digitization. To enhance the lives of citizens you need smart cities, which require systems and services built around AI and the Internet of Things (IoT). Digitization is an enabler for any development program and we are using it to advance our Vision 2030 goals.

What impact will digitization have on innovation in Saudi Arabia?

Innovation is a very broad concept that also encompasses how you approach things. It’s a mindset and a culture. When it comes to ICT, our innovation efforts, and those of our sister agencies in government and the private sector, are focused on promoting a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. For example, we are building a network of innovation labs, where students and entrepreneurs can explore their ideas, learn about and test innovative business models, and come up with solutions that can contribute to advancing Vision 2030 objectives. We’re actively encouraging aspiring entrepreneurs to develop their ideas through these innovation labs, which also enable us to increase awareness about innovation, entrepreneurship, and intellectual property (IP). These have been quite successful. We recently launched an innovation platform called FekraTech (meaning your idea in Arabic) and in just one innovation round, we received some 4,000 proposals. One invention that really stands out is an AI-based chatbot called Nahla, which helps people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, learn about and better manage their condition.

Our aim is to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs, rather than job-seekers, and to provide them with the practical knowledge they need to develop and commercialize their ideas.

What role does IP have in achieving Vision 2030’s goals?

In March 2017, the Government announced the establishment of the new Saudi IP Authority (SIPA). Its mission is to regulate, promote, and protect IP rights in the Kingdom. These responsibilities were previously scattered across different government bodies. Unifying IP under a single government agency will support our drive to transform Saudi Arabia into an advanced knowledge-based economy, built on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Saudi Arabia recently announced a USD 500 billion investment to create a mega-intelligent city called Neom. The project is billed as “the land of the future, where the greatest minds and best talents are empowered to embody pioneering ideas and exceed boundaries in a world inspired by imagination (Photo: Sweet Mango / iStock / Getty Images Plus).

On World Intellectual Property Day this year, His Excellency Dr. Maji Bin Abdullah Al Qassabi, the Minister of Commerce and Investment and Chairman of the Board of Directors of SIPA, unveiled the Authority’s new strategy. The aim is to develop a national IP ecosystem that supports the creation of a favorable environment for innovation and business development; one that fosters the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises, attracts foreign investment, and promotes the Kingdom’s economic development goals. SIPA’s IP strategy reflects best international IP practices and is designed to promote innovation. With a strong IP system in place, businesses will be able to leverage the economic value of their ideas and better defend themselves against their theft. Our aim is for Saudi Arabia to become an attractive destination for innovators and entrepreneurs.

What other opportunities does AI present in promoting Saudi Arabia’s development?

We’re embracing AI and exploring how to use it in an innovative, responsible, and ethical way that will advance our Vision 2030 objectives. So far the Government has invested around USD 3 billion in building the infrastructure so that the country is AI-ready and can become a leader in AI use.

We’re working to improve the lives of our citizens through the use of AI for better education, health and services, and, of course, by developing smart cities. Recently, we announced a USD 500 billion investment to create a mega-intelligent city called Neom, a name that signifies new future. Work to create this intelligent city covering 26,000 square kilometers will begin in 2020. Neom will go well beyond a smart city as we know it today, and will allow for a new way of life built around the best technologies of the future. Everything in Neom is about AI, big data, and IoT. Our municipality reform program also foresees the development of five top world-ranking smart cities, again to improve the lives of urban residents. But government can’t achieve these ambitious goals alone. That’s why we are working with private sector partners.

What sort of impact will AI have?

I believe that AI and robotics have huge potential to improve our lives and boost productivity. We just need to employ them and use them in the right manner. Once we do that, we’ll see great results in terms of productivity and well-being. 

Automation and digitization are not new. In the 1980s, when digitization really began to take off, people said computers would kill jobs. In fact, the opposite occurred; they created more jobs and significantly improved productivity and the quality of our lives. Many studies suggest the net impact of digitization will be positive. Of course, some of the routine jobs will disappear, but new, higher value ones will emerge. We’re very optimistic about the Vision 2030 transformation. It’s creating many opportunities to reskill the workforce to take on the jobs of the future.

We have also put into place special programs to empower and enable women to work within the ICT sector. Our aim is to double the participation of women in the sector, and we are making progress. Currently, around 45 percent of computer science graduates are female, so I think we will meet that target ahead of schedule.

What are the big challenges you face in rolling out the digitization plan?

The introduction of any new technology presents risks and opportunities. AI has huge potential, but we need to make sure we are building the right ecosystem and that we have effective and appropriate policies in place. One major challenge lies in building digital skills. We already have programs in place to train around 20,000 students and create 20,000 jobs in the ICT field. So far, we have trained around 7,000, mostly in the areas of data science, AI and cyber security. We’re also working with the international community, other government agencies, and the private sector to implement appropriate and effective policy and regulatory frameworks so these technologies are used properly. And we’re working with our partners to ensure effective data governance structures are in place to assure data quality. This is extremely important for AI-driven systems.

What are your views on embedded biases in AI algorithms?

This is a global issue. Effective regulation of data, its protection, and privacy are essential in building trust in AI. But history tells us that, with proper governance, these issues can be managed effectively. Any new technology brings challenges around trust, uptake, skills and capabilities, and so forth. But with the right ecosystem, policies, and governance structures in place, we will tackle them.

Are people in Saudi Arabia generally open to AI innovations?

Most of our population is made up of young people who are digitally savvy. Our people are very smart and tech-oriented and adopt technology very quickly. This is a great opportunity for us. We just need to seize it by putting an appropriate ecosystem, and effective governance and regulations, in place.

What does the future hold for Saudi Arabia?

Vision 2030 will bring about major changes across the economy and society and will significantly improve the quality of our citizens’ lives. We are all very excited about the country’s ambitions and the direction we are moving in. Things are happening faster than you can imagine; what used to take years, now takes days. People are very excited about Vision 2030, which is already starting to yield tangible results.

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