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Professor Eric Xing, president of Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) in Abu Dhabi is a graduate-only, research university built to offer specialised degree programmes for local and international students in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). MBZUAI president Professor Eric Xing shared wit Gulf News answers on some of the foundational questions about AI literacy and the MBZUAI Executive Programme, which is being launched today.

GULF NEWS: What should people know about artificial intelligence?

PROFESSOR ERIC XING: People view artificial intelligence as super human, but the comparison between people and computers is a poor one as it sets the wrong expectations. The first thing is that AI is a man-made technology, not too dissimilar to an aircraft. It serves a vital function, but it is in the hands of people, it is not completely autonomous. The use of AI as a technology is neutral — it is neither good nor bad. Like any other technology, people can do good and bad things with it.

It is also important to understand the advantages and the shortfalls of AI. People don’t appreciate its boundaries enough. That’s why it is so important for us to educate people about the boundaries and limitations of AI. AI is amazing. For example, for working with data to label things, or to establish patterns, or for AI-enabled medicines that can find signs of illnesses long before humans can ... for all these purposes, AI can play a very vital role. AI’s ability to recognise patterns is remarkable. It can increase the capacity of humans to provide great medical care. Speed is also a big advantage with AI. It can sort through piles of data within minutes. Something that would take a human years to sort out can be done by AI in a fraction of that time.

However, there are also clear limitations to AI. For instance, when it comes to abstract reasoning, when you encounter something new for example, AI has its limitations. Humans are far superior when it comes to drawing inferences or relating abstract concepts to one another. AI is also not able to think outside the box, so to speak. AI can use a theorem to perform millions of calculations within seconds, but it does not have the capacity to develop new theorems. So creative thought is a major boundary for AI.

Lastly, I want to emphasise this that we aren’t advocating the use of AI to take over jobs that humans can do. There is far less overlap than what most people think. AI augments human effort, it improves human situational awareness and it can support smart implementation of decisions — decisions that still must be made by smart humans.

Why host an executive programme dedicated to AI?

Our aim is to help decision-makers be ‘AI literate’. We want to help them identify where the opportunities are in their sector and have greater visibility into where the implementation of AI might help them overcome challenges or better serve the national interest. This programme can help executives better optimise the deployment of resources and human capital.

For example, AI can be used in the energy sector to uncover opportunities, such as how we make sense of seismic data, weather data and more to improve the search for resources. There are literally thousands of dimensions that factor into the success of our energy operations. These dimensions could be quickly and accurately analysed and assessed by AI to great benefit for capable professionals in the energy sector.

Our aim is to help decision-makers be ‘AI literate’. We want to help them identify where the opportunities are in their sector and have greater visibility into where the implementation of AI might help them overcome challenges or better serve the national interest.

- Professor Eric Xing, president, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence

In operational studies, for example, AI can help operate a port or an airline. With so many dimensions to take into account, AI technologies can further push the limits of strategies to optimise resources. Health care is similar in this regard. Genetic data is massively complex, but it is also incredibly useful for understanding individual human health. This data can only be analysed in real time by AI technologies. Not only that, with all of the sensing opportunities that we have now with devices, smart watches, wearables, etc, we can help individuals make better life choices and augment their care by providing tonnes of useful data — data that is only useful if you can analyse it quickly and accurately to inform treatment decisions. It can all be done with AI.

Public health also has huge potential for improvement using AI-powered technologies. We have so many decisions to make in terms of when to open and close a certain service, when to mandate mask wearing and testing and more. There are so many dimensions to decision-making in public health. AI can take all of these dimensions into account and make optimal suggestions well before humans may consider taking action.

Why is MBZUAI the right institution to host this programme?

The university was founded to be a think tank for the country in AI. In many ways, it is a bridge for the nation to the global AI community. We can help bring in the right people, with the right knowledge, and in the right way, to help best serve the nation. The executive programme will draw on the collective insight of world-class experts from Stanford, Oxford and Carnegie Mellon, as well as from industry giants.

MBZUAI also has the capability to deliver results. When decision-makers are trained, they can move forward to implement technologies, specific to their sector, with university faculty as expert consultants. MBZUAI is in an ideal position to help translate the complex challenges identified by leaderships into topics for research and development.

It is also vitally important for MBZUAI to have close contact with executives in the country who best understand the needs of the nation. The executive programme not only allows for training of participants, but also has a feedback mechanism so that the needs of the nation are most closely understood and met along research and development lines, as well as along talent development lines. By contrast, if an outside organisation was to host this training, they wouldn’t receive or utilise this kind of feedback in such a direct way for the nation.

The campus of Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News Archives

What will participants learn from the course?

Participants will be taken through a 12-week curriculum that includes a global look at artificial intelligence — where it comes from, where is it currently and where it may take us. And then they will dive into more niche areas such as ways in which it may benefit the economy and how to measure that; how it can help us overcome challenges related to agriculture, work, smart cities, health care and so much more.

The executives will be able look at how AI is going to make a difference in the private sector, with a special emphasis on how work is evolving and what the future of robotics may look like. And then finally, they will explore the ethics of AI and how that can influence its implementation in and policy-making. How do we, for example, make sure that we don’t leave anyone behind? And how can we bake into the AI what we are developing now — the kind of ethical constraints that will make broad AI adoption safe and equitable in the future?

How did the concept for the course come about?

Training is a key function of the university. We strongly emphasise that the university must be a think tank for the nation when it comes to innovation in this space. In this specific instance, the university had very explicit interest from the nation’s leadership to design and host an executive programme. It really is a convergence of both our mission and the needs of the stakeholders in the nation, as foreseen by the UAE leadership. We are targeting high-ranking people within the nation — people making key decisions about services for the nation — to have the maximum possible impact.

Further, we are aiming to build a community of AI-informed experts. This is a process of providing consultation to already highly-informed people through executive training. The hope is that this gradually forms an alumni community, which will create opportunities for further engagement to solve problems and provide regular feedback about the needs of the nation and of the industry.

This is not about telling people about the math of AI, this is not just technical training — this is about a more profound level of information sharing about the potential and capabilities that AI technologies can open up for the nation. In that sense, this is a truly unique programme. This programme is all about the development of a set of relationships to help solve bigger challenges. It’s about putting global experts in AI in a room with senior executives to help inform optimal solutions to the kinds of challenges that ministries, agencies and private industries face.

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What are the opportunities for the UAE and humanity?

The AI sector is not a settled one and nations such as the UAE that are interested in pursuing leadership in AI can take advantage of some big opportunities. Relative to banking, for example, which is a highly stable sector, AI is much less entrenched. So, now is the right time to get into the game and the executive programme is one block in a much larger national aspiration structure to lead in AI.

Now is also a great time to demystify these technologies to help implement them across so many sectors. There is a lot of confusion about the safety and governance of AI and these are spaces where countries like the UAE can lead. We are entering a new era, so the legal frameworks upon which we currently operate need to be evolved — sometimes there is too much regulation, sometimes there is not enough. The timing of this programme and its capacity to inform the leadership is huge and we are very excited to launch this inaugural cohort to help realise some of that potential.