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Opportunities and challenges of AI to the Arab world



Directrice de cabinet du DG de l'ICESCO

October 2019, Paris, France

Nous avons saisi dans l’étude régionale au titre des « Politiques culturelles dans les pays arabes », présentée par l’ALECSO au Forum international des ministres de la culture, UNESCO, Paris octobre 2019, un document qui a retenu notre attention. Il a le mérite d’être précis, clair. Son auteure est Dr. Sally Mabrouk qui traite de « L’impact de l’intelligence artificielle sur la culture dans le monde arabe ». Nous en dévoilons ici les idées et hypothèses.


Artificial intelligence (AI) is dominating the headlines at the present time and is going to be a big game changer in the global economy. PWC estimates that AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030. The general consensus is that AI will revolutionize the industrial processes and create more wealth, but at the same time it could lead to an increase in inequality, discrimination and unemployment.

In this article we will discuss:

I. The opportunities and challenges of AI to the Arab world:

(AI) has been around for decades; having been formally introduced by Alan Turing in the 1950s, the current hype focuses on a specific branch of (AI) known as machine learning. This tool is used in countless daily applications, such as search engines, online translation, spam blockers and virtual assistants. In the machine learning model, the machine is fed with enormous amounts of data which it processes using algorithms, to enable it to recognize patterns, make predictions or execute an action. Currently, a huge portion of the data that serves to train these machines is the fruit of human creativity, namely: songs, videos, texts and photographs. So it’s largely made up of cultural expressions. Moreover, it should be noted that the true pioneer in AI has been culture, rather than science.

However, in Arabic forums, the impact AI might have on culture is rarely discussed. This disconnect is inexplicable given that cultural expressions play a key role in the way in which current algorithms work particularly if we consider the fact that AI is already being used to produce songs, stories and paintings often of surprising quality. Far from settling for a marginal role in the discussions on AI, the cultural sector must claim its place with greater power.

The creative industry at the Arabic countries must strongly claim its place in AI development; if it fails to do so, the negative consequences would affect not just the industry itself, but the future of Arabic culture itself. It is precisely when culture is excluded from the equation, the future of cultural diversity will be lost. Ultimately, the challenge posed by AI is when we delegate our big data produced by Arabic countries, without responsible supervision, to the big tech players who control these machines, as they will become too powerful to apply too much influence on the output. Another risk we need to mitigate is allowing the cultural expressions to have economic value without conveying neither identity nor meaning. Arabic Culture could become in the future just another disposable consumer good and the sum of individual creativities would end up in the hands of a just few companies that are global leaders in AI.

On the other hand AI can help to empower current creators and can also encourage the entry of new creators. At the same time, It could make the cultural industry more efficient especially when it comes to reducing costs and increasing effectiveness. A film production company could save hundreds of work hours by incorporating machine learning into special effects retouching. It can also be used by publishing houses that need to assess the narrative impact of a novel or by fashion companies seeking to produce personalized models for each of their clients. In terms of distribution, automatic algorithms can also help online stores to recommend products more effectively. AI may allow large platforms to intervene simultaneously and generate works based on user behavior, in order to maximize consumption. Amazon and IBM are developing tools to create and produce clothing designed using AI. Google has launched the project We wear Culture, which is a searchable archive composed of tens of thousands of fashion items digitized in collaboration with over 180 museums.

Unfortunately, there are still very few artists and entrepreneurs in the Arab World that know how to use tools such as machine learning.

II. The need of Regional AI strategies to ensure incorporating the Arabic cultures in the future of global culture roadmap

Having an AI Strategy is crucial to deal with many challenges and to find an answer for debatable questions such as:

· The growing role played by AI as a creation tool could even end up making those artists who are familiar with such innovations more dependent on third-party IT solutions. However one of the main challenges that arise is the “copyright” who owns a work created using AI? Is he the artist who came up with the idea, or the programmer who designed the algorithms, or the machine could even be a copyright holder knowing that Saudi Arabia granted nationality to a robot in 2017.

· Ethical considerations are playing an increasingly important role in the debate on AI. There is a growing risk that, due to the way automated applications have been built, these systems will make decisions that could negatively affect many people. Indeed, the design of the algorithms, and even the selection of the data that make up the input for the machines amplify the prejudices of those who designed the application.

Between the two major powers of USA by its tech companies Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, IBM; and China by its tech giants Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent; major powers such as France, Germany or the UK recognize their limitations vis-à-vis the rise of US and Chinese AI capabilities. Therefore, France launched an AI strategy entitled For a Meaningful Artificial Intelligence, in March 2018. Also in 2018, the UK House of Lords published its national policy document AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?. India announced an explicit AI agenda titled “AIforAll” Canada launched its AI strategy in March 2017 launched its AI strategy.

III. The current practices of AI adaptation at the Arabic countries :

There is an urgent need for the Arabic Region to draw up a strategy to actively adopt AI because countries that do not invest in AI or do not have their own strategy will simply end up using the services provided by large global companies, without any possibility of implementing their own solutions. The imperative of economic growth forces Arabic countries to not miss the train by integrating AI at all costs in the areas considered most urgent such as health, agriculture, transport, education, defense, finance and manufacturing.

Governments and businesses across the Arabic Region are beginning to realise the shift globally towards AI and advanced technologies. They are faced with a choice between being a part of the technological disruption, or being left behind. When we look at the economic impact for the region, being left behind is not an option. We estimate that the Middle East is expected to accrue 2% of the total global benefits of AI in 2030. This is equivalent to US$320 billion.

In absolute terms, the largest gains are expected to accrue to Saudi Arabia where AI is expected to contribute over US$135.2 billion in 2030 to the economy, equivalent to 12.4% of GDP. In relative terms the UAE is expected to see the largest impact of close to 14% of 2030 GDP. The annual growth in the contribution of AI is expected to range between 20-34% per year across the region, with the fastest growth in the UAE followed by Saudi Arabia. The magnitude of the impact expected in these two economies is unsurprising given their relative investment in AI technology compared to the rest of the region - both countries place within the top 50 countries in the world on the Global Innovation Index 20173 in terms of their ability to innovate and the outputs of their innovation.

Parts of the region have already embraced AI and the new digital age. Analysis conducted by the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that spending on cognitive and artificial intelligence (AI) systems in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region would grow from $37.5 million in 2017 to over $100 million by 2021, representing a growth rate of 32% a year. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, have demonstrated strong commitment towards the development and implementation of AI technologies. Businesses in these parts of the region have been investing heavily in new technology, supported by governments as early consumers of the technology. Outside the gulf economies, however, adoption has been slower. The differences in adoption levels are driven by differences in, for example, infrastructure and access to skilled labor, key enabling factors for AI development.

The average annual growth in the contribution of AI by region between 2018 - 2030 :


33.5 %







That said, it should be pointed out that AI strategies are necessary, but not sufficient in themselves. Technologies solve problems, but they do not provide meaning, only culture can do that.



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