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AI is changing business. But is the Middle East keeping pace?

Top leaders discuss the impact of AI, addressing opportunities and pressing challenges at the Impact Council sub-committee meeting.

AI is changing business. But is the Middle East keeping pace?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on businesses and our world is indisputable—from predictive analytics for business intelligence to tailored recommendations. As AI is increasingly introduced into business and has found various use cases, the Fast Company Impact Council—an invitation-only collective of innovative leaders-–deliberated on how AI isn’t just changing the world—it’s changing how businesses function.

The AI sub-committee discussed a wide range of topics, from how AI changes how companies work, the limitations of AI adoption in the Middle East, and the technology that will allow businesses to sustain a competitive advantage in the future.

The expert panel agreed that the most significant limitations to AI adoption are data silos, skill and infrastructure shortages, and regulatory frameworks. Ethical concerns and lack of knowledge are other limitations to the mass adoption of the technology. 

“There are several ethical issues AI raises. There is a problem with the digital world’s governance by algorithms that optimize based on what we like online. This, in turn, creates echo chambers which means we create isolated communities; they only believe what they see. Societal problems such as these have no rational solutions. In addition to societal concerns, some biases exist from badly written algorithms or data that is incorrectly interpreted,” said Elias Baltassis, Partner & Director at BCG.

“The world is currently divided between those that ask algorithms to solve problems that they don’t know how to solve; and those that ask algorithms to solve problems we know how to solve but don’t want to,” he added.

While businesses across industries are adopting AI, most commonly investing in automation for customer service needs—virtual assistants, chatbots— experts said that the technology is disrupting the finance and healthcare sectors and, most recently, in solving the climate crisis. 

“All industries and sectors are not all equal. The speed of adoption depends on the availability and quality of data,” said Baltassis.

UNLOCKING AI POTENTIAL

Strategic collaborations with big tech companies are crucial to unlocking the potential of AI to help solve some of humanity’s and enterprises’ challenges and for the mass adoption of AI.

Many prominent businesses in the region are adopting the technology, but for increased AI adoption, cloud infrastructure development is essential, said Nur Aitzhan, Director of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Bupa Arabia. “Bringing big cloud players into the market such as AWS, Google and Microsoft and other tech players to the region, will be highly beneficial for adoption of AI across industries. It would reduce CAPEX investments into AI and Data infrastructure and facilitate AI solutions offering over SaaS and PaaS models in the region,” he added. 

While scaling a business is challenging, AI has proven to solve that problem and many others. “We need to evolve AI to make decisions scalable,” said Abrar Abdulnabi, Head of Arabits and Arabic AI Technology at Alef Education.

Echoing the same sentiment, Kader Es Slami, Head of Artificial Intelligence and Smart Data at e& added, “It will also give enterprises a competitive edge and accelerate adoption. Further, AI rollout has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. However, challenges and considerations persist for both large and small companies to the wider adoption of the technology.” 

AI INCREASES EFFICIENCY

Leaders must seek ways to employ AI to boost productivity, profitability, and business. “Integrating AI across your business will increase efficiency,” said Valerie Hawley, Executive Director, Sorbonne Center of Artificial Intelligence, Abu Dhabi. 

AI is a crucial prospect for financial institutions to be future-ready and stay relevant to clients as personalization becomes the new standard. But Waleed AlSobhi, Head of Data Science and AI at Saudi Investment Bank, said the sector lags in infrastructure maturity due to “cultural resistance and lack of awareness.” 

“There’s an apparent resistance to AI, data science, and advanced technologies which need to be addressed,” he said.

Raising the clarion call for a severe skill shortage in the region, Baltassis said, “The region doesn’t have a different set of challenges than the ones that other geographies faced. However, a key element is fewer local resources in sufficient numbers.” Due to a smaller pool of local talent, there is a higher reliance on foreign talent, “a void that will require half a generation to fill.”

The committee agreed that talent creation needs some form of incentivization in place for organizations to partner with universities and schools to facilitate AI upskilling. 

The committee closed the discussion by calling public and private organizations to focus on accelerating AI adoption for more business growth and connected societies. 

The Impact Council sub-committee meeting, partnered by BCG, was held in Dubai on September 22.

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