LONDON: Gulf states’ involvement in last week’s Bletchley Declaration on artificial intelligence is indicative of the region’s maturation into a contributor of technological advancement, experts have told Arab News.
Described as a step toward enhancing cooperation in development and use of modern technologies, 28 parties — including Saudi Arabia and the UAE — signed the declaration during the two-day AI Safety Summit organized by the British government and hosted at the famous country house in London where Allied forces decoded the Nazi enigma machine.
Accession to the declaration comes as interest in AI across the Middle East has been gaining momentum.
Arising out of a desire to develop the region’s own talent pipeline in the field, Mohammed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence was launched as the world’s only dedicated AI institution in 2019.
Welcoming its first students at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, it has been ranked among the top 20 institutions in the field.
Its President Eric Xing said Gulf involvement in the declaration will only further this regional push.
“I was very happy that Middle Eastern countries were invited and involved in this discussion surrounding the most advanced technology the global community is presently involved in,” he told Arab News.
“It’s an important recognition that this region isn’t just a consumer but a contributor to this technology, a fact underscored not only by its economic growth but its advancements in the fields of research and development.
“Furthermore, with AI a product developed by and for people, it’s important to have multiple voices in the room.
“The Middle East can bring different perspectives to the discussion to provide a constructive contribution.”
Central in that discussion will be how to regulate a technology that has many running scared, but with the EU, UK, US and China signing the document, it is hoped that its calls for collaboration, accountability and transparency will be go some way to reducing such concerns.
While some question the agreement’s practical benefits, Brijesh Singh, senior business application programing consultant at Wipro, a leading Big Tech company, said “intent is crucial.”
He concurred with Xing that the declaration marks an essential first step toward the ultimate aim of a unified “global policy” on AI regulation.
“This agreement sets the tone and sends a clear message to AI technology developers and users,” Singh told Arab News.
“While most countries have their own method and approach to AI governance and regulation, through the Bletchley Declaration they’re communicating to the world of AI technologists their intent to formulate a global framework of responsible AI and associated governance.”
Acknowledging tensions between the US and China, Singh nonetheless said there has been a continued exchange of ideas and business between the two predominant world powers.
Believing they will continue this collaboration on such a “life-altering paradigm” as AI, he added that the Gulf countries, as neutral parties, could have a significant role to play in shaping discussions “into actionable methodologies.”
Gulf countries are at the “forefront in the global economy, providing leading chemical, energy, industrial and supply chain solutions,” Singh said.
“These domains are ripe to get significantly transformed, applying tools from the AI spectrum, particularly with the adoption of generative AI-enabled foundation models. This will have a significant impact at economic, environmental, individual and social levels.”
Given such a widespread impact across these different domains of Gulf life, Singh did not deny that it would be anything but “onerous” for these signatories to “lead from the front” when it comes to the adequate development, usage and governance of AI technologies.
Nonetheless, he said with its geocentric locale and advanced economic status, the Gulf would have to accept the responsibility of being at the “forefront.”
Those obligations, though, also bring benefits, with Xing confident that the declaration will be a positive force on Gulf development.
Noting that unlike other technologies, AI boasts a “very big open-source community that is as active, if not even more active, than the private sector,” it is a field already used to the levels of collaboration now being sought by governmental authorities, he said.
Together with existing infrastructure that Gulf states have built to foster AI growth, Xing said the declaration underscores the region’s role as a “unified force of innovation.”
He warned against what he sees as a tendency toward the “sensational” regarding the threat posed by AI, which he said reflects a history of anxiety around the emergence of new technologies.
“AI is yet another wave of innovation, but one in computing and software engineering,” Xing added. “It’s a software running inside a computer and the virtual world rather than the physical world, and I’d argue that this makes it safer.
“The chance of leakage in the physical world is far higher, and there are more checkpoints that AI has to pass through before it can exit the virtual world and enter the physical one. This makes AI very different from some of the breakthroughs in physical science.
“This isn’t to say AI is risk-free, but … regulation can be more effective in checking the spread of harmful effects. What I really want to ensure is that the anxiety and fear associated with it isn’t overplayed.”
Of AI in its present form, Xing said there are myriad ways it can and has been abused, but the level of harm it currently presents is “manageable” and has not surpassed a threshold necessitating the imposition of severe restrictions or even the “shutting down” of research.
Agreeing with Xing that the threat from AI may be overhyped, Singh said it has to be kept in mind that there is a lack of consensus on how far the technology can develop.
The issue of sentience remains disputed, with the “jury still out” on a potential evolution of AI consciousness, Singh added.
“For the foreseeable future, AI will increasingly improve in terms of its ability to assist humans with cognitive tasks, adding tremendous value (read productivity) to our operating lives, which is valuable for society as it allows us to optimize our efforts in the true areas of our interests and live our lives the way we really desire to,” he said.
“But for us to be able to develop and use AI’s capabilities positively, we require governance to avoid pitfalls and misuse.
“Hence, the Bletchley Declaration is the right attempt in preventing the unintended and negative consequences of AI.
“These countries coming together indicates the recognition of the need for consensus for tighter regulation.”