Minister promises robots in UAE schools to put focus on science

Tomorrow belongs to the robots. At least that was the message from industry experts and policymakers at the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

Sultan Al Mansouri, the Minister of Economy, promised that the UAE would introduce “robot laboratories in schools, to focus on the importance of science in innovation”, plus an “innovation-related curriculum, in coordination with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, to change how young people think”.

Corinna Lathan, the chief executive of AnthroTronix, a technology research company, and who has a doctorate in neuroscience from MIT, expects robots to become ubiquitous. “Robotic and [artificial intelligence] technology is going to be embedded in our daily lives,” she said.

A robot, she points out, is nothing more than “something that senses the environment and then acts on the environment”.

Bernie Meyerson, the chief innovation officer at IBM, believes that the UAE is well placed to ride the robot tide. “Sitting here in Abu Dhabi, and having been involved with councils in Abu Dhabi the prior year, and talking to [the Minister of Cabinet Affairs Mohammed] Al Gergawi – I have not worked in an environment that is actually so conducive to driving innovation and so supportive of it as a national endeavour,” Mr Meyerson said. “This isn’t local, this is being driven at the national level.

“You win by example. Not every government will lead this and make this possible. But I am seeing exemplary behaviour by those who govern here and those who support this kind of move to a highly innovative society.

“Leadership is exactly what it sounds like – it sets the pace for others in the area. If you have great success, others will follow because they must follow or be left behind. There is enough impetus here, enough critical mass being created in the UAE that it will spread virally – it’s like anything else.”

Governments aiming to benefit from – or tame – the use of robots, will have to step up their efforts. Victoria Espinel, the chief executive of the American software industry trade group BSA said: “The future is already here – but it’s not as well understood as it could be by the public and governments.”

Mr Meyerson said: “As a society we are not even close to ready [for changes in technology]. The 14-year-old kids who think that texting the person next to them is a normal undertaking – they are ready … but governing bodies … will have to step up dramatically … to address these changes.”

Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have already said that they fear a world in which autonomous, weaponised robots stalk the Earth. “AI technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is – practically if not legally – feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high” according to an open letter signed by the pair, published in July.

But uses of robots are likely to be more benign. Deep Knowledge, a Hong Kong-based venture capital firm, has given an artificial intelligence named Vital a place on its board of directors. Vital evaluates investment decisions by analysing historical data on the performance of biotech companies.

Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics says that a robot must not harm a human being or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Presumably this also applies to investing in biotech companies.

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