The Gulf governments need to openly discuss the risks of artificial intelligence

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Artificial intelligence is entering a phase where it raises more questions than answers, and human critical thinking is essential for ensuring that the technology remains benign. Each country has its unique relationship with artificial intelligence and needs a homegrown, inclusive discussion about the imminent risks. Outsourcing that discussion to Western societies would be disastrous for the Gulf countries.

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The Gulf countries’ rapid ascent up the income ladder during the last century would not have been possible had they insisted on in-sourcing every step. Importing foreign technologies, organizational philosophies, art, legal systems, and so on is an intelligent alternative to reinventing the wheel because of the time and resource savings. However, the floodgates should not be completely open, and homegrown capacity must be built for two reasons.

The first is that developing one’s own technologies and philosophies is critical for sustainable economic growth because upon reaching the frontier, one ceases to be a follower. A country like the US might be willing to share cutting-edge knowledge if you are way behind the curve, but if you are a competitor in global markets, you will need to rely on yourself.

The second reason is that not everything that works abroad is suitable for your own society. For example, it would be nice to ride bicycles as much as the Dutch do in the pursuit of green transportation, but the climate in the Gulf countries is ill-suited for such an approach. Similarly, using publicity to incentivize charitable donations in the UK does not work in the Gulf, because discretely giving to people in need is a core element of assisting others in Islam.

Artificial intelligence is advancing at a dizzying pace today, as computers increasingly behave like the superhuman wizards we used to watch on Star Wars and Star Trek.

Nevertheless, certain risks are salient beyond the somewhat silly concept of computers taking over and enslaving humans. These include questions about the future of jobs, income inequality, privacy, and many other areas of concern.

Last week, the White House invited the CEOs of four American companies leading the artificial intelligence revolution to discuss the threats posed by this technology. This meeting comes after government officials held numerous artificial intelligence public hearings in addition to the massive volume of civil society activity in universities, think tanks, and town halls. Almost all of it is open to the general public.

People in the Gulf should instantly make two inferences when hearing about this. The first is that the potential risks associated with artificial intelligence are severe since the president of the US is not in the business of frivolous meetings. Second, nobody has all the answers, and an open debate is critical to making progress.

This is not about indulging people’s need to feel heard – it’s about understanding the limits to the knowledge of any small group of people, no matter how credentialed they are. Our chances of keeping artificial intelligence benign are enhanced by engaging a wide range of stakeholders earnestly and transparently because there is no playbook from which we can draw readymade strategies.

One of the worst courses of action we can take in the Gulf would be to sit back and let the experts in the West “resolve” this issue and then import it, possibly via a selection of well-remunerated global consultancies.

There are many ways in which artificial intelligence impacts us differently than Western societies, so we need to develop solutions tailored to our habits.

For example, a recent article of mine analyzed how generative artificial intelligence technologies such as ChatGPT can threaten Islam if unleashed without educating people in advance.

Similarly, Arabic is central to our identity, yet the newest technologies seem to be highly concentrated on English. Will we have to choose between being on the technological frontier and our core cultural values? These are just two illustrations of how things are different for us.

Another ill-advised course of action would be to assemble a team of elite Gulf technocrats to discuss these issues behind closed doors and unilaterally develop answers to the tough questions. If the White House can’t trust its own elites, either because it knows that there are limits to their knowledge or because there are serious conflicts of interest, then we should probably be keen on having an open debate in our lands, too.

Labor unions, religious scholars, entrepreneurs, engineers, university deans, and social psychologists are a small selection of stakeholders we need to listen to in the Gulf as we grapple with artificial intelligence’s opportunities and threats. The fact that these groups don’t usually engage one another suggests that the debate will be rich and enlightening, even if it might sometimes verge on the cacophonic.

Ultimately, we should walk forward alone with one eye open than to walk blindly while holding the hands of foreign technocrats.

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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