CAIRO—The Middle East and North Africa region needs to be more involved in the global debate about the development of artificial intelligence-related technology, says a new report that examines the narratives about technological futures that are widespread in the Arab world.
Narratives about future uses of robots and intelligent machines—how a culture portrays them in areas including history, literature, art and films—can influence the development and reception of artificial intelligence (AI), says the report. Yet Western perspectives typically dominate AI discussions, it says, and Arab perspectives are largely missing.
Titled “Imagining a Future With Artificial Machines: A Middle Eastern and North African Perspective,” the report was issued earlier this month by the Access to Knowledge for Development Center at the American University in Cairo’s School of Business and the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.
It notes the MENA region’s rich history and culture and the ability of its youth to employ technology as a means of expression, by presenting literary works based on science fiction or by their economic participation in technology-based start-ups, which can help create new business models suitable for the future and contribute to providing job opportunities in an area where young people make up a large majority of the population. (See a related article, “Why Business Schools Need to Teach Artificial Intelligence.”)
Joining the Global Dialogue
“The region might not be rich in technology compared to developed countries,” said Nagla Rizk, a professor of economics and founding director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center, who is a co-author of the report. “However,” she added, “it has a rich stock of culture and history that manifests in technological narratives in different ways.”
The report comes as part of the Global Artificial Intelligence Narratives Project, an initiative within the Leverhulme Centre to build a network of experts around the world to analyze different cultures’ perceptions of the risks and benefits of AI. The initiative holds a series of workshops outside the English-speaking world, with local multidisciplinary groups of researchers and practitioners from fields related to AI narratives, such as science fiction, scientists, artists, AI researchers, philosophers, writers and anthropologists.
“Our participation in this initiative was an excellent opportunity to include the voice of our Arab region in the global dialogue platform on artificial intelligence narratives.”Nagla Rizk
A professor of economics and founding director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center
“Our participation in this initiative was an excellent opportunity to include the voice of our Arab region in the global dialogue platform on artificial intelligence narratives,” Rizk said.
She noted that because modern technology, especially artificial intelligence, is usually developed in technologically advanced countries in response to the needs and aspirations of their people and in a way that expresses their cultures, this can result in a kind of inequality, given that the rest of the world does not share those countries’ needs in developing this technology.
Not a Technology ‘Desert’
The report refutes the common notion that the MENA region is a technology “desert” devoid of ideas and the real development of technology. It reveals the existence of rich, rapidly growing technological oases that mix the influence of Western, Eastern and local cultures, and have their own independent character. (See the related articles “Genetics and Artificial Intelligence Drive Qatar University’s Covid-19 Research” and “Arab Researchers Use Artificial Intelligence in Bid to Thwart Fake News.”)
For example, technological development is being pushed at breakneck speed by the governments in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as in less affluent countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Such initiatives are often influenced by Western models, in contrast with the current grass-roots efforts and start-ups, which usually rely on simple technologies and local techniques that reflect the concepts of individuals.
“Stories about AI that are grounded in the realities of people living in the Middle East are the best way to explore local visions of the future using smart machines,” said Tomasz Hollanek, a media and technology researcher at the University of Cambridge and a student fellow at the Leverhulme Centre. Hollanek, who is also one of the report’s authors, believes it is important for these visions to reflect the aspirations and needs of the region’s people, rather than importing ideas from elsewhere, particularly from the English-speaking West.
“Stories about AI that are grounded in the realities of people living in the Middle East are the best way to explore local visions of the future using smart machines.”Tomasz Hollanek
A media and technology researcher at the University of Cambridge and a student fellow at the Leverhulme Centre
Fear of Reinforcing Stereotypes
The report expresses concerns that some narratives about artificial intelligence in the region will reinforce gender stereotypes in the future. It cites an example from a popular Egyptian comedy skit from the 1980s, in which a female robot named “Ruby” appears as a domestic servant who responds to orders from the play’s main male character.
In contrast, “Ibn Sina,” the first Arabic-speaking robot, created in the U.A.E., is anthropomorphized as male and is not a servant. Named after a famous 11th-century philosopher, physician and poet, the robot symbolizes the region’s scientific heritage and reflects strength and wisdom, the main traits of masculinity in patriarchal societies.
Another local example is a robot named “Zaki”—which means “smart” in Arabic. Zaki is a chatbot used in an Internet banking platform in Egypt, and thus reflects men’s control of the financial sector, the report says.
Hollanek points out that narratives can have a direct impact on how technologies are conceived and developed. For example, the representation of certain groups on screen can have a realistic effect on who performs certain jobs: the more female AI researchers appear in films and TV series, the more likely young, ambitious women will pursue a career in AI research.
“We hope for a better reality and future for Arab women, away from stereotypes, which will naturally be reflected in their portrayal in technological narratives,” said Rizk.
Obstacles and Opportunities
According to Hollanek, the report reveals how post-colonial perspectives—both in the region and among MENA citizens and beyond—continue to significantly influence perceptions of the Arab region’s potential for full realization of the benefits of AI. That’s why he says it’s important to imagine a future with intelligent machines as a decolonial activity, as a way to resist the Western ideas of “progress” or “development.”
“We just need to be able to discover talented people and properly employ them to build a base for technology development.”Mohamed Zahran
A professor of computer science at New York University
Mohamed Zahran, a professor of computer science at New York University, believes there are obstacles facing the region’s acceptance of the development of artificial intelligence. These include the fear that robots will take people’s jobs, and the fear of Western dominance in the technology market; fears the report also highlighted.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
However, Zahran agrees with the report’s authors that the region will be able to overcome these obstacles, with its capabilities, talents, and emerging artificial intelligence start-ups, in addition to the ability to rent supercomputers that are now available.
While technology is Western, Zahran said, the report draws the world’s attention to the Middle East and what it can contribute to developing the future of artificial intelligence. “We just need to be able to discover talented people and properly employ them to build a base for technology development,” he said.