In 2017, Omar Al Olama became the world’s first Minister of Artificial Intelligence, taking office in the wealthy United Arab Emirates. “You need to have someone who sees AI and its application across the government with a holistic view,” says the 33-year-old, “and ensure that there is at least some sort of coordination between different bodies.”
The most influential players in this domain—the U.S., the E.U., and China—have yet to heed the Gulf kingdom’s example. AI often falls under the remit of digital or technology Ministers (as is the case in the E.U.), and so far the global conversation around AI and its regulation has been fragmented. While Al Olama says that having different approaches can be “healthy” in avoiding groupthink, countries must be willing to work together in an inclusive, multilateral forum.
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“Creating silos, especially with technology as profound as artificial intelligence, is asking for trouble,” he warns. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
TIME: To start, can you talk a bit about how your role as the UAE’s first AI Minister came about?
Omar Al Olama: As we know, it’s not a new technology—it’s a technology that’s been with us for over 50 years. But the advent of social media, the advent of self-driving cars, and being able to do things that were once seemingly impossible showed us the trajectory for this technology. Our leadership in the UAE believe that instead of waiting for this technology to come to us as a by-product of other people’s decisions and reacting to something that is foreign and alien in nature, we need to be the most prepared nation for the positives as well as the negatives of AI. So this was why that role was established.
Initially, my view was we can do a lot in the UAE and we can do this on our own. However, I am 100% certain today that you cannot govern this technology on an island. You can’t do it on your own. You have to do it with others. And we have to do it in a way that is nonpolitical and that is truly global. So there needs to be a global treaty that includes everyone.
The world’s major AI players have taken different approaches when it comes to regulation. What do you make of that? And what role do you see the UAE playing?
I actually think it’s very healthy that we have different approaches. It’s very healthy that we have the E.U. going in the direction that they’re going in, that China is going in the direction that it’s going in, that the U.S. is going in the direction that it’s going in. Because I feel like no one’s going to get it right the first time. But if we have different models, we can take certain elements from these models and emulate what works and also ensure that instead of us having this groupthink and moving in one direction, we can actually look at all the different models.
The UAE’s approach with regards to tackling and governing AI is an interesting model: We understand that we are in a unique position. We are a medium-sized country; we have invested in AI for a few years now. So we were a bit far ahead of many other countries that are in this domain. We cannot compete with China and the U.S.; I don’t think we ever will want to compete. Our job is to be first an enabler and to leverage our strength to support all the players when it comes to AI. So when our policymaking and our government is very agile and can move very quickly, we want to ensure that anyone who wants to deploy AI in a way where we can do it in a regulatory environment, the UAE comes first in mind and we’re able to then export whatever findings we have to the rest of the world. So in that sense, we complement the big players when it comes to this technology.
What are the biggest priorities that countries need to discuss when it comes to the opportunities and challenges posed by AI? How quickly do those conversations need to start happening?
AI is not one technology, and each technology has a different utility. Self-driving cars are very different to large language models. The first problem when it comes to governing AI or looking at the future of AI is people actually bucket them all as one technology and think that we have one answer for everything there.
The second thing that we need to determine is the disruptive capability of AI—whether it’s positive or negative. And this capability differs for each country. So, for example, self-driving cars for the UAE are going to be more positive than negative because our infrastructure is quite cutting-edge and it’s new. Compare that to a country, for example, that has over 1 million truck drivers, and where the infrastructure is not ready to host these kinds of technologies.
At the same time, for countries that have elections soon, large language models and technologies that are going to spread misinformation are going to be paramount for us to tackle. What needs to happen is, first and foremost, we need to put certain guardrails up. We also need to have a global dialogue and a global pulse check with regards to the research—where the research is going on this—and it needs to be nonpolitical. So Chinese scientists need to talk to U.S. scientists who need to talk to UAE scientists. And it needs to be a body that’s similar to the U.N. where we actually understand where the frontier is and what the capabilities are. Because one issue that we have today is the bad actors are always a lot more agile, are always a lot more at the cutting edge, than governments and the good players.
And that is already happening with misinformation. There was an image that spread a couple of months ago of a rocket blast that hit the Pentagon, and what happened was once that image spread, the stock market in the U.S. [was briefly affected], and then it recovered when they figured out it’s a fake. Imagine if it becomes something that is coordinated and something that is done in a way where the majority of people actually believe it’s true.
How important is it that governments have Ministers specifically focused on AI?
AI technology is so profound that we can actually look back in history to understand why we need to create a ministry for it. When humanity used to depend on coal and wood fire for energy, there was no ministry of energy. When it became paramount to actually ensure energy production and energy distribution, what happened is that every single government in the world appointed a Minister for energy. The same happened with telecommunications. I do believe that AI is at the same level.
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