INTERVIEW: Investing in AI Arabic language models can propel Egypt to the forefront of field

Ashraf Amin , Saturday 2 Mar 2024

Saad Toma, general manager of IBM for the Middle East and Africa, spoke to Ahram Online about the opportunities and challenges in adopting artificial intelligence (AI), especially when it comes to early investment in the sector.



Toma explained that 80 percent of heads of international companies have concerns about adopting AI, especially the probability of biased results, hallucination, and inaccurate data. He pointed to the ways in which it may be misused in presidential elections by disseminating deep fake content.

That’s why the concept of responsible AI is getting world attention to boost the technology. Toma explained that to limit the risks it is important to have a framework for AI work that allows data review, ensures transparency, explainability of the results, data security, and most importantly AI governance. 

Ahram Online: Why should countries and companies invest in AI?

Saad Toma: Without a doubt, artificial intelligence will benefit humanity and change many industries around the world. 

What we are witnessing today is software that has the ability to analyze big data and produce information or predict the future to support decision-makers. This type of language or software is known as generative artificial intelligence and is used in every... sector such as banks, factories, ministries, even football teams. 

In addition, artificial intelligence helps automate businesses, increase company productivity, and improve customer service.

According to estimates, artificial intelligence is expected to contribute to increasing the revenues of countries and companies by $16 trillion by 2030. Artificial intelligence will create 97 million new jobs, especially in the fields of programming, big data analysis, and designing large language models for artificial intelligence.

Developing countries are also expected to reap returns ranging from 10 to 12 percent of GDP if they start investing in artificial intelligence now and accelerate the pace of work. 

In fact, in recent years, we have witnessed a tremendous transformation and growth in digital transformation in many countries in the Middle East and Africa, such as in Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, and Turkey. 

All of these countries have the same goal: how to improve productivity, raise value, run better services for customers, reduce costs, and raise the efficiency of graduates to create new jobs.

AO: What are the spending priorities for developing countries to adopt AI technology?

ST: First and foremost, countries must invest in youth and develop their skills in the field of software and information technology. Second, investment must be made in infrastructure to maximize the use of generative AI and large language models. God has blessed Egypt with great talents and highly skilled individuals.

The government also has a strategic plan for digital transformation that will enhance job opportunities and reliance on government digital applications and services.

AO: What are Egypt's chances of leading the regional market in this sector?

ST: Egypt has achieved great success over the years in adopting new technologies, based on our previous or current participation in the digital transformation work that occurs in many sectors through consulting and technological support. Today you can observe technological development in the banking and telecommunications sectors, the oil and gas sector and many ministries.

Egypt is ready to benefit from new technologies including generative artificial intelligence. To achieve a qualitative leap, the country must work to enhance research, invest in infrastructure, and benefit from the best that technology has to offer. It is also important to invest in specific areas of artificial intelligence, such as Arabic language models, and Egypt can be a leader in this sector.

AO: What is your response to the doubts raised about the negative impact of artificial intelligence on job opportunities?

ST: When you look through history, you will find that there has always been a change in job opportunities with industrial revolutions. 

150 years ago, for example, agriculture was a labor-intensive sector; 40 percent of workers in the United States worked in agriculture. With the advent of machines and the successive industrial revolutions, the percentage of agricultural workers decreased to 2 percent today. On the other hand, the productivity of agricultural crops has improved compared to the past thanks to modern technologies, whether in agricultural machinery, pesticides, fertilizers, or sensors to measure plant needs on a daily basis.

If you look at the impact of a number of important technologies throughout history, it will become clear to you how many old jobs have disappeared and how many new professions have emerged. You find this clearly with the innovation of semiconductors, the Internet, and social media networks.

Today we are witnessing a similar wave thanks to generative artificial intelligence, which will change the nature of professions in most sectors that will move toward automating their services and using modern software to support the decision-maker. In general, I believe that artificial intelligence will increase job opportunities and the productivity of individuals.

AO: What are the potential risks of generative AI?

ST: Of course, there are potential challenges and risks when using artificial intelligence without prior awareness of the problems it may cause. 

For example, generative artificial intelligence solutions allow the production of what is known as “deep fake” - that is, fake video or audio content or even images. This fraud can be used to influence the popularity of politicians, especially this year, which is witnessing more than 40 elections in many countries around the world. Therefore, technology companies announced their solidarity to combat the misleading use of artificial intelligence in the 2024 US elections.

Besides, today there are more than 250,000 large language models for artificial intelligence around the world, many of which are open source, and it is certain that not everything that is presented is trustworthy. According to experiments, there are many models of generative artificial intelligence that issue answers biased towards some political or religious orientations, including some that issue incorrect or illogical information, or rely on unreviewed or revised data.

All of these concerns have negatively affected the extent of companies and countries’ reliance on generative artificial intelligence models. 

According to the 2023 IBM Global AI Adoption Index, 80 percent of business leaders around the world have concerns about AI output. 48 percent of them are worried about how to explain the decisions made by AI models. 42 percent believe that generative AI cannot be trusted, 46 percent have safety, and ethical concerns and believe that AI will propagate established biases.

For all of the above, before adopting AI technology, companies and countries must take into account four factors: transparency, explainability, safety, and most importantly, AI governance. 

These points are the main core of responsible AI, which depends on the presence of a platform or business system supporting the software to remove biased results, hallucination, and insurance systems against data theft or reliance on inaccurate data. 

An ecosystem like Watsonx can manage data and AI models that are open source or created for the company, contribute to business governance, and reduce all the problems we talked about.

AO: What is your comment on the writers suing technology companies for using their novels without permission to train artificial intelligence models?

ST: This brings us back to the importance of responsible artificial intelligence, especially in light of the issues raised around protecting the rights of authors and creators. There are cases of misuse of artificial intelligence and violation of rights, as we see with software being fed works by writers without their permission or using the voices of actors or singers without their consent.

For this reason, if you include governance and trusted AI upfront, you limit such issues. Without a doubt, material and moral rights must belong to the primary source of the content, whether the author or the publishing house. Let us take the example of digital platforms for broadcasting music and singing, for example, they operate with artificial intelligence and preserve the rights of creators.

AO: What is your comment on the European Union Commission launching the first AI Act?

ST: The AI Act is a landmark indeed, being the first piece of legislation to ensure the regulation, implementation, and use of technology companies like us and companies that create large language models for AI. I see it as a strong legal framework to start with and strengthen companies' plans to adopt AI. It is expected that various countries will have their own regulatory bodies and laws similar to the European Union, especially since there is a lot of work being done at present.

For example, the United Arab Emirates has created a ministerial position for artificial intelligence in its government, and in Saudi Arabia, there is a company to support artificial intelligence policies. At the corporate level, there is currently the position of chief artificial intelligence officer. 

On the other hand, we have launched an AI Alliance that includes multiple stakeholders, startups, academia, technology companies, and governments to support the Trusted AI.

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