Giants Together: Opportunities and Challenges in Collaborating on Artificial Intelligence Between the United Arab Emirates and Israel

Liran Antebi | 04 May 2021

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a technology that has enormous potential impact, both inside and outside the security sector. With this in mind, countries are battling for leadership in this field, which has even turned into an arms race between various nations. Although smaller countries are less likely to be able to compete with the superpowers, investing in this technology and developing applications for both civilian and military purposes is crucial to their economic development as well as their national security.

With the Abraham Accords having recently been signed between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, the areas in which these countries will be able to cooperate are vast and the possibilities raise many questions. Specifically, what are the opportunities and challenges of cooperation between these countries in the field of AI?

Artificial Intelligence and the International Arms Race

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is a general name for data-based computer systems that are capable of producing knowledge and new insights through abilities, such as understanding, reasoning, and perception, which until now had been perceived as uniquely human abilities”.[1] AI makes these capabilities possible through a variety of applications that are relatively efficient, reasonably priced, and on a broad scale. The automation of these human abilities creates new opportunities that affect many areas, including national security.

AI has become increasingly important because it is seen as being able to contribute to economic growth, enhance services like health, improve the efficiency and safety of transportation, encourage energy efficiency, further the understanding of climatic phenomena, boost security, and more. AI includes a large number of subdomains and plays an important role in the development of driverless cars, as well as in navigation and traffic forecasting applications. AI affects the lives of millions of people every day, for example, through social networks and applications that recommend products or services according to the user’s profile and previous internet actions, or through apps related to the areas of finance and medicine.

In addition to all those applications, AI has become predominant in the security arena as well. AI technologies are used in military intelligence systems that are capable of reviewing huge amounts of video data and identifying targets; logistic applications that improve and save resources; autonomous driving; autonomous weapons systems; planning and support systems for decision making and simulations, which improve and decrease planning and decision-making processes; command and control systems; cyber warfare, cyber protection, electromagnetic spectrum; and preventing or managing disasters systems.

During the last decade, leaders of many countries—including the world’s major technological and economic powers—have realized the importance of AI for strengthening their countries alongside industrial and technological developments. Many leading countries have already built national programs in AI and have allocated managerial resources and large budget to the field. Most strategies emphasize the importance of AI for generating economic growth and moreover, for maintaining national security. The competition in the field has become exceedingly competitive and even has been recognized as an arms race.

Why is it so Important (and Difficult) for Small Countries to Lead in AI?

As AI moves into new domains and areas, and as its potential grows, the gap between those who lead the race and those who trail behind has widened. AI, alongside the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data, will create a new industrial revolution of the largest scale in history. This new revolution is visible in the various services and products that have been fundamentally transformed by the use of AI.

Many countries and organizations have begun to recognize that AI is no longer a future or futuristic technology but rather now a fundamental need. Leaders of organizations and countries are encouraging the investment, development, and implementation of the use of AI. As a result, the field has created competition for talent, knowledge, and the ability to produce value or break through new boundaries, causing in some cases competition for superiority between nations.

AI is extensively used in military applications and it affects the ability to produce or maintain military superiority. This is evident in the groundbreaking use of AI technologies by the superpowers in military intelligence, advanced robotics, cyber warfare, and cyber protection. Often, success in the area of AI is even more important for smaller countries than for those with greater human resources, mainly because AI is a power multiplier and its economic potential is huge.

The need to succeed in the field of AI has become critical, especially for countries that are facing challenges in the field of military defense and counterterrorism. However, there is an inherent tension in the field of AI for small countries. On one hand, the potential impact on economics and security is huge and on the other hand, the almost impossible mission to compete with "giants" in the arms race both in talent and budgets to attain the objectives.

Israel and the UAE in the Field of AI

Israel is known as a global hub of technical innovation and is one of the leading countries in the field of AI. For example, in 2018, Israel ranked third in the world for innovation according to the Global Competitive Index, having more than 430 AI startups worth around $3.5 billion, following the superpowers of the United States and China.

In addition, many global tech giants, such as Amazon and IBM, have set up AI-focused R&D centers in Israel, while many Israeli AI startups have been scooped up by global tech giants, such as Intel’s purchase of the Israeli company Mobileye for $15 billion in 2017.[2] Israel is also a leader in the field of advanced defense technologies, many of them with embedded AI in their systems, like the operational Iron dome.[3] In addition, AI is also used in drone systems,[4] UAVs, surveillance systems,[5] and much more.

However, lately, Israel’s leadership in the field of AI has eroded due to the growing international competition. Currently, Israel’s government does not manage the country’s AI activities and collaborations; rather, they are decentralized and carried out by various institutions and bodies like the defense industries, universities, and commercial companies. Nonetheless, in 2018, Israel’s prime minister did appoint an AI task-force,[6] which submitted its conclusions with a recommendation to create a national strategy in the field; as of March 2021, however, the government has neither approved the recommendations nor budgeted for such a strategy. Recommendations submitted by another national committee in the Quantum and AI domains will be implemented soon but are limited in scope, mostly to research and infrastructure.[7] It seems then, that the strength of the Israeli ecosystem compensates for the lack of government management of the field.

The United Arab Emirates has taken a series of ambitious steps, in recent years, to ensure that it can take advantage of the opportunities AI can offer, and to enable the UAE to become a leader in the field within the Middle East. In October 2017, the UAE government announced its strategy for AI.[8] This unique strategy is intended to achieve the objectives of the UAE Centennial 2071, boost government performance, and invest in the adoption of AI. The UAE’s AI strategy covers development and application in various sectors: transportation, health, space, renewable energy, water, technology, education, environment, and traffic control.

Moreover, the UAE was the first country in the world to appoint a minister for AI.[9] This minister is responsible in part for creating and fostering international efforts in the responsibly governance of AI, which reflects the UAE’s vision on ethical use of AI. The UAE has also established the Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MZBUAI) in Abu Dhabi, which is a “research-based academic institution that offers specialized degree programs for local and international students in the field of artificial intelligence”.[10]

Nonetheless, the UAE still lags behind in the field of AI and needs to do much more to achieve the objectives of its desire. One of the main gaps relates to the professionals in AI. In the field of AI, the UAE is dependent on qualified human resources from western countries and from China.[11] As the race for AI development becomes more difficult, hiring talents in the field also becomes increasingly challenging. Furthermore, the UAE will need to take steps to improve its infrastructure so that it can attract talented AI professionals to work in the UAE.

In addition, because of the limited size of the UAE’s armed forces, the multiplicity of threats that lie ahead, and the international arms race in the field, increased integration of AI in the military is crucial. Although autonomous systems are a game changer for every country in that they will reduce the cost of defense—both economically and humanly—they are much more important for a country with a small population.

Opportunities and Challenges in Potential Collaboration in AI

As both Israel and the UAE have already taken steps in the field of AI, whether they are decentralized or centralized, this cooperation is not starting from scratch. Therefore, cooperative relationships are likely to be formed when each party brings to the table both its strengths and interests. Both countries have interests in embedding AI within the fields of security and economics. While the UAE shows exceptional capability in governmental management of the field, Israel leads in the startup culture. And while Israel has a large number of talented and experienced AI professionals, the UAE has a better ability to allocate budgets for the required infrastructure and other resources to be used for joint projects.

Few important collaborations have already begun, such as the partnership in creating an anti-drone AI system, which is the first weapons manufacturing partnership between the UAE and Israel. This anti-drone system is highly relevant both for the UAE, which has been threatened by the Houthi movement, and for Israel, for which Hamas and Hizballah pose a risk. These organizations all have demonstrated their ability to carry out cross-border missile and drone attacks.[12] AI could be used to combat terrorism in other additional ways, and it could become the main link between the UAE and Israel.

Although AI has a powerful effect on the countries’ financial sectors, the domains of defense, intelligence, and homeland security are sometimes much more urgent for state intervention. The knowledge acquired by Israel in the field of AI during the last decades, especially in the defense sector, is possibly quite appealing to the UAE, as well as for other countries, and it is highly likely that the two states will forge further cooperation in the field. Nevertheless, defense may be too sensitive a subject for a close collaboration between new friends that have only recently established their formal relationship; therefore, it should not be the only field in which the UAE and Israel cooperate in the AI arena.

An additional path for AI collaboration is the academic one. The UAE’s MZBUAI and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science signed an agreement to advance the development and use of AI.[13] This is a first-of-its-kind agreement between the two states, which covers a range of opportunities for collaboration, including student and postdoctoral fellows exchange programs, conferences and seminars, exchange between researchers, and sharing of computing resources.

Computing resources many times become a bottleneck for AI; they are expensive and important resources, which in addition to data and, affect the success in the field. Computing resources are not as worthy on their own as they are together with talented scientists who have the culture of—and experience in—pursuing innovation. This is a place where the two states might be able to complement each other and should try to expand their collaboration.

Beside these two established collaborations mentioned, further opportunities lie ahead. Here are only several ideas:

  • The UAE and Israel should explore opportunities for joint investment in relevant areas that require government financing, such as security or governmental needs.
  • The two countries can cooperate within the framework of international initiatives to restrict rogue actors from achieving accomplishments in the field of AI, whether military or civilian.
  • Israel and the UAE can benefit from sharing information about the capabilities of different military and civilian actors in the field of AI in an effort to prevent strategic surprises.
  • The two countries should consider coordinating their positions in the international courts regarding AI and its products, for example: the international attempts to ban autonomous weapons systems.
  • Israel and the UAE can greatly benefit from developing and adhering to common standards and principles relating to AI, in order to ensure safety and responsibility in both civilian and security establishments.

Conclusions

Given the growing global competition in the area of AI, as its impact is increasingly understood, many countries find it challenging to budget and manage this field, particularly the small countries that are forced to compete with world powers. The UAE and Israel are two small countries whose future might be greatly affected by the development of AI, in terms of both: security and economic development. Although they are small, smart collaboration in the field of AI may turn them into giants – together.

In conjunction with the increasing cooperation between the two countries in various fields, including AI, many opportunities are now on the cutting edge. Alongside such opportunities, however, government involvement is also necessary for cooperation in areas that are not entirely commercial or that may be highly sensitive, like security.

The fact that Israel’s management of the field falls short of that of the UAE could create a gap between the two states, but Israel’s strong ecosystem might help overcome this weakness to create a fruitful collaboration. Most important is for the two states to find ways of working together while recognizing that the cooperation strengthens both countries. As the UAE’s minister of AI, Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, said regarding the two states and the global competition in the field: “The only way for us to actually have a seat at the table, and to make sure that we can push forward or have a mandate, is for us to work together. So, to get the Emirati view of AI—to get the Israeli view of AI—we need to be working closely together to make sure that the bigger players actually take that seriously”.[14]

* Dr. Liran Antebi serves as the Advanced Technologies and National Security Program Manager at the INSS, Tel-Aviv.

References

[1] Liran Antebi, Artificial Intelligence and National Security in Israel, Memorandum No. 207, February 2021, INSS.

[2] Ingrid Lunden, "Intel buys Mobileye in $15.3B deal, moves its automotive unit to Israel" in: TECHCRUCH, March 13, 2017. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/13/reports-intel-buying-mobileye-for-up-to-16b-to-expand-in-self-driving-tech/

[3] Iron Dome, at Global Security.org. Available at: https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/israel/iron-dome.htm  

[4] Staff Writer, "Israel’s Rafael Unveils AI-Driven Drone System for Indoor Fighting" at TheDefensePost, December 30, 2020. Available at: https://www.thedefensepost.com/2020/12/30/rafael-ai-driven-drone-system/

[5] Ibid.

[6] The task force headed is headed by Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel and Prof. Eviatar Matania, both professors at Tel Aviv University, and who have strong backgrounds in the security field and the Israeli ecosystem.

[7] The committee appointed by the Israeli National Infrastructure Forum for Research and Development is led by Dr. Orna Berry a former chief scientist and director of the Industrial Research and Development Administration of Israel, and a distinguished high-tech entrepreneur and businesswoman.

[8] The United Arab Emitters, UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy, http://www.uaeai.ae/en/

[9] Dom Galeo, The United Arab Emirates is the first country in the world to hire a minister for artificial intelligence, at: Business Insider. December 16, 2017. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/world-first-ai-minister-uae-2017-12?IR=T

[10] The MBZUAI website, "MBZUAI and Weizmann Institute of Science establish joint AI Program", February 23, 2021. Avilable at: https://mbzuai.ac.ae/news-events/MBZUAI-and-Weizmann-Institute-of-Science-establish-joint-AI-Program-1

[11] Agnes Helou, AI militarization will be ‘force multiplier’ for UAE, Saudi Arabia, at: C4ISRNET, February 24, 2021. Available at: https://www.c4isrnet.com/artificial-intelligence/2021/02/24/ai-militarization-will-be-force-multiplier-for-uae-saudi-arabia/

[12] MEE staff, Israel and UAE to partner in creation of anti-drone AI system, at: Middle East Eye, March 11, 2021. Available at: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israel-and-uae-partner-creation-anti-drone-artificial-intelligence-system

[13] Staff Reporter, UAE, Israel universities ink agreement to boost AI collaboration, AT: Khaleej Times, September 15, 2020. Available at: https://www.khaleejtimes.com/news/education/uae-israel-universities-ink-agreement-to-boost-ai-collaboration

[14] Jake Epstein, UAE minister says joint ventures with Israel in AI sector are ‘undeniable need’, at The Times of Israel, December 6, 2020. Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/uae-minister-says-joint-ventures-with-israel-in-ai-sector-are-undeniable-need/

 

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