AI as the New Oil: Saudi Arabia’s $500 Billion Smart City

In October 2017 Hanson Robotics’ “Sophia” became the first robot to be granted citizenship when Saudi Arabia formally made her one of theirs at a conference in the nation’s capital Riya. Yesterday, Sophia joined a compatriot research team at the AI for Good Global Summit at the UN Headquarters in Geneva to discuss Saudi Vision 2030, in which the Gulf State charts a shift away from its dependence on oil revenue.

“This change will be powered by big data and artificial intelligence,” said the Kingdom’s Deputy Minister of Technology Industry and Digital Capabilities Dr. Ahmed Al Theneyan.

The jewel of the project is the smart city “NEOM”, an acronym that stands for “New Future” in Arabic. The Saudi government says it will pour US$500 billion into this mega-project, with construction expected to begin in 2020. NEOM will occupy 26,500 sq km (10,230 sq miles), 218 times larger than the city of San Francisco.

This smart city will span the Red Sea, connecting Saudi Arabia with Egypt and North Africa. City residents’ medical files, household electronics, and transportation will all be integrated with IoT systems.

Saudi Arabia is calling for global contractors, and according to media reports Amazon, IBM, and Alibaba are discussing potential partnerships with Kingdom officials. Chinese tech conglomerate Huawei is already committed to training 1,500 local engineers over the next two years.

The busy Saudi booth at the Geneva conference promoted AI not only as the engine driving NEOM, but also as a force to help the Saudi people now.

The 2015 Mina Stampede took the lives of 2,000 pilgrims at Mecca. Umm Al-Qura University professors Anas Basalamah and Saleh Basalamah introduced a research project using computer vision to manage crowd flow near the Kaaba. Deep learning algorithms can count the number of people in a scene with up to 97.2 percent accuracy. A heat map signals a warning when density exceeds 4–5 people per square meter, and the system can also monitor crowd circulation speed for safety purposes.

In Saudi Arabia one traffic accident occurs every minute, and there are 20 deaths daily on Saudi roads. Professor Basalamah tells Synced that, “computer vision is deployed here to enforce seat belt wearing and spot traffic violations.” His computer vision startup specializes in “building advanced traffic cameras with the capability to detect dangerous driving behavior through video analysis,” and has received a government contract to work on urban safety.

Crowd monitoring tech and heatmaps from

Oil producing countries are seeking new ways to power their economies, and many are looking to AI. This year, Crown Prince of Dubai Sheikh Hamdan launched a DFA program that matches government entities with private sector partners to digitalize the government. Dubai Police will use statistical AI systems to support decision-making processes, with the goal of cutting the crime rate by 25 percent by 2021.

The UAE named 27-year-old Omar bin Sultan Al-Olama its Minister of Artificial Intelligence — the world’s first such governmental position — and will host the Middle East’s biggest AI fair this year. “World AI Show” will run April 11–12 in Dubai before moving to Singapore, Mumbai, and Paris. The AI market in the United Arab Emirates is expected to reach $50 billion by 2025.

On NEOM’s announcement, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman said the smart city “will allow for a new way of life to emerge that takes into account the ambitions and outlooks of humankind paired with best future technologies and outstanding economic prospects.”

As countries in the Middle East apply their considerable resources to smart/transformative technologies, will NEOM emerge as a new Mecca of AI?

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Journalist: Meghan Han | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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