23 May 2023

Bahrain: Becoming a regional R&D Hub

By Annys Rogerson

Bahrain’s ambition is to become the hub for AI development in the Middle East. Dr. Jassim Haji, Director of the Nasser AI R&D Centre in Bahrain and President of International Group of AI, suggests that this role is still to be filled. This ambition is reflected in the country’s economic strategy, Bahrain Economic Vision 2030, which emphasises that the digital economy is the future economy and that AI will be central to it.

Why is a regional AI hub needed?

While off-the-shelf AI products and services have likely enabled the widespread adoption of AI across the private sector, these standardised products do not always fit into existing business operations and organisational cultures. This mismatch is a challenge that Dr. Haji has found for the adoption of AI across sectors in Bahrain. Moreover, he has found that larger tech companies will only customise products for organisations with employees in the 10,000s, which excludes most Bahraini companies.

Part of the problem could be that many of the AI products and services available are developed within just a few countries. Data from CB Insights suggests that the majority of unicorn companies, among them the largest private AI companies in the world, are based in the US, followed by China and India. Alongside these, are the larger, US-based public technology companies who offer suites of AI products, such as Google and Microsoft’s Azure AI. The concentration of suppliers in a small number of countries may contribute to the mismatch between organisational needs, that vary with culture and geography, and the products that are on offer. This concern is felt across the MENA region, where countries are looking to localise AI development.

Becoming a regional AI hub

Bahrain is responding to the demand for local AI development by working to become the region’s AI hub. To do so, the country is looking to build its R&D capacity and increase its ability to build AI models that solve problems within the country’s key industries and in the public sector. Ultimately, it is looking to export its solutions to other countries in the region.

Developing AI skills is central to Bahrain’s ambitions. Currently, the country sits close to the bottom of the MENA region in our Government AI Readiness Index for the number of AI research papers it publishes and the proportion of graduates in STEM subjects. These results point to a need to grow AI talent in the country. While many countries in the region are focused on attracting talent from abroad, through specialist visas, Bahrain is hoping to take a home-grown approach. An example of this is at Bahrain’s Nasser AI R&D Centre (NAIRDC), where the government employs 100% local Bahrainis. The NAIRDC is a focal point for the government’s efforts to stimulate AI development in the country by connecting government, academia and industry. “We start at the level of graduates from university and we train them in AI”, Dr. Haji says.

Part of Bahrain’s efforts to establish its position as an innovation centre includes participating in the global AI development stage. The NAIRDC has academic and industrial partnerships throughout the MENA region and in Europe, including Université Mohammed Premier Oujda in Morocco and SAP German Multinational Technology Company. Taking part in international conferences is also seen as crucial to getting international exposure, raising awareness among businesses of AI applications within their sector, and bringing researchers together on the latest developments in the field.

Notably, the government has not developed a national AI strategy laying out these initiatives or future ones. Bahrain’s approach is to develop its strategy on-the-go, learning by doing. In practice, this means updating the government’s approach to AI development based on (1) the outcomes of AI projects they complete and (2) how projects are received regionally and internationally. The country is taking this approach because, as Dr. Haji suggests, a strategy, “without implementations and use cases becomes just a slogan”. The belief is that some countries are publishing AI strategies prematurely, and many are doing so by largely adopting international examples. Dr Jassim Haji expects these countries will find their strategies deficient for meeting local needs.

While a high-level strategy with no plan for implementation is not meaningful, a national AI strategy that provides clarity and commitment on funding, roles and responsibilities, and specific policy and regulatory proposals is valuable. It provides certainty for citizens, civil servants, companies, and investors, as well as demonstrating ambition internationally. Bahrain’s approach is novel and could be powerfully built into a national AI strategy – one that puts implementation first, learns from best practices, and promotes continual iteration.

Local Solutions

Combining Bahrain’s focus on local development with its implementation-first approach, AI projects are being developed and deployed by in-house government teams across ministries and with private sector partners. According to Dr. Haji, projects are typically completed by in-house teams so that they can customise solutions and minimise costs. This approach also reflects the commitment to developing local AI talent. However, private partners can often help with meeting the data requirements of projects, for instance by supplying sensors for data collection.

The chart below demonstrates the wide range of government ministries that make up much of the NAIRDC client base. Many use cases of AI are currently being implemented in different governmental sectors relating to industry and commerce, land registration, municipalities and agriculture, central banking, auditing, and electricity and water. These projects include working with industry partners within the aluminum industry, such as ALBA, and oil and gas industry, such as the Bahrain Petroleum Company and Tatweer Petroleum, who have been using AI to maximise production and returns.

Source: Bahrain NAIRDC

Across government, applications include robotic process automation, development of chatbots, internal process support and reporting systems. One instance that demonstrates how the AI projects are being tailored to local needs is the development of a bilingual chatbot, which can communicate with users in both English and the Bahraini dialect of Arabic. A separate project, with the shipping repair yard company ASRY, has been to develop a smart live electricity monitoring dashboard to help staff increase the efficiency of energy usage. The AI model developed by the NAIRDC is integrated into the dashboard and provides predictions on expected energy fluctuations around the yard, allowing staff to be selective about where to distribute electricity, hence saving energy overall.

As AI projects progress, AI governance becomes of central importance. At this stage, the country is in the process of developing its national principles of AI ethics. Dr. Haji suggests that, as with Bahrain’s wider policy approach, these principles should not be adopted from abroad but customised to the country’s understanding of ethics. Nevertheless, AI governance cannot be considered just a national issue. Technologies that are developed domestically may be exported internationally, and, more fundamentally, AI governance cuts across global human rights. There has been significant work at the international level on understanding ethics in the context of AI, which Bahrain should seek not to rework but build on.

Promisingly, NAIRDC has developed its own AI governance framework. The centre’s framework has been developed as a practical guide. For example, its guidelines on ‘Human Collaboration’ encourages end-user engagement from the start of a project to ensure the respective ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of humans and automated systems are taken into account in any AI solution. Similarly, the framework contains practical guidance on ‘Transparency and Accountability’ by suggesting teams commit to creating an audit log of data transformations performed in a project.

Having a practical governance framework is more useful than theoretical principles, which can be hard to interpret and implement. The framework should be reflected in national-level principles that are encouraged among the broader AI community. Such principles are important for creating reliable accountability mechanisms for users, and citizens more widely.

Looking forward

While many countries in the region share Bahrain’s ambition to become an AI hub, Bahrain sets itself apart for its commitment to local development over “extracting the development that happens in other parts of the world”, as put by Dr. Haji. The success of this approach will depend on supporting domestic AI skills, securing strategic partnerships and investment, and ensuring products are in line with international ethical standards, so that the country can develop AI solutions for its neighbours and beyond.

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