Sophia can identify faces and have long conversations with others. Sophia is also a Saudi citizen. This might not come out as big news to you, until you learn that Sophia is a robot, imbued with artificial intelligence. Sophia, modeled after actress Audrey Hepburn, has been touring the globe, in a sign that the age of robots is coming to humanity. Talks about the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) have been all over the media worldwide, but how much is the regional industry prepared to adopt this technology?
AI is expected to transform the way media function. The technology allows to gather and analyze data, make decisions based on the findings, create content accordingly and personalize the distribution of this content – with Netflix being the ultimate example of algorithms’ power to learn and curate content according to viewers’ preferences. This new approach is changing all forms of media, including news. As Lorenzo Zanni, lead research analyst at the International Trade Association for Broadcast & Media technology (IABM), told Technology Record, “AI tools can be used to predict demand to adjust resources (in on-demand cloud models) or to predict possible disruptions in the content supply chain (such as a content supplier failing to meet a deadline). These use cases could bring sizable savings to media companies.”
The Middle East is still in the early stages in terms of data collection and infrastructure development which, in turn, delays the use of AI in media content creation. “Without a really good data infrastructure, you’re not able to start reading or using the data and making it more powerful,” said Charli Ursell, head of transformation at PHD.
However, the region is moving fast to catch up, spurred by the promise of data fueling the technology. Talking at the Oracle Openworld Middle East conference in Dubai last February, Oracle’s senior vice-president for the Middle East, Africa and Central Eastern Europe Abdul Rahman Al Thehaiban, said that “more data will be collected this year in the Middle East than has even been collected in the last 5,000 years,” and that spending on digital transformation in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) will cross the AED91.83 billion mark in 2019 “as more organizations experiment with emerging technologies such as robotics, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT)”, as quoted by UAE local newspapers.
Overcoming digital roadblocks
Media agencies, platforms and publishers in the region have initiated the transformation, revolving mostly on content production, personalized marketing and analytics, with a focus on agility and speed. The technology is mostly viewed as a way to help with “time-intensive monotonous tasks, combined with superior performance in terms of speed and quality,” says Rebecca d’Orazi Flavoni, business lead at Starcom.
As a result, she says, regional media players have integrated four components of AI, either in their own activity or for their clients’ accounts: automated content production (news or market updates, for example); chatbots for basic interaction (across websites and within dynamic media); customized news feeds; and predictive Intelligence (streamlined flows like buyer path to purchase).
Sky News Arabia, for example, has announced a few months ago the upgrading of its digital platform, described as “an expansion of the broadcast operations.” Digital dashboards have been created on all types of performances across all platforms, and the next step will be to include predictive analytics, according to Klime Mickovski, acting head of product digital. “We are at the beginning,” says Mickovski, who nonetheless adds: “There’s big investment, but there is a lack of expertise [at Sky News Arabia]. It’s very rare to find someone that understands how this work.”
A crucial difficulty in this race towards digitization is indeed the fact that it must be implemented in an integrated manner, and not just in parts of an organization. To correctly execute this AI integration, the technology must be incorporated at the “planning and conception stage,” says d’Orazi Flavoni. For communications agencies, the application and roll out of any AI product must be done “throughout all phases of the campaign, including planning, execution and critically reporting & learnings,” she adds, wondering: “The real question is will [corporations in the region] take the leap into this new world quickly enough?”.
According to Adam Abbott, CEO of ad tech company Dynamo, most of the discussions around AI in the region are still centered around “proprietary ownership over data silos and the M&A happening out there.” But, while AI has mostly been behind the scenes, we’re now starting to see products take a more defined shape and “baseline knowledge gaps starting to close,” he says. “AI is helping us to narrow the ecosystem and get to the value faster. We’re speeding up the navigation and learning processes and getting to results much faster”.
The UAE leading the way
Research by the International Data Corporation (IDC) indicates that investment in artificial intelligence systems will reach over $100 million in the MEA by the year 2021, while a 2018 PwC report shows that, within the GCC, the UAE has been investing the most in AI technologies.
The UAE has spent both energy and time to position itself as a major contender in the global AI race. In mid-2018, the country signed a strategic alliance with India, named a Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, and unveiled a national AI strategy – a 10-year plan to position the UAE as a world leader in AI by 2031, across industries. In April 2019, Abu Dhabi Media announced a partnership with Sogou Inc., a Chinese innovator, to develop the first AI TV anchor who will present the news in both Arabic and English on the group’s media channels. This digital journalist will reportedly be the first of its kind worldwide, not only to speak Arabic but to have humanlike facial expressions. In a statement, H.E. Omar Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, said that “the use of these advanced solutions will benefit the industry by enriching media content, supporting media research.”
At the 2017 PHD Brainscape conference, Dubai Future Foundation’s COO Noah Raford explained how the “Dubai public sector was collaborating with the private sector to prototype transformative technologies and create markets around successful ones.”
This all resulted in some key developments and the creation of new startups like talent surfacing initiatives like StartAD’s Venture Launchpad, Dubai’s AI Lab in partnership with IBM, and data-to-content translation Narrativa (see sidebox). “Narrativa surfaced because both Abu Dhabi and Dubai were leading initiatives to provide a platform for AI technologies to emerge,” says Ursell, who adds that while technology is useful, it is the process of bringing it forth that shows the transformation the industry is witnessing.
In May 2019, SingularityNET, the company behind Sophia the Robot, announced the setup of a research and business development unit in Dubai. Ben Goertzel, chief executive and founder of SingularityNET, told The National: “AI and robotics are in the early stages in Dubai or in the general Middle East. It is a new frontier for the region and that makes things very exciting.”
“What the UAE has done is send the flag out to the world and say, ‘We’re really serious about this’,” says Ursell, who goes on to explain that, given the significance of the technology, countries are racing to develop it. “As soon as a country cracks AI, it will become almost impossible for any of the other frontrunners to catch up, because of the speed of change that will happen,” she concludes.
This article is published in Communicate’s June edition.
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