This project was done as part of EA NYU Abu Dhabi’s local priorities research and aimed to be an introductory guide to technical AI Safety for those in the UAE and provide a career guide for individuals interested in exploring the field. This is among the first local priorities research projects carried out by EA NYU Abu Dhabi and we would appreciate your feedback and suggestions. Please reach out to Sneheel Sarangi at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to share your thoughts and critiques. This is an abbreviated version of the guide with sections explaining AI safety as a cause area removed. To read the report in full, please visit https://www.eanyuad.org/artificial-intelligence
The United Arab Emirates is eager to become a leader in the AI space and has a track record of adopting AI technologies. Adopting an unaligned AI system will however result in massive losses, both for the people and the economy. The country has also significantly invested in AI research, such as by inaugurating the world’s first AI-focused university and establishing AI research labs. However, AI-safety related work remains largely neglected. Nonetheless, principles such as “developing AI aligned with human values” feature in the official government toolkits, and thus there is potential for the government to support efforts towards AI alignment.
People in the UAE do not have many locally available ways to contribute to solving this problem; most work is done in Western countries. We primarily recommend AI safety work to students who are ready and determined to pursue a Ph.D. in a top institution outside the country, as most roles in the area require a Ph.D., preferably in machine learning. We also recommend this role to engineers highly skilled in ML or those who have strong software engineering skills, and who are willing to relocate to countries such as the US or UK. However, given the UAE’s vision of becoming a ‘hub of AI’, it might also be valuable to do a Ph.D. locally and become an AI researcher who is still familiar with key developments in the field of AI alignment. Lastly, there remains the possibility of gaining relevant credentials and starting a new AI safety lab at an institution in this region. However, the last comes with several caveats, and further research needs to be conducted regarding the same.
The UAE's background in AI
While the United Arab Emirates might not be considered a technology hub, it has started banking on Artificial Intelligence to lead its post-oil growth. Between 2008-2018, the UAE invested $2.15 billion in AI, second only to Turkey in the Middle East and Africa region. There was also an upward trend in such investment in recent years. In its AI-focused vision, by 2031, the UAE aims to become one of the top AI hubs in the world. The Middle East overall is expected to see approximately USD 320 billion in benefits from the use of AI by 2030. It is predicted that the annual growth in the contribution of AI is expected to range between 20-34% per year across the region, with the fastest growth in the UAE. To pursue this aim, it became one of the first countries to unveil a strategic plan for AI and set up a ministry for Artificial Intelligence. These factors and others combined have made the UAE place 19th globally, and 1st in the MENA region on the Government AI Readiness Index 2021.
How big is the problem?
Not solving the problem of AI safety in time will have globally undesirable consequences. However, the UAE’s goal of becoming a global leader in AI may make it uniquely susceptible to harm by an unaligned AI. In the country, AI is already being implemented to an extent that it plays a part in everyday life, and the country's vision for the future entails it playing an even more prominent role. Therefore, it is likely that when high-level AI like AGI is finally developed, the UAE will be eager to deploy it. However, if AGI is not properly aligned with human values, its adoption might result in wide-ranging, unintended side effects that harm both the people and the economy.
How neglected is it?
The UAE has acknowledged the importance of the positive development of AI. The minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama has discussed the need to address short-term AI safety concerns. Smart Dubai, a government organization, released an ethical AI toolkit that it recommends for organizations: Under the AI principle of ‘Humanity’, the toolkit states that AI should be developed to align with human values, and the government will support the research on the beneficial use of AI. It also states that AGI and superintelligence, if developed, should serve humanity as a whole, and the government’s official guidelines for Artificial Intelligence reflect this.
However, AI research within the UAEhas not focused on technical AI safety; we could not identify specific individuals or organizations in the country working on the problem. The neglectedness of this cause is especially apparent because of the country’s move towards supporting AI research and bringing in academic talent; research that seems to primarily focus on industrial applications. For example, many of the projects from the recently established AI research university, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), also seem to be primarily focused on using AI research for industrial applications.
The UAE’s role in solving the problem of AI Safety
Objective 5 of UAE’s 8 strategic AI objectives is to attract and train talent for future jobs enabled by AI. Given the increase in focus on AI education and the expected increase in AI-based jobs in the region, residents of the UAE will have the opportunity to build career capital in the field. This can eventually lead to finding work in roles such as that of an ML engineer at an organization working on technical AI safety. Moreover, while universities in the region do not have as robust of an AI research culture as those in Western countries, they can still provide a launchpad for those interested in AI/AI safety research. The Mohamed bin Zayed Institute of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) is an AI Research-focused university for Masters and Ph.D. students, while other universities including NYU Abu Dhabi, American University of Sharjah, Khalifa University, and others also have researchers working on AI. Even though AI safety is not a research focus for most researchers in the region, their research spanning fields such as Natural Language Processing, Computer Vision, and Machine Learning can help students gain relevant experience. Lastly, while technical AI safety research in the region is currently non-existent, it is possible that the government would be willing to promote such research due to its commitment to developing AI ‘for the benefit of humanity’.
The UAE aims to become an AI hub in the next decade and as such there is considerable funding dedicated to AI research in the country. AI safety research is currently not focused on in the country, which is why the majority of opportunities reviewed here are not based in the Middle East/UAE. However, given the efforts the UAE is concentrating on AI, it is not unreasonable to expect that AI safety will be included in the research agenda in the foreseeable future. In recent times, there has been an increase in opportunities available for an individual in the region to upskill, such as the establishment of the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence which offers Masters and Ph.D. programs in fields of AI.
Who do we recommend it for?
Even though the field of AI is slowly growing in the UAE, as of now the country’s research output remains low when compared to several other countries. Most work in AI safety is currently being done in the West and as such there are limited opportunities to work directly on the problem in this region. Therefore, we would primarily recommend this career path to students in high school and undergraduate institutions who are highly motivated and ready to move to countries such as the US, UK, Canada, or Australia for higher education.
However, there might also be several opportunities in the region to gain the required career capital and transition into engineering and research roles at AI safety labs afterwards. Even though we could not find anyone from the region working in these roles, we recommend highly skilled early-mid career professionals to explore the possibility of transitioning into such roles.
Lastly, for highly skilled individuals there remains the possibility of gaining relevant credentials, and then coming back to set-up a research lab at an institution in the region. This path might be significantly more difficult than working at an established AI safety lab due to factors such as funding, access to talent ready to work on AI safety, and proximity to existing research communities. However, there might be a significant upside to it due to the availability of talent coming out of institutions in the region.
Specific advice for a:
High school student
Being a high school student, you have a lot of time to decide on what you want to do. Start by testing your fit for AI safety, and decide if you want to work in it. One of the next key priorities should be choosing and applying to undergraduate institutions.
The undergraduate institution might be less important for a job in the industry as an ML engineer or software engineer. However, it can become an important factor when being considered for graduate school; a highly regarded institution will have better research facilities and faculty whose research you could contribute to. Moreover, studying in countries such as the US, UK or Canada might also make it easier to get work visas after graduation since a lot of the work relevant to AI safety is done in those regions. Nevertheless, it should be noted that most organizations working on AI safety directly sponsor work-visas for the same purpose.
Open Philanthropy offers scholarships for students interested in having careers that benefit humanity and are interested in starting a degree at a top university in the US or UK. UAE nationals should also look out for scholarships from the government.
Given the heavy investment in AI and AI education, and looking at the future landscape, studying at a local university might also be a good idea. A list of local universities that offer undergraduate degrees in AI or AI-relevant fields can be found here. The UAE government also offers some programs for residents to get acquainted with AI concepts.
If you want to go further and learn more about AI and AGI safety, learning how to code (if you don’t know how to) can be a good first step. For more advanced students, resources in the Getting Started section often do not need a strong technical background to be understood.
First - Third Year Undergraduate
Students interested in technical AI safety research are encouraged to take majors in technical subjects such as Mathematics and Computer Science, and these can provide a strong background for both research and engineering work.
Undergraduates should also focus on building up their ML/AI knowledge through avenues such as online courses and university classes. They might also benefit from placing an emphasis on learning practical skills early by participating in events such as AI hackathons.
Once a base level of knowledge is built, students interested in research can reach out to professors whose work they are interested in and volunteer to work in their labs. Professors are often in need of student assistants, and students should not hesitate to reach out to them. This can lead to publications, which have become a necessary component of successful elite graduate school applications.
Students interested in ML engineering and software engineering can replace this with local or international internships in AI or software engineering respectively. Keep in mind that ML engineers will also often need to have strong software engineering skills too. There is also a lot of general software engineering advice online such as practicing algorithmic questions for software engineering interviews that students should follow.
There are also several organizations that offer summer or semester-long internships in AI safety; though, like jobs, these tend to be concentrated in countries such as the US and UK. Nonetheless, these typically welcome international applicants and can be an avenue to familiarize yourself with the work being done in AI safety. A non-extensive list of internships that have been offered in the past is curated here.
Final Year Undergraduates
Final year undergraduates will be looking at an important decision in their careers in choosing between industry work, and further education. For those interested in focusing on AI safety for their undergraduate research projects (or capstone projects), Effective Thesis can offer relevant resources and coaching
If you believe you have amassed a strong research background during your undergraduate degree, applying for a Ph.D. at a top institution in the world might be a good idea. Make sure to test your fit, and refer to the Getting a Ph.D. section.
For students interested in getting a Ph.D., but who have relatively less research experience, getting a Master's degree first can be a good choice, where you can focus on making your research profile stronger. This path is also recommended for those interested in ML engineering.
A third pathway to look at could be AI residency programs offered by corporations such as OpenAI, Facebook, and Google. These one-year programs often pair up residents with experienced researchers, create research-oriented environments, and become a pipeline for later jobs at these companies.
Those interested in software engineering or ML engineering roles can start by applying to local jobs in the fields. Getting a job in one of the countries with a focus on AI safety such as the US or the UK is not impossible but likely to be highly competitive.
Students working on a Ph.D. in a field related to Artificial Intelligence, especially those that are in the earlier years of their Ph.D., can work on finding ways to direct their research in an AI safety relevant direction. The organization Effective Thesis offers coaching if you are interested in working on AI safety as a research field. If you are unfamiliar with the field, resources in the Getting Started section can help. Getting some experience by working at AI safety labs can also be valuable.
More local opportunities to work in fields relevant to AI safety might come up as time goes on; currently the SPriNT-AI Lab at MBZUAI does some work in related fields. Moreover, research internships at top tech companies internationally might also be a good idea.
Getting a Ph.D. in the UAE:
While UAE universities are not yet as established in AI research in terms of output when compared to top universities that have existed for longer, there are some local options worth considering:
- MBZUAI: The Mohammad Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is a newly established university focusing solely on artificial intelligence, with faculty from across the globe. They offer fully-funded Masters and Ph.D. programs in fields such as Computer Vision, Machine Learning, and Natural Language Processing.
- NYUAD Global Ph.D. program: This program requires one year of coursework at NYU’s New York campus, and the remaining years working under a mentor on the Abu Dhabi campus. Students receive a New York University degree upon graduation.
A list of other local universities offering a Ph.D. program can be found here. Note that it is unlikely there will be chances to directly work on AI safety in these universities, but there can be opportunities to work on tangentially relevant fields. For example:
- SPriNT-AI Lab at MBZUAI: This lab focuses on research topics such as robustness, fairness and bias, and explainable machine learning algorithms. AI safety researchers also often work on these problems and they are relevant to AI safety.
- SMART Lab at NYUAD: The SMART Lab tackles research areas such as human-machine interaction and the prediction of human characteristics. They are also interested in bias detection and prevention in intelligent machines.
- Data Science and AI Lab at NYUAD: The Data Science and AI Lab is interested in modeling, simulating, and analyzing social phenomena using computational methods. Their research includes work on topics such as AI ethics and human-bot interactions.
In terms of university prestige, ranking, and career opportunities, it is a better idea to get a Ph.D. from a top-ranked international institution if possible. However, rankings are not everything, and for other criteria on which to judge possible Ph.D. programs, refer here. The importance of researching and looking into particular research groups within universities and finding groups one wants to work with should also be mentioned.
Further Research Directions
The present report is limited in its scope as it aimed more towards being a guide towards AI safety for those in the UAE, and only conducted a preliminary analysis of AI safety as a cause area in the UAE:
- Due to rapid innovations, and other factors such as the recent establishment of the AI research university the AI landscape in the UAE is in flux. It will be useful to create a follow-up report looking at, for example, the UAE’s AI implementation and such as the career prospects of those graduating with AI-focused degrees a few years down the line.
- A principled survey of AI researchers in the UAE regarding AI safety research can help better understand the openness towards safety research in the region, both by the government and academia.
- There is also the possibility of receiving government funding for activities such as starting an AI safety-focused research lab. However, this will require research and dialogue with relevant individuals such as those on the UAE AI Council.
The lack of readily available data results in several uncertainties:
- The report discusses the pathway of pursuing an AI degree at the new AI research university - Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI). However, as the university has yet to have its first graduated class of students, it is hard to predict the career/job prospects of studying there.
- While the UAE is pushing an AI first agenda, and reports predict a significant chunk of the country’s GDP to be coming from AI-related activity in the near future, it is hard to find concrete data regarding the presence of AI jobs and opportunities in the region today.
I would like to thank Professors Martin Takáč, Farah Emad Shamout, and Hanan Salam for their input and support for the project. I also thank Alexandrina Dimova, Koki Ajiri, Joao Bosco de Lucena, Matthew Varona, and Reem Hazim for their feedback on the drafts of this document. I would also like to thank Brian Tan for his guidance, whose local priorities research for EA Philippines inspired this project. Any thoughts or opinions expressed in this report are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the aforementioned individuals.