Expert Insights and Practical Applications from NextTech Summit 2024

The NextTech Summit 2024 focused on practical applications of advanced AI, its transformative potential and highlighted the importance of safety and collaboration in leading with emerging technologies.

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NextTech probes how combining emerging technologies can unlock real value for businesses and economies.
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  • [Image source: Krishna Prasad/MITSMR Middle East]

    The Middle East region stands poised at the forefront of technological innovation and adaptation, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia leading the way. Embracing this digital evolution requires a holistic approach that places equal emphasis on people processes, especially with the profound implications of emerging technologies like generative AI.

    From unraveling the mysteries of AI’s black box to navigating the intricate balance between innovation and regulation, the NextTech Summit 2024, organized by MIT SMR Middle East, brought together prominent leaders, industry experts, and visionaries to discuss the multifaceted challenges and opportunities.

    AI Black Box 

    Neil Thompson, Director of the FutureTech Project at MIT’s Computer Science and AI Lab, addressed the paradoxical nature of AI investments in his opening keynote, Understanding the AI Black Box. According to Thompson, AI unpredictability is superficial. He argues that beneath the surface, AI developments follow deep regularities that, when understood, can significantly enhance decision-making for businesses, governments, and societies.

    “AI does not have to be completely unpredictable. It can be predictable, and if we understand it, we can harness it in a way that will be right for each of our organizations,” Thompson added.

    Advanced AI: Insights and Practical Applications

    In a session on advanced AI solutions, Abdallah Abu-Sheikh, founder of Astra Tech and CEO of Botim, shared his vision for the future, which is where localized action models will transform customer interactions and operational efficiency in the fintech and eCommerce sectors.

    “Localized action models will take precedence in the next few years. The higher the data quality , the higher the model quality you get,” Abu-Sheikh said. “In the next 2-3 years, platforms are going to look very different. They will become fully conversational as opposed to click-based platforms. They will become fully natural language processing platforms instead of graphical user interface platforms.”

    Taking the conversation forward on large language models (LLMs) in enterprise-scale applications, Albert Phelps, Director of Research & Development at, offered insights into their capabilities and limitations. 

    “Firstly, do not think of LLMs as stochastic parrots, or superhuman reasoners,” Phelps said. “LLMs are simulators. So when we build enterprise-grade applications with LLMs, we’re trying to get the model to simulate a helpful, accurate, trustworthy assistant.”

    Experts underscored the transformative potential of generative AI in various industries during the Exploring GenAI’s Potential in Your Enterprise panel. From Coca-Cola’s “phygital journey” to insights on decision-making and strategic investments, it is evident that AI’s integration into business processes must be thoughtful and purposeful.

    “It’s beyond physical and digital,” Adrian Cernautan, General Manager for Digital Transformation in Turkey, Central Asia, and the Middle East at Coca-Cola, said. Two years ago, Coca-Cola embarked on a journey to build AI capabilities, and it has achieved significant progress since then. Initially, the company explored various AI tools and applications, eventually focusing on supply chain benefits, superior consumer engagement, and enhanced customer engagement.

    Sukwoong Choi, Assistant Professor at the University at Albany, SUNY, shared insights from his research on AI’s impact on human decision-making. He noted that while AI improves decision-making across all expertise levels, the marginal benefit is significantly higher for junior or less experienced individuals. Choi’s study also revealed that the adoption and effective use of AI-generated solutions are more prevalent among top-level experts, indicating a disparity in how AI knowledge is utilized across different expertise levels.

    Michael Ibbitson, Chief Technology Officer at Diriyah Company, Saudi Arabia, provided a pragmatic perspective on AI investments and cautioned against adopting AI simply because it is the latest trend. He stressed the importance of assessing the value proposition of AI initiatives. “Just like any technology investment, you have to look at what problem you are solving.”

    Safety, Collaboration, and Continuous Learning

    The panel Charting Middle East’s Path to Technological Leadership highlighted the region’s methodical and safety-first approach to innovation. Mohammed Yousef Al Mudharreb, CEO – Corporate Technology Support Sector at Roads and Transportation Authority, UAE, described the importance of test benches and sandboxes in introducing new technologies like flying taxis and autonomous vehicles.

    “We look at the entire value chain before we introduce anything new. When it comes to a completely new mode of transport like the flying taxi and the autonomous vehicle, the scale is even bigger because this is something that we lack experience in. The entire world lacks experience. The entire world is adapting to those new technologies,” he explained.

    Dr. Bushra Alblooshi, Advisor to the Chief Executive at Dubai Electronic Security Center, echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of human safety over mere cybersecurity. “We are taking it at a gradual pace. It’s a sandbox approach, so it’s a sandbox in the city. We are testing the risks around it, and now we are talking about the risks from a safety perspective, not a disruption perspective. It’s about human safety.”

    During the Leadership in the Digitalized World, experts agreed that effective digital leadership extends beyond technological adoption. 

    Bhavya Kumar, MD & Partner, BCG, UAE, emphasized the importance of readiness to embrace change across various dimensions—economic, technological, and organizational. 

    Shirish Bhide, CEO, United Arab Bank, UAE focused on the necessity of continuous learning and adaptation. He remarked, “Sometimes you’ve got to unlearn and then learn new skills as changes occur in our environment .” 

    Badr Hubais, MD – Innovation & Technology, Beeah, UAE shared the company’s innovative approach to integrating AI and modernizing fundamental technologies like enterprise resource planning (ERP). “We are looking at creating task forces across organizational barriers to gain different perspectives,” he explained. 

    He also stressed the significance of collaboration, noting that Beeah’s keystone projects, such as their headquarters and waste-to-energy initiatives, have achieved greater success through partnerships. 

    Integration, Regulation, and Strategic Foresight

    Faisal Hamady, Managing Director and Partner at BCG in the UAE, emphasized the inevitable transformation of all businesses into tech companies. As digital capabilities become foundational to business operations, companies must cultivate a culture and talent that seamlessly integrates with technological advancements.

    “In the future, there will be limited businesses which will call a business that is digital. Every company will be a tech company,” Hamady asserted. “If you’re not building the right capabilities, if you’re not having the right culture and talent that can work hand in hand with machines in a bionic setup, then you’d be left behind.”

    Foresight is not about predicting the future; it’s about minimizing surprises by building scenarios for government priority sectors. For instance, the UAE established the Ministry of Possibilities, which was tasked with exploring and understanding future impacts on the country. In 2017, the UAE made headlines by appointing the world’s first Minister of Artificial Intelligence. Many questioned this move, but as H.E. Mohammad Hassan, Executive Director of the Statistics & Data Science Sector at the UAE’s Federal Competitiveness & Statistics Centre, reflects, “Today, in 2024, we can see the tangible impact of AI. The UAE has developed AI ethics and policies, and has seen widespread adoption of AI across multiple sectors. The outcomes of these initiatives are now evident.”

    During the summit, panelists also shared their experiences and insights, shedding light on the bright and dark sides of AI evolution while exploring pathways to lead with AI rather than being led by it.

    Paul Potgieter, Director of Technology, Product & Platforms at Neom, Saudi Arabia, highlighted the importance of trust in data: “Challenges bring opportunities. For us, building trust in data is crucial. In a cognitive city, we must ensure that people and entities interacting with us trust that their data is used to provide positive outcomes.”

    The sentiment was echoed by Ali Abdulla Al Sadadi, Chief of Information Technology at Bahrain’s Ministry of Oil. He warned against premature regulation: “If you regulate too early, you may stifle development. Assigning rules and responsibilities prematurely can harm the development and realization of AI technologies and their use cases.”

    JP Bhamu, Chief Data & Analytics Officer at Gems Education, emphasized AI’s potential to foster a more equitable society: “AI can play a significant role in creating a more equitable society by facilitating continuous upskilling. The government, in partnership with the private sector, can drive these initiatives.”

    Experts also delved into the complexities surrounding the regulation of AI and how crafting regulations in isolation presents a formidable challenge for governments worldwide.

    Lori Baker, VP of Data Protection & Regulatory Compliance at DIFC, UAE, emphasized fostering innovation while ensuring “privacy by design”. “We absolutely have to protect the interests of the users and stakeholders of AI,” she added.

    “Bankers are paid to be more compliant than innovative,” quipped Ali Imran, Chief Operating Officer of the Commercial Bank of Dubai, UAE. He stressed the significance of digital trust in fostering innovation while acknowledging the disruptive potential of emerging players in the fintech and paytech spaces.

    Steve Plimsoll, an AI expert from Saudi Arabia pointed out the need for standardization and harmonization of regulations across borders, citing initiatives within the G20 and Gulf countries aimed at streamlining data and AI regulations. Simplification, he argued, is key to facilitating the seamless integration of AI technologies across diverse regulatory landscapes.

    Beyond AI

    The summit also explored the transformative potential of emerging technologies such as Web3, the Metaverse, and Digital Twins. Nadine Mezher, Co-Founder of Sarwa, UAE, underscored end-users’ empowerment  through technologies like blockchain, emphasizing the potential for enhancing customer experiences.

    Aristeides Douvaras, Senior Data Scientist at Aramco, Saudi Arabia, emphasized the importance of aligning technological advancements with real business needs and identifying intersections between business requirements and technological solutions to address existing challenges effectively.

    Talal Tabaa, Co-Founder & CEO of CoinMENA, UAE, offered insights into the disruptive potential of cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin. Tabaa highlighted Bitcoin’s track record as a store of value and its potential to reshape wealth preservation outside traditional financial systems. “In the coming 20 years, crypto is also going to prove that it is the best way to preserve your wealth outside the existing financial system,” he added. 

    The rapid convergence of technology, business, and society defines the era. At the NextTech Summit, foresight and effective governance emerged as indispensable pillars for shaping a sustainable and inclusive digital society. 

    Boston Consulting Group (BCG) was the Knowledge Partner and AstraTech was the Gold Sponsor for the summit. 




    NextTech probes how combining emerging technologies can unlock real value for businesses and economies.
    More in this series

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