Jad Hajj, partner, and Wissam Abdel Samad, principal, Christian Stechel, senior manager, Gustave Cordahi, senior associate, with Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network
GCC countries are slowly easing their Covid-19 lockdowns while living with the threat of a resumption in infections. The aim is to restore some semblance of normality, and find the right balance between public health and economic sustainability. Already, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have issued guidelines for businesses to reopen once they have complied with protocols such as limits on operating hours, disabling of any touch screens, mandatory temperature checks and face masks. Technology will be crucial for governments as they seek to get people back to work while safeguarding their health. In particular, artificial intelligence (AI) can play a major role by helping to limit the spread of infection and boost the efficiency of embattled organisations.
There are three ways in which AI can help the region get back on its feet:
First, AI can help governments limit the spread of infection as people start to move around more. Traffic authorities can use AI along with speed radars to identify which vehicles have movement permits or belong to people working within vital sectors. Dubai police have tested this technique during the strict lockdown period, issuing fines for people breaching curfews without a valid reason. On the public transport system, AI and machine learning could help to identify communicable diseases, screen the temperature of passengers, and provide transit operators across different modes of transport with real-time information. This would allow operators to identify risks, implement additional cleaning protocols, and reduce or stop the relevant service.
AI can also measure and monitor the occupancy of people in stores and restaurants and alert public health authorities to excessive crowds in public areas. They can achieve this by feeding images from existing government and commercial CCTV cameras into a centralised AI platform. Similarly, AI can help individuals discover their potential exposure to the virus. Bahrain has tested such a system through an application called “BeAware” that uses location data to inform individuals if they approach someone currently infected with Covid-19.
Second, AI can build on the lessons learned from Covid-19 to alert governments to the next pandemic. Indeed, BlueDot, an AI company which uses machine learning to monitor outbreaks of infectious diseases around the world, told institutions about an unusual spike in pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China before the World Health Organisation confirmed the outbreak. Similarly, AI can further help analyse data collected throughout the various phases of the Covid-19 pandemic around the world. It can offer insights on the effectiveness of control measures, predict healthcare capacity, and help decision making.
Third, AI can offer commercial benefits for organisations as they attempt to achieve sustained operational efficiency under the current pressing circumstances. It can assist in answering queries, enhancing reporting speed and accuracy, and identifying and resolving operational bottlenecks. For example, call centres can use chatbots to compensate for the lack of staff during extended lockdowns. Meanwhile, supermarket chains such as Saudi Arabia’s Danube Online have been using AI-enabled “aisle-mapping” technology. By using a mobile application, packers can locate items from an online customer’s order in a store.
If AI is to have maximum impact, however, governments must put in place the requisite supporting technology, regulation, and governance. These will enable large-scale adoption in response to the pandemic and promote broader economic transformation in the future.
Governments need to ensure that the supporting technology for AI is adequate, including development of standards for interoperability and technology integration, cloud infrastructure, connectivity and the establishment of centralised platforms for data management. These pillars will allow large datasets from various sources to be collected and managed in a robust manner, and thereby facilitate accurate conclusions and effective solutions.
In terms of regulation, governments need to protect data privacy, data classification, anonymisation, purpose, and time limitation on data retention. These issues must be addressed from the outset, as they allay significant concerns relating to human rights. They will also boost uptake from the population, especially for voluntary tracing apps on personal smartphones.
Governments also need robust governance for AI. This means clear direction on data ownership, on the split of roles and responsibilities between relevant entities, and on funding and collaboration models between government and the private sector. Strong and clear governance would ensure the viability and sustainability of AI-enabled systems as they become the foundation stones for many vital processes and solutions in our society.
As the region starts to open its doors to business again, governments can ensure that AI plays a role in the recovery and the return to long-term growth.