‘Artificial Intelligence’ Capacity Building Takes Root in Indian Ocean

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has announced plans to set up the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) at Abu Dhabi. It will be the world’s first graduate-level, research-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) university and will ‘drive excellence in knowledge creation, transfer and use AI to foster economic growth’. It aims to contribute to economic growth and social development, as also generate AI-related jobs globally. The MBZUAI will begin its teaching programme later this year in September and will support students from across the globe to learn and develop expertise in the field of AI.

In a significant development, students from Republic of Seychelles have been invited to join the university. The President of Seychelles acknowledged that his country would benefit from the programme and the trained human resource would help the country to achieve national objectives. This initiative by the UAE can also be seen as a good example of ‘capacity building’, a ‘mantra’ that resonates among the littoral countries across the Indian Ocean.

Seychelles is a small island nation with a population of around 95,000 people, has an area of 455 square kilometers, and a large Exclusive Economic Zone of 1,336,559 square kilometers. It is a leader among the Indian Ocean countries in the development of Blue Economy and has been spearheading efforts to raise global awareness on ocean conservation. In 2019, in a speech delivered from inside a submersible under the Indian Ocean, President Danny Faure, referred to oceans as the “beating blue heart of our planet,” but cautioned “When we destroy oceans, we destroy humanity”. In fact Indian Ocean island states have a history of using the underwater domain to convey their concerns; in 2009, President Nasheed of Maldives and his cabinet ministers held a meeting underwater to raise awareness of the impact of climate change and sea level rise on island states.

At another level, a technological transformation is currently underway and a number of Fourth Industrial Technologies (4IR) technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) , Augmented Reality (AR) / Virtual Reality (VR), Machine Learning (ML), Big Data, Blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), Robot, Drones, 3D and 4D printing, etc. are being used in the maritime domain. AI enabled unmanned ships, 5G connected autonomous port operations, Blockchain managed cargoes, complex algorithms to optimise route choices, and digital twinning of ships and platforms for upending efficiency and managing technical risks are already under in operation or active consideration.

As far as Blue Economy is concerned, Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is the key. There is an ever increasing anthropogenic impact on coastal and marine areas and it is important to manage the conflicting objectives of conservation and resource development. The situation becomes serious due to uncontrolled growth of population in coastal areas, indiscriminate industrial infrastructure development with deficient pollution control, which results in tensions among coastal communities and industrial/commercial operations. These can potentially threaten national development plans and economic prosperity. Under these circumstances, a robust MSP is a prudent choice and helps sustainable policies for coastal area development, marine habitat protection and conservation, as also restoration of the ecosystem.

The MSP has a number of critical components and include spatial data collection, data management, data analysis, and decision support systems. There are a number of technologies and systems such as remote sensing satellites, sea based sensors and other unmanned systems and devices to monitor biological and chemical changes in the seas and oceans; but these are not necessarily real time and preclude immediate response. AI and Big Data are therefore important technological tools for dynamic spatial and temporal management of sea spaces to enable scientific observations and monitoring of sea spaces in real-time. However, there are constraints too such as lack of culture of data sharing with neighbours or other international stakeholders. At another level, 4IR technologies require new skill sets which call for significant changes in human skill sets to be adept in 4IR technologies.

There is now strong evidence of IORA member States willingly providing material support as also share expertise in a number of operationally sensitive areas. For instance, the UAE supported the Seychelles Coast Guard and supplied patrol boats to counter piracy. Likewise, India not only supplied patrol boats and surveillance aircraft to the Seychelles Coast Guard, it also set up coastal radar stations in a number of Indian Ocean island countries and littoral states to augment respective Maritime Domain Awareness.

The UAE-Seychelles ‘AI capacity building initiative’ could be the foundation for the augmentation of Blue Economy which is also one of the IORA priority areas. The UAE assumed the Chairship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in November 2019 for two years till 2021. As Chair of the IORA, the UAE has an excellent opportunity to help and support the development of Blue Economy in the Indian Ocean and the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence would be a useful choice to take the lead.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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