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By Dr. Amr Talaat

Food shortage, global warming, water scarcity, inequality of access to education and digital skills, are but a few of many major challenges facing humanity today as they have for decades. At the same time, we have experienced unprecedented technological advancements in the past century, only equaled by the growth in entrepreneurship and value created through innovative startups.

Yet, there is an astonishing disconnect between those two facts. The amount of effort and funding dedicated to addressing the world’s toughest challenges is miniscule compared to that devoted to creating new social media platforms or food delivery apps. That is perhaps unsurprising given investors’ appetite for a fast and exponential return on their investment. The business case for technology-driven solutions in developmental sectors such as agriculture or education is still difficult to make, and many startups are deterred by the regulatory hurdles they face when deploying their solutions at a profitable scale. This is perhaps most evident when looking at AI startups. Although AI has found its way quickly and efficiently into industries such as marketing, sports, retail, logistics and finance, it continues to lag behind in most of the vital developmental sectors mentioned above. Even for large companies, the opportunity cost of investing in a developmental sector over, say, advertising or retail solutions is just too high.

And this is where the importance of public-private partnerships comes in. Governments exist to serve their people, and the most basic function of government, even in the most capitalist of societies, is to offer the right resources and incentives to grow areas of most need. However, governments often lack the technical expertise and ability to innovate found in the private sector. Putting those two together is the only effective formula to enable AI to be deployed where it is most needed; to help humanity survive and thrive.

In Egypt, we have embarked since last year on developing our national AI strategy. Its two main pillars consist of finding ways to use AI to address the country’s most important challenges in agriculture, healthcare, water, manufacturing and infrastructure; and of building the human and institutional capacity required to get us there. One of the earliest fruits of our labor is the project showcased this year at the Paris Peace Forum, and which embodies the true spirit of PPP we firmly believe AI needs in order to become a real catalyst for development. We have teamed up with Microsoft and ESRI to develop an innovative solution to the significant waste of water in agriculture, using the latest in Computer Vision and Machine Learning technologies. The pilot was generously funded by an “AI for Earth” grant from Microsoft, and we are now embarking on the full-scale implementation across the country. We are also speaking to our African brothers and sisters to explore rolling it out in various parts of the continent. This is where we believe the true value of AI lies, and this is where most of our focus and resources will be going in the years to come.

Too often, we criticize social media and ad-driven businesses for interfering too much in our lives and distracting us from what’s important. What we are forgetting is that the decision of where to deploy our resources still rests with us. It is up to us, as governments, international organizations, civil societies, and yes, also the private sector, to do the right thing, and to prove that technology is far more of a blessing than it is a curse. Let us all revisit our priorities and come together to address our common challenges, one tiny solution at a time.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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Dr. Amr Talaat, Egypt’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology

With over 30 years of solid experience in the IT and telecom industry, implementing working strategies for the provision of innovative digital technologies, Talaat was tasked with a chief mission to lead Egypt’s Digital Transformation Initiative, 2020.

Talaat is confident of what immersive technologies can offer to serve as a strong arm to empower vital sectors of the economy and realize the Sustainable Development Strategy: Egypt Vision 2030.

Talaat’s endeavor aims to oversee the implementation of several strategic projects, that include developing and securing the country’s IT & telecom infrastructure, creating a generation of professionals specialized in advanced digital technologies, spurring innovation and improving government performance and quality of services offered to the citizen-as a main objective of the government’s digital transformation mega program.

A strong believer in the power of youth as active participants in the socio-economic development of the nation, Talaat led a number of digitally-based empowerment initiatives to engage professionals to support such belief. Throughout his career, Talaat succeeded in materializing exceptional investments, merges and acquisitions to attract and nurture Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the country and create the value-add.

Under his leadership, before joining the Government of Egypt, Talaat spearheaded IBM Egypt’s expansion plans, ensuring the creation of unique job opportunities and the establishment of centers of excellence to export digital services. Throughout his career at IBM Egypt, he held various leadership roles till he headed the firm.

Talaat was an Adjunct Professor at Cairo University with teaching experience in marketing and sales strategies and tactics, organizational behavior and strategic management. He was an honorary member at the ICT Board at Cairo University, member of the ICT Board of the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, and the Chairman of ICT Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce.

Talaat earned his Doctor of Business Administration from the University of Paris — Paris School of Business and obtained a Master of Science in Computer Science from Illinois Institute of Technology, and holds an MBA from Paris ESLSCA Business School, France. He is a graduate of Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering.

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