Omar Al Olama, world’s first AI minister, says the technology could change the world like the printing press


UAE minister for AI and digital economy Omar al Olama

UAE cabinet official Omar al Olama, the world’s first minister for AI, warns poor regulation of the technology could have grave and lasting implications for society. Leon Neal—POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Governments which over-regulate artificial intelligence are risking grave and lasting consequences, Omar Al Olama—the world’s first minister of AI—has warned.

In fact, the impact could be so dire that it may consign a society to a fate similar to the Ottoman Empire, which lost its place as a beacon of advancement when it refused to adopt the printing press.

Speaking at the Fortune Global Forum in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates cabinet official drew on a cautionary tale from history.

During the Middle Ages, Islam’s caliphate stood at the height of civilization, attracting learned scholars the world over and giving birth to new fields like algebra.

However, in its 1515 repudiation of the printing press the empire rejected math and science—forfeiting its claim as a leading center of culture.

The 1450s invention by Johannes Gutenberg had democratized literacy for the first time—making books affordable through mass production in the West. However in the Middle East, the Ottoman power center in Istanbul saw the device as a threat to the established order.

The UAE minister of AI said the issues policymakers are now facing with regards to AI—be it the impact on job losses, misinformation and fear of social upheaval—are very similar to the problems faced by the empire’s then leader, Sultan Selim I.  

“We over-regulated a technology, which was the printing press,” said Al Olama. “It was adopted everywhere on Earth. The Middle East banned it for 200 years. 

“The calligraphers came to the sultan and said: ‘We’re going to lose our jobs, do something to protect us’—so job loss protection, very similar to AI,” the UAE minister explained. “The religious scholars said people are going to print fake versions of the Quran and corrupt society—misinformation, second reason.”

Lastly Al Olama said it was the fear of the unknown that led to this fateful decision. 

“The top advisors of the sultan said: ‘We actually do not know what this technology is going to do, let us ban it, see what happens to other societies and then reconsider,’” he explained.

Reskill, retool and retire

Instead 33-year-old Al Olama, who was picked in September as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in AI, argued governments had a duty to hold the center ground on the contentious issue.

Policymakers need to ensure their constituents are not sacrificed on the altar of progress by a private sector that must compete to stay in business, he explained.

“What we need to be having is a dialogue about how do you upskill professionals within governments to be able to regulate in the most effective manner to ensure their population is not left behind,” he said.

Al Olama said the UAE’s approach revolves around ‘three Rs’—reskill, retool and retire. 

Those workers whose jobs will be disrupted by AI need to become proficient in a different workforce role that is still needed. 

Others who retain their role will have to be provided with the means to ensure they can fully take advantage of AI to increase their productivity. 

Workers too old to be retrained will be offered the opportunity to retire early. 

“What happens here is that people feel like they have a choice, people feel this is not something dictated on them. This is something they can actually play a part in or [watch] from the sidelines,” he said. “It’s better for us to be proactive rather than reactive.”


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