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Fears of Job Losses and Resistance to Change Are Main Obstacles to AI, Arab Experts Say

Fears of job losses and resistance to change are the main obstacles to artificial intelligence in Arab universities, Arab experts said in a recent Al-Fanar Media panel discussion.

Mahmoud Mousa, an assistant professor of computer science at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, said he had particularly observed resistance to change among faculty members who did not want to modify their teaching methods and students reluctant to engage in advanced learning.

“With AI, our way of dealing with students will change. We will put before the student a life problem that he may encounter and ask him to develop solutions. … Thus we are dealing with new skills. Perhaps the student has a fear of testing it in unconventional ways.” 

“The reality is that we won’t lose our jobs; rather, we will utilise artificial intelligence as a tool to assist us and enhance the quality of education.”

Mahmoud Mousa, an assistant professor of computer science at Heriot-Watt University Dubai,

Mousa said another obstacle to AI in Arab universities was people’s fear it would take their jobs. “The reality is that we won’t lose our jobs; rather, we will utilise artificial intelligence as a tool to assist us and enhance the quality of education,” he said.

But another panel member, Mohamed Hegazy, a consultant on digital transformation, innovation, and intellectual property legislation, said he was concerned about potential job losses in the workforce, “especially with the introduction of new products, whether goods or services, that are completely different from those currently existing, which places a huge burden on the producers of these goods and services to comply with these new technologies.

“There are already jobs that have been lost over the past few years due to the interference of machines, chatbots, and robots,” Hegazy said.

Mousa and Hegazy spoke on a panel titled “Arab Universities and Artificial Intelligence: Current Questions and Future Challenges”. It also featured Hala Zayed, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering at Egypt University of Informatics. Mohammad El-Hawary, Al-Fanar Media’s editor-in-chief, moderated the panel, which was broadcast on the Al-Fanar Media page on Facebook. You can replay the full session here.

How It’s Used Is What Matters 

Zayed said artificial intelligence, like other advances, could be beneficial when used correctly but become a liability if misapplied. 

“Our curricula should encompass all recent developments in the field of artificial intelligence, and we advocate for students to engage with it, but in a responsible manner,” she said.

She believes that AI techniques and programmes can support Arab scientific research. “We, as Arabs, have a wealth of research that remains unread or unrecognised globally due to limited accessibility,” she said. “Artificial intelligence techniques, particularly in translation, can be highly accurate and widely available in various languages worldwide. These technologies also facilitate the discovery of research published in different languages.”

“There are already jobs that have been lost over the past few years due to the interference of machines, chatbots, and robots.”

Mohamed Hegazy, a consultant on digital transformation, innovation, and intellectual property legislation

“New algorithms and programs offer significant opportunities to improve scientific research and articulate it with precision and professionalism, akin to one’s native language, be it English or another language,” she added.

Technical Challenges 

Mousa said resource limitations posed technical challenges to using artificial intelligence in most Arab universities, and that funding was needed to design AI programmes and support researchers in ensuring their efficient operation.

Mousa explained that AI depends on the transfer, storage, and processing of data, and needs a robust and reliable digital infrastructure.

Zayed highlighted AI programmes’ reliance on deep learning, which requires sufficient databases. She said there were not enough databases for scientific research or for students preparing graduation projects.

“Artificial intelligence will lead to a shift in how students are assessed,” she added. “Exams will move beyond traditional true or false and multiple-choice questions. With the emergence of generative AI, even the process of grading students’ tests will undergo changes, as there are already programmes capable of correcting software test questions.”

Ethical and Legal Challenges

The challenges also include moral dilemmas, Mousa said. “There could be ethical challenges ahead of us because AI primarily deals with data, … including the data of university students and teachers. This raises privacy concerns.”

He added: “AI is simply a tool that aids in performing tasks. The concern arises when this tool makes incorrect decisions. In such cases, questions arise about who is responsible for these decisions, how they are reviewed, and how they are identified and rectified.”

Mousa cautioned against having “unrealistic expectations regarding artificial intelligence, assuming it can handle every task. While AI can accomplish many remarkable things, it requires proper teaching and training to do so effectively.” 

Hegazy said Unesco had established ethical standards for AI applications based on principles of integrity, fairness, and avoiding bias by gender, community, or occupation. He mentioned an earlier human resources application that had unintentionally discriminated against individuals with dark skin because of a design fault.

Zayed said: “We need to educate students about AI ethics. Major universities worldwide have programmes for this, such as the Embedded EthiCS programme at Harvard University, where the last two letters of the word stand for computer science. … Teaching ethics has become an essential component of computer science curricula, whether students are studying programming, algorithms, or hardware.”

“New algorithms and programs offer significant opportunities to improve scientific research and articulate it with precision and professionalism.”

Hala Zayed, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering at Egypt University of Informatics

Hegazy pointed out additional challenges related to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression, and the potential for manipulation of public opinion, such as had occurred during the American elections and the “Arab Spring.”

Intellectual Property Concerns

There is also the complex issue of intellectual property rights in relation to artificial intelligence, he said. “This includes considerations about whether the data inputs used by these applications have been obtained with proper permissions from rights holders, and whether the outcomes generated by these applications infringe on the intellectual property rights of others.”

“There is another dimension: Who has the intellectual property right for the outputs of AI applications, whether texts, images, videos, or music? Does it belong to the developing company or the machine?” Hegazy asked.

Responsibility concerning AI tools, such as when self-driving cars cause accidents, is another issue.

“The same thing applies to robots, and what we saw during the Coronavirus period, when hospitals used robots to deal with patients in intensive care rooms and critical cases, to protect medical staff,” Hegazy said. He wondered who would take criminal and civil liability for robots’ work.

Adapting Curricula

Hegazy said curricula needed to be updated to align with rapid advances in artificial intelligence and data science, starting at the pre-university level.

Zayed, from Egypt University of Informatics, said universities must adapt to change rapidly to benefit their students, “as graduates will be the ones facing these challenges and seeking employment… “This is particularly important, as some industries will thrive while others may fade away.”

Zayed also spoke of the virtual lecture halls and classrooms of the future, and the need to prepare for new forms of blended education. She anticipated “that the entire university landscape will change, and we must be ready for that.”

Advantages for Students

Mousa reminded the panel of some of the advantages of AI. “For example, the My Heriot-Watt platform at our university, supported by AI, guides students through their grades and evaluations. It helps determine the best educational path for each student, providing tailored materials accordingly. This approach allows for curricula that adapt to students’ capabilities and needs.”

Another program evaluates students’ answers to questions and provides recommendations for improvement, essentially acting like a teacher available around the clock.

Mousa highlighted other AI-facilitated applications in universities: “We can design virtual reality laboratories across various specialisations using virtual and augmented reality technologies, or in a gamified format, to conduct experiments and achieve similar educational outcomes. This approach encourages student engagement in the educational process and facilitates experiments at reduced costs.”

The Al-Fanar Media panel discussion series provides insights into the challenges and issues faced by the Arab higher education and scientific research community. It serves as an open platform for discussions among Arab academics, professionals, and researchers, addressing emerging issues within the Arab academic and university landscape, and empowering Arab youth through knowledge exchange and collaboration.

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