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Dubai Future Foundation asks the big questions at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

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A fascinating session at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair yesterday revealed that the great possibilities and conundrums facing the world today are being pondered and studied right here in the UAE, as part of the work of the Dubai Future Foundation.

The academy’s work was outlined in a talk called In the Year 2050…, helmed by Saeed Al Gergawi, Director of the Dubai Future Academy, an initiative of the Dubai Future Foundation. The implications of projected growth in artificial intelligence, climate and social change, quantum biotechnology and space exploration are under consideration at the Dubai Future Foundation that is tasked with making enabling the future and working with other government enitites government for action.

Climate change is front and centre on the academy’s agenda. The number of floods quadrupled between 1980 and 2004, global hunger is on the rise for the first time in 10 years, and there is a 95% chance that global temperatures will rise by more than two degrees by 2100, said Al Gergawi.

Culturally, there is still a long way to go for people in the UAE to react faster and more effectively to environmental challenges, he said. If we don’t, some estimates say that the country’s coastline could encroach by up to six or seven kilometres. “The issue is, it comes down to cultural aspects,” he said. “Should I buy the new Nissan to go dune bashing? It’s easy for technology to move forward but people move forward much slower.”

There are many innovations happening in the UAE, with Al Gergawi pointing to work at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture on growing salt-tolerant quinoa. “The research is happening… but it isn’t happening fast enough for it to be deployed into market for use” he said.

Social change and its interaction with technology is another international area the Dubai Future Foundation is studying. That means they are asking questions about the rise of “third-culture kids”, those who grow up in at least four countries.

As far as technological advancements are concerned, they require a thoughtful approach to practical application. For example, said Al Gergawi, the demand for prosthetic limbs – now produced more easily than ever due to the proliferation of 3D printing – is projected to rise by 50% by 2050.

Although humans want to engage and benefit from all this progress and innovation, there are limits to their interest. For example, 64 per cent of adults surveyed in the US said they do not want a brain implant that improves memory, said Al Gergawi.

The Dubai Future Foundation is also pondering mind-bending issues raised by the fields of quantum computing, space exploration and artificial intelligence (AI).

Should AI be in the school curriculum? asked Al Gergawi. What are the implications of the rise in biotech startups, and those focusing on the microscopic level, such as “nano robots that can go in your bloodstream”? How will the growth in nano satellites, to the tune of 2,000 owned by the private sector by 2030, be managed? What will the impact on financial markets be in the pursuit of plans to mine near Earth asteroids for the kind of precious minerals – gold, platinum – that are badly needed but in short supply on earth? These are the topics that Al Gergawi considers on a daily basis, among the mega trends that the foundation is keeping an eye on.

In response to a question from the audience about human relevance down the line, Al Gergawi stressed that the human aspect is always going to be relevant. “I would recommend jobs that are immune to automation and AI,” he said, pointing to the example of nursing as a ‘future-proof’ field. “When we look at that job and what that job caters to, it’s more nurturing than robots are capable of. The human aspect will always be there, it’s just that it will be playing a more collaborative role with machines.”

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