The real reason why UAE has appointed a minister for artificial intelligence

The second largest economy of the Arab world is quietly switching from oilBSE 1.48 % to Artificial Intelligence. In a world first, the UAE on Thursday appointed a minister of Artificial Intelligence, which is also the first such acknowledgement by the Arab world that these indeed are the technologies that are going to shape economies around us.

Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama, 27, will spearhead UAE’s ambition to be at the forefront of the global technological revolution, which will see see it planning to build homes on the planet Mars by 2117.

The UAE plans to have a fully functioning city of 600,000 people on Mars. “We aspire in the coming century to develop science, technology and our youth’s passion for knowledge,” tweeted Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the country’s vice president and prime minister, when he announced the project — known as “Mars 2117” — earlier this year. “This project is driven by that vision.”

The Emirates, as the country is known, with its ambitious attempt also joins an elite club trying to put people on Mars, which includes the US, China, Russia and a consortium of European nations, not to mention the private effort by Elon Musk and his SpaceX.

That ambition has been enabled by a slipping oil scenario. Energy-rich Gulf Arab nations have scrambled to adjust to the slump in oil prices since 2014. Three years on, their economies are mired in weak growth and largely just as dependent on crude as they ever were.

UAE is investing in companies and infrastructure that could one day mine minerals and water found on the moon and in asteroids. The Gulf state has launched a multi-pronged effort to establish a space industry in which it has invested more than $5 billion, and that includes four satellites already in space and another due to launch in 2018.

The interest in space mining has picked up in recent years as Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and others push outward. Goldman Sachs wrote a recent research note explaining that “space mining could be more realistic than perceived.” The bank in the same report said the storage of water as a fuel could be a “game changer” by creating orbital gas stations.

That possibility, it seems, is beginning to register with the Arab world. In addition to the UAE’s space and AI push, Bloomberg News says that the Saudis signed a pact with Russia in 2015 for cooperation on space exploration. Abu Dhabi is an investor in Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic.

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