Governments Embrace AI: Transforming Public Services And Regulations

February 18, 2024


This article first appeared in February’s print edition of Business Monthly.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is quickly becoming an indispensable tool powering (and changing) how governments work and offer services. “The transformative potential of AI is undeniable, with governments worldwide acknowledging its impact,” said Oxford Insights’ Government AI Readiness Index 2023 report published in December. “Governments are not only working to regulate AI and foster AI innovation, but also striving to integrate this technology into public services.”

Egypt is a regional AI trailblazer, founding the National Council for Artificial Intelligence in November 2019 and publishing its AI strategy in July 2021. Phase two should start in May and end in May 2027.

Yet, despite describing the country as the “North African outliner [and] securing a position in the top 10 in MENA,” the 2023 report’s ranking shows that Egypt still needs to do a lot to fully benefit from AI.

Egypt’s AI readiness

Egypt was ranked 62nd out of 121 nations globally and eighth out of 19 in MENA. It was No. 1 among North African countries.

The report highlighted two standout local developments. The first was the introduction of the Egyptian Charter for Responsible AI (ECRAI) 2023 v1.0 in May.

The charter document, which is updated annually, says it draws upon guidelines developed by the OECD, UNESCO, World Health Organization (WHO), IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), EU and from Singapore, the U.K., United States, Australia and other advanced economies. ECRAI “signals Egypt’s readiness to follow responsible AI practices, something many investors [and] AI ranking bodies consider.”

The second development highlighted by the Oxford Insights report was Egypt’s plan to build a hyperscale data center, which would host cloud services, in cooperation with UAE data center developer Khazana. It would involve a “substantial” investment of $250 million. The government announced the deal in May.

In Khazana’s press release announcing the project, Hossam Heiba, President of the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI), said: “This [project is] in line with Egypt’s plan to localize information technology and data centers, especially given the significant development witnessed by the technological infrastructure sector in Egypt.”

Preparing for competition

The Oxford report said, “Half of the AI strategies … published or announced [last year] came from low- and middle-income countries,” similar to Egypt. The list includes Rwanda, Tajikistan, Senegal, Benin, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. Those nations will invariably seek foreign investors and funding to build their domestic AI capabilities in competition with Egypt.

To create an attractive investment environment, according to the Oxford Insights report, governments should not just promote and fuel investments and adoption of AI but “have a strategic vision of how it develops and governs AI, supported by appropriate regulation and attention to ethical risks.”

The report also noted the importance of a “strong internal digital capacity, including the skills and practices that support its adaptability in the face of new technologies.”

That means emerging markets like Egypt need to invest heavily in data generation and digital infrastructure as they “are critical enablers for AI readiness … essential for fostering equitable and inclusive advancements.”

Since early last year, technologies that generate bespoke content by “learning” from existing data (generative AI) have increased the need for more expansive data sets and increasingly advanced digital infrastructure.

“Extensive data volume [is] for training models, refining algorithms, and mitigating bias, among other crucial aspects,” said the Oxford report. Meanwhile, having a “robust infrastructure foundation is essential to facilitate the operability and scale of AI tools, as well as to guarantee equitable and safe access to them.”

“Without a solid base of data and infrastructure,” it said, “countries may find it challenging to develop domestic generative AI capabilities, potentially leading to reliance on foreign technology.”

Data and infrastructure also help governments “avoid bias and error,” according to the report. That requires digital infrastructure to cope with ever-increasing amounts of data generated by continuous “learning” and use of AI-powered tools.

Additionally, vast amounts of data and capable digital infrastructure could tackle “major risks like privacy protection, labor displacement and misinformation,” the Oxford Insights report said. “It’s important not to underestimate the effects of the existing global digital gap.”

AI tools

A thriving and mature domestic ICT sector is a prerequisite for implementing and integrating AI technologies. The Government AI Readiness Index report said any “government depends on a good supply of AI tools from the technology sector,” which needs to be mature enough to supply them.”

That requires the ICT sector to be innovative, “underpinned by a business environment that supports entrepreneurship and a good flow of R&D spending.”

Using locally developed AI-powered tools is essential. “If a country’s domestic tech sector is too immature or lacking … governments may be forced to turn to foreign companies,” the report said. “This both stings the growth of the domestic tech sector and can have even more dire consequences for AI-enabled public services, which may be improperly trained on foreign data not representative or relevant to a country’s context.”

In 2024, Egypt can accelerate the advancement of its AI sector by increasing cooperation with its fellow members of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and five other emerging nations). “China, Brazil and India all rank near the top in number of AI unicorns (startups valued at more than $1 billion),” the report said. Also, Brazil, Russia, India, and China are “represented in the top 20 for AI research papers … and quality of engineering and technology higher education.”

One AI world?

Countries have sought “increased international collaboration on AI, especially … governance and ethics,” the Oxford Insights report said. “A robust global governance framework for AI is essential to equitably distribute the benefits of this technology and effectively address and mitigate its risks.”

Emerging economies developing their AI ethics and regulations can benefit from the work of advanced nations. November saw the release of proposed ways to govern AI, including the G7’s International Guiding Principles for Advanced AI Systems and the Bletchley Declaration that emerged from the U.K. AI Safety Summit. Earlier regulatory frameworks include the OECD’s 2019 AI Principles, UNESCO’s 2021 Recommendations on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and the EU’s draft AI Act.

Since 2023, low and middle-income nations in the Global South have been looking to develop bespoke AI regulations not influenced by what wealthy economies are doing. “We are seeing AI governance developments beyond [advanced nations in] the Global North, in part because of support from cooperation agencies and development banks,” said the report. Those agencies include Germany’s GIZ, the World Economic Forum, UNESCO and the AU-EU Digital Development Hub.

The report singled out UNESCO’s work with countries lacking AI strategies to develop regulatory guardrails for using foreign-developed AI-powered tools. “This [is] a reversal of the process we have seen across other countries, and it has the potential to significantly change how countries approach AI in government.”