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UAE university vies for international recognition in AI education and research

Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) was founded in 2019 as part of the national strategy for AI in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with a single campus located in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. The university is another example of how committed the UAE is to using AI as a driving force for future growth and prosperity.  

While MBZUAI is sometimes referred to as the world’s first graduate research university dedicated to AI, there are hundreds of universities around the world with AI programmes that are much further along. A hundred of them show up on EduRank’s recent list of the best universities for AI in the world, which ranks institutions by research performance in AI. That list is topped by Stanford University, followed by University of California – Berkeley. MBZUAI is not even mentioned by EduRank. But then again, who can expect a four-year-old institution to rank high in research on a worldwide scale? 

Similarly, when compared to AI programmes in many other universities around the world, MBZUAI doesn’t have a large student body, but it’s doing reasonably well for a four-year-old school. There are 276 students enrolled, 19% of whom come from the UAE, with the rest coming from more than 40 other countries. Of the 111 graduates the university has produced to date, 90% remain in the UAE and are either working in industry or pursuing further graduate studies. 

While there is some hype around MBZUAI – and it is still a very young institution – the university is beginning to fulfill its mission, which is to develop talent within the UAE and to serve as a think-tank. The university offers executive education and graduate degrees in several programmes, including computer vision, machine learning, natural language processing, and robotics. It has also established itself as a thought leader in the region. 

Ramping up research 

The university designed and built a state-of-the-art campus supercomputing centre (CSCC) optimised for distributed AI computation, which will house a new supercomputer being developed by Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The CSCC will be used not only for fundamental research, but also to help established industrial players and startups. 

MBZUAI has attracted world-class researchers in computer vision, machine learning, and natural language processing, including MBZUAI’s first president, Eric Xing. Before accepting the position, Xing was professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, which comes in third on the EduRank list of best universities for AI. 

Xing is also founding director of the Center for Machine Learning and Health at Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He also worked at other research institutions, as visiting associate professor at Stanford University, and visiting research professor at Facebook. In addition to his work in academia, Xing has made forays into industry as founder, chairman, and chief scientist of Petuum, a platform that provides AI technologies that can be applied to vertical solutions. 

As president of MBZUAI, Xing leads the development of the university’s fundamental research programme, which is already on the right path. As of October, 597 research papers were presented from MBZUAI researchers for the year 2023. Xing also led efforts to establish partnerships with several organisations, including IBM, Carnegie Mellon University, École Polytechnique, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA), and the Abu Dhabi School of Government. 

A role in the larger ecosystem 

MBZUAI partners with other organisations on specific projects, such as developing large language models (LLMs). They worked with Core42, a subsidiary of G42, and US-based Cerebras to develop Jais, the Arabic LLM that was recently released to open source. The partners continue to work on more sophisticated versions of Jais, and Xing believes Jais is one of the foundation models that will provide benefits beyond natural language understanding. 

Another area where MBZUAI has heavily invested is life sciences, which is not surprising, since Xing’s first PhD was in molecular biology and biochemistry from Rutgers University. MBZUAI is working specifically on DNA sequencing and disease prediction, both of which have immediate practical applications. DNA sequencing is used, for example, by the Emirati Genome Programme. And disease prediction algorithms are used, for example, by SEHA to predict heart attacks and other coronary diseases. 

As a recognised expert in AI on the global scale, Xing is frequently asked to comment on the benefits of AI and the role UAE plays in the bigger scheme of things. In a televised interview in April 2023 with CNN’s Becky Anderson, Xing pointed out some of the benefits that might come from the foundation model technology being developed by researchers in the UAE and other places around the world. Three big areas he thinks will be affected are drug design, climate modeling, and energy control. These are domains where he thinks human intelligence is insufficient to handle the complexity. AI systems – specifically foundation models – will be needed to do the heavy lifting 

According to Xing, the UAE is among the few nations to really embrace AI at an early stage. The UAE sees AI as a key force that will help to move away from an energy-driven economy. Xing believes that developing domestic capability to conduct basic R&D is putting the UAE into the game and maybe even boosting the country into a leading position in the global competition. 

In the same interview with CNN (see below), Xing said of MBZUAI: “We are very actively playing our role as a think-tank to help our government officials and stakeholders to understand the implication of AI in terms of the technological nuances behind it – the risks and also the potential. And that’s where we see the university play the best role in influencing the decision makers.”

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