Beirut’s AI com­mu­nity gets en­tre­pre­neur­ial

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Theresa Her­zog

BEIRUT: Self-driv­ing cars, per­fect trans­la­tions and mu­sic rec­om­men­da­tions that hit the spot ev­ery time.

For some, these are but dis­tant dreams, but for a group of tech en­thu­si­asts look­ing to bring ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to Le­banon, it’s a near­ing re­al­ity.

“Even­tu­ally, in the fu­ture, we can see AI ex­tend to dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries, and we can see AI au­tomat­ing a lot of tasks that we do,” says Christophe Zoghbi, co-founder of Beirut AI, a lo­cal group of AI en­thu­si­asts.

But first things first. “The AI tech­nol­ogy we are work­ing with is Nar­row AI, which can do one or two tasks bet­ter than hu­mans,” Zoghbi told a crowd of 40 or so peo­ple at a re­cent AI startup com­pe­ti­tion.

Na­dine Sar­raf, one of the or­ga­niz­ers of the 52-hour TechS­tars Startup Week­end AI edi­tion, a com­pe­ti­tion held last week­end in Beirut, says she be­came in­ter­ested in AI through her fi­nal year project at An­to­nine Univer­sity. Sar­raf is a mem­ber of both Beirut AI and Women in AI, a group of ex­perts and self-trained women who want to close the gen­der gap in the field. She says she sees a grow­ing in­ter­est in AI and en­trepreneur­ship.

“In fact, in the past two years, a lot of new AI star­tups here in Le­banon were cre­ated,” she says.

Aug­men­tal, a com­pany aim­ing to im­prove the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and aug­mented re­al­ity, is one of them.

An­other Le­banese AI startup is NAR, which tries to in­te­grate drones in var­i­ous in­dus­tries.

But there’s plenty of room for more, says Azhar Sid­diqui, an­other of the com­pe­ti­tion’s or­ga­niz­ers.

“Look, where we are, we need more en­trepreneurs, we need an en­hanced aware­ness of en­trepreneur­ship, and so we need to in­spire peo­ple to come and par­tic­i­pate,” Sid­diqui says.

The TechS­tars Startup Week­end AI looks to push peo­ple to be more col­lab­o­ra­tive, cre­ative, and to take ac­tion to em­power their ecosys­tem in AI, he says. “It re­quires an ap­proach that in­cludes var­i­ous fields, de­vel­op­ers, as well as ex­perts in busi­ness, tech­nol­ogy and arts,” Sid­diqui says.

The chal­lenges don’t stop there. “So some peo­ple like to take [AI] in a nega­tive way and worry about au­tom­a­ti­za­tion and the tak­ing over of jobs,” Zoghbi says. “But they fail to men­tion that ba­si­cally when­ever jobs are au­to­mated, new jobs are cre­ated as well, so when AI au­to­mates some tasks it also cre­ates the op­por­tu­nity for us to learn to ap­ply [AI].”

“I would like to say that by rein­vent­ing our­selves and by learn­ing new skills, we can work with AI in­stead of be­ing afraid of it, and this can have a pos­i­tive im­pact on us and the fu­ture,” he adds.

That pos­i­tiv­ity was borne out in the re­sults of the com­pe­ti­tion. The first prize went to Tummy, a plat­form for pre­dict­ing, pre­vent­ing and treat­ing Chronic Ob­struc­tive Pul­monary Dis­ease pa­tients. Fi+, which al­lows cell­phone users to switch be­tween mo­bile data providers based on cov­er­age and price, won sec­ond prize. And Drone­liv­erz, a drone de­liv­ery ser­vice, took third.

Not quite self-driv­ing cars, but it’s on the way.

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