Beirut’s AI community gets entrepreneurial
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.