What will employment look like in this brave new world of AI? More routine functions will cease to be performed by humans, with intelligent machines taking over many of the jobs currently performed by low-paid and under-skilled workers. There is a challenge for the MENA region in this regard. Some countries of the Arabian Gulf, for example, have subsidised employment for their nationals in manual or “routine” sectors, and these are just the kind of jobs that are likely to vanish as AI technologies become more widespread.

In the US, the past decade has seen the number of AI machines employed double across the industrial sector, and there are now two robots for every 1,000 humans working in industrial processes, like car assembly and, according to the World Economic Forum, with the most in technologically sophisticated California. But it will not make sense to replace all these mundane jobs with AI products. Robotics work well in manufacturing processes, but less so in-service industries. A robot can help produce a motor car but is not as good as a human when it comes to stacking a supermarket shelf.

There are big implications too for global economic development. Experts expect the gap to widen between the developed West and the less emerging economies of some parts of Asia, Africa and South America. Global migration patterns will also be affected. Currently migrants come from developing countries to do lower-skilled jobs in places like Europe and North America, but if these jobs are replaced by robot workers, a vital source of aspiration – and remittances – will be reduced and may even disappear. This is when strategy and direction are required for the forthcoming 4IR transformation. Academic institutions focused on the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – will be at a premium, rather than academic certificates. In the Middle East, governments and educational policymakers have been promoting STEM skills, especially for women, in their academic institutions. According to UNESCO, 34-57% of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women, which is much higher than in universities in the US or Europe.

The next generation of quantum machines – which can act millions times faster than today’s computers – will take that to another level. But it is not simply a revolution in technology. It will need new professional skills from data scientists, algorithm writers, mathematicians, and businesspeople to ensure it is managed efficiently. In the MENA region, several countries have made big advances towards smart cities and smart governments and have institutionalised AI in government ministries and academia.

The region has been an early adopter of AI techniques and methods. In Saudi Arabia, the NEOM project – a $500 billion plan to create a hi-tech urban community in the north western desert – is probably the biggest single AI project in the world. The UAE was the first country in the world to appoint a minister responsible for AI affairs. Much of the work on these projects will be done by large global technology companies, but there will inevitably be technology transfer involved, adding to the AI skills of economies in the region; this includes Bahrain, which has a trained and well-educated workforce as part of its young and digitally aware demographic.