LEAP 2024: A grand celebration of generative AI

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The Middle East’s largest tech event concluded with unprecedented investments which will boost the region’s digital dominance.

The third edition of Saudi Arabia’s most-attended tech event continued to fuel ambitious innovators and their technology-enabled transformation. Building on over $9 billion of deals signed during the 2023 event, LEAP 2024 concluded with record-breaking investments totaling $13.4 billion and generative AI at the center of the attention. Over 1,800 trailblazers from around the world explored transformative innovations across seven laser-focused content tracks at the four-day event at the Riyadh Exhibition and Convention Center.

This year, LEAP focused intensively on Generative Artificial Intelligence (GenAI). In line with this focus, DeepFest returned on a grander scale in conjunction with LEAP and supported by the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA). DeepFest welcomed over 120 companies and showcased government-led AI projects at the forefront of innovation. The wide-ranging events included a leadership conference, specialized track sessions, training workshops, live demonstrations, innovation showcases, start-up pitch sessions, and an exhibition. The exhibition hosted leading global tech companies at the forefront of AI innovation.

The conference witnessed significant investment announcements centered around AI, e-sports and gaming. Amazon Web Services put in a $5.3 billion investment to establish a high-capacity cloud zone while IBM announced a $250 million investment in a software development center. ServiceNow also dropped a $500 million investment to launch its first data hub in the region.

The National Development Fund, in collaboration with the Social Development Bank, launched two venture investment funds in the gaming and e-sports sectors, with a total value of $120 million in collaboration with Mirak Financial and Impact Financial (Impact46) further bolstering Saudi Arabia’s digital infrastructure and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The far-reaching economic impact of Leap 2024 goes beyond direct investments. It is estimated that the event has infused around $500 million into the local economy, uplifting various sectors, from aviation to hospitality, with hotel occupancy rates in Riyadh surging to 99 percent.

Meanwhile, one of the most exciting highlights at LEAP is the annual Rocket Fuel Startup Pitch Competition, with a total prize pool of $1 million. The third edition of the competition was powered by Saudi Arabia’s National Technology Development Programme (NTDP) in collaboration with the Kingdom’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) and the Misk Foundation. This year’s Rocket Fuel Startup Pitch Competition saw four expert judges presenting awards across six categories with entrants selected from 90 international startups. American start-up Reme-D Inc. walked away with a prize fund of $250,000 after winning the coveted LEAP Award.

Building new businesses at a turbulent time

Focus on the opportunities brought forward by challenges, and don’t stop investing.

leap 2024 ai

Can Kendi, Senior Partner at McKinsey

The rise of disruptive technologies has reshaped the landscape for new business building. As consumer needs evolve alongside shifting tech trends, business leaders around the world are finding themselves in a turbulent environment. Can Kendi, senior partner at McKinsey points out that challenges bring opportunities. “So don’t stop investing,” he says.

Shared at LEAP 2024, McKinsey’s new annual New Business Building report shed light on the core factors leaders should look at as they navigate this new landscape. New business building refers to the creation of new revenue streams through new products, services, or businesses that require new capabilities and has become a critical priority for business leaders. “[Our report] found that 67 percent of the businesses are topping up the game if they make new business building one of the top three priorities on their agenda,” says Sonia Wedrychowicz, partner at McKinsey.

leap 2024 ai

Sonia Wedrychowicz, Partner at McKinsey

According to the report, over 50 percent of CEOs already consider business building one of their top three priorities. They have good reason to do so because the firm also expects that business building alone will  help generate 30 percent of revenues by 2028.

Speaking at a keynote at LEAP 2024, Kendi and Wedrychowicz highlighted the key factors in successful business building. Discipline stands out as a key factor in building efficient and sustainable businesses. “Digital business building hates chaos,” speaking to WIRED, Wedrychowicz points out that, “It loves process and discipline.” McKinsey’s report found that businesses with formal mechanisms are 2.4 times more successful at new business building compared to those without. Experience is another key factor. The report defines an experienced expert builder as a business that launches three or more new businesses per year. Efficiency also plays a key role in successful business building. Around 40 percent of business builders are more likely to close an underperforming business than maintain it, the report says.

Elaborating on the three key factors, Kendi says that it’s crucial to keep fresh blood in the business building team. “Do not try to create a new business with the same old management team,” he advises. “The new business should come with a new and agile mindset with more freedom.” Wedrychowicz adds that business builders should not neglect the importance of partnership on the technical side of business building. “Don’t build it in-house if you can buy it,” she says. According to both Wedrychowicz and Kendi, building a product in-house, while feasible, is deemed to slow down the entire business building process due to structural issues that will inevitably occur along the way.

McKinsey’s report also examined the areas that business builders are looking at. Data, analytics, and AI remain the most anticipated types of new businesses. The report also hints that 45 percent believe the advancement of Generative Artificial Intelligence (Gen AI) could increase their organization’s investment in new business building over the next five years. 

Combining digital and physical

How do we bring the metaverse to its world-changing potential?

leap 2024 ai

Dr. Christina Yan Zhang, CEO of The Metaverse Institute

The metaverse, the tech darling of 2022 more recently spurned in favor of AI, still holds a great deal of promise. Yet its quick rise to prominence brought questions for the public (what is the metaverse? Is it the same as the company Meta?), and for experts (how do we make sure hardware and software are on the same level?) alike.

Dr. Christina Yan Zhang of the Metaverse Institute looks at the biggest questions – how do we leverage metaverse to solve global challenges? Zhang has been at the forefront of researching applications of the metaverse and related technologies for over 15 years. The metaverse, in her eyes, is a convergence of new technologies including virtual reality, digital twins and the internet, “coming together to form the next generation of the internet, which is more immersive, interactive and intuitive.”

Zhang highlighted some of her early work using platforms like Second Life to develop international education strategies. She also explored using digital twins to simulate and optimize construction, engineering and architecture projects. “This issue is, like any frontier technology, when you are a little bit too early like me, people don’t always understand what you’re talking about.”

Reflecting on the shift in interest from metaverse to AI, Zhang sees it as a positive. “Instead of saying that generative AI killed the metaverse, generative AI has become the most powerful building block of the metaverse.” She predicts that the next mainstream use for AI will be text to 3D objects, avatars and environments –a boon to metaverse developers which would make the field far more accessible, allowing for unprecedented participation in building out virtual worlds.

Yet the metaverse shouldn’t be purely virtual, she asserts. It should be tied to the physical world using sensors and digital twins. Digital twins, a 3D, digital version of physical objects or locations, use sensors in the real world to transmit data and information digitally. Zhang says the future of the metaverse could include human digital twins.

One challenge she notes is the all-aboard mentality of both people and companies in the face of new technology – rather than questioning the best use for new technologies, it becomes applied in its most rudimentary form, often not reaping any rewards other than the completion of corporate box-ticking. “The challenge is, how do you identify the most effective use case of such frontier technology in a relatively short time?”

Zhang co-chairs a UN task group exploring how technologies can support smart, inclusive cities. Through the Metaverse Institute, she also advises organizations on identifying effective use cases that provide real-world benefits. Some focus areas include using digital twins at various scales from individuals to entire countries and planets.

Ensuring no one is left behind in the digital transformation is a major priority. Over a billion people lack reliable electricity access and billions more are not online. Zhang discussed how technologies may help address global digital divides and bring opportunities to underserved communities.

Public-private partnerships will be crucial to make progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. By championing collaborative approaches and using tech for good, emerging technologies can be harnessed to benefit all of humanity according to Zhang.

The future looks promising yet there is still much work to be done to bring this technology to its true potential.

Transforming business with generative AI

Ali Hosseini, Chief Technology Officer at PwC Middle East

Providing clarity on AI’s impact on workforce and business efficiencies is crucial amid the AI revolution.

Artificial intelligence was the hot topic at this year’s LEAP. PwC Middle East, a key player in the Middle East’s ongoing technological transformation, has set its sights on a particularly compelling frontier: Transforming businesses with generative AI (GenAI).

With the technology evolving at lightning speed and players in every industry trying to get in on the act, the AI space is getting crowded and somewhat chaotic, according to Ali Hosseini, Chief Technology Officer at PwC Middle East. Establishing its first AI Centre of Excellence in the city of Riyadh aimed at upskilling and scaling the AI capabilities of Saudi engineers and researchers, PwC believes that providing clarity on AI’s impact on the workforce and business to its clients is the key to maximizing the potential of AI.

“The way I see the impact of AI is two-dimensional,” says Hosseini, “One dimension is the workforce transformation, and the other is AI automation.” AI tools like ChatGPT and Microsoft’s Copilot have significantly increased the efficiency of employees across different industries by freeing them from some of the drudgery of office work, according to Hosseini. However, transforming the entire workforce with AI is not as easy as it sounds. Getting staff to understand what to adopt and how to adopt AI, requires both the understanding of the technology and the domain knowledge, he says. The current state of AI allows for the democratization of knowledge, which empowers individuals, regardless of their technical background, to engage with and leverage the power of these intelligent machines. “I think, first of all, no one is an expert in GenAI. No matter what anyone tells you,” says Moussa Beidas, Partner and Ideation Lead at PwC Middle East. “Every single second, every minute you open up your browser, you open up your phone, there’s something new,” he declares. “So everyone is learning at the same pace, which I think is a fantastic democratizer.”

“The opportunities are massive,” says Beidas when referring to AI’s capability. “Every day people are finding new use cases of how GenAI can impact industries and people’s lives.” Highlighting the future potential of AI automation in financial services, Hosseini shares that “[To automate actions like] account opening, mortgage application, or insurance risk assessment, you would need a technology that combines the knowledge and the actionable solutions,” he says. He points out that this is an evolution of AI from knowledge augmentation to action-oriented automation.

“When it comes to Gen AI, we want to make sure that we build capability at every level,” Hosseini adds. PwC’s long-term investment in AI and its deep, industry-specific knowledge allow it to combine technology and know-how to create customized solutions for its clients.

Positioning itself at the forefront of technological innovation, PwC is determined to remain a leading force in this exciting journey. As it embraces GenAI’s revolutionary potential, it also aims to be the force of change for the region’s future alongside this transformative technology.

Understanding AI

Seth Dobrin, formerly IBM’s first-ever Chief AI Officer, discusses the future of AI.

Seth Dobrin, CEO of Qantm AI

Amidst the hum of innovation and the buzz of anticipation at LEAP 2024, CEO of Qantm AI Seth Dobrin, shared his perspective on the evolving landscape of artificial intelligence and its profound implications for humanity.

Dobrin’s upcoming book, AI IQ for a Human-Focused Future, stands as a testament to his dedication to demystifying AI and its transformative potential. “Over more than decade, I’ve been transforming companies through AI and data,” Dobrin explains. “Tying business strategy to technology and human outcomes.”

When it comes to AI’s impact on human society. Dobrin emphasizes the imperative of fostering a value-based AI future, one that transcends technological advancement to prioritize human well-being and equity. “AI impacts humans,” Dobrin asserts, “and when designing and implementing AI, we must consider its impact on individuals across diverse contexts and cultures. And so the companies need to understand that humans are using it, and others are impacted by it. And when they’re designing and implementing the AI, they need to consider that. And they also need to consider the location of the person, you know, kind of where that person lives. Because there’s different biases that exist in different parts of the world. There’s different moral and ethical constructs. And we can’t inflict Western ethos on the rest of the world,” he says.

Taking it a step further, Dobrin offered up his take on a wide range of biases and how we have to be very careful in creating a more equitable system, “And so what you need to think about is, okay, where do we control things like bias? Now, I think globally, we can agree that gender bias is the thing, and we want to control gender bias. Outside of gender bias, there are different constructs of bias around the world. So in the West, we look at black, brown, we look at race, we’ll get ethnicity, we look at religion. And so while if you’re considering western values baked into and regulated into pre-trained models, you’re ignoring other biases, other bias constructs and inflicting your own on those parts of the world. And you’re essentially in a new type of colonialism. It’s technological colonialism on south of the equator. And so we’re expanding the digital divide. And through these new gender of AI tools, or pre-trained models, we’re going to be expanding the digital divide if we don’t be more inclusive, include these people in the training and development of these models, and even looking in the Middle East.”

Finally, Dobrin shared his aspirations for the future of AI. He spoke passionately about empowering organizations to embrace AI strategies grounded in human-centric values, particularly in regions like the Middle East where technological innovation intersects with societal transformation. “It’s about enabling organizations to chart a course aligned with their broader vision,” Dobrin affirms, underscoring the pivotal role of AI in shaping our collective future.

Merging humanity and technology

How do we leverage technology, while respecting the human condition?

Yonah Welker, Public technologist

At LEAP 2024, Yonah Welker, a serial technologist, and a proponent of cross-cultural collaboration, shared his insights on the symbiotic relationship between technology and humanity, “Two years ago we started the global movement of AI for Humanity. And the main idea behind this movement was that no matter what type of algorithm or system I would love to build, we’d have people and humanity behind it, and it’s why it affects the data, the historical context behind it. The potential biases, positive or negative outcomes,” he says.

Welker’s journey traverses the divide between the western and eastern hemispheres, embodying the essence of a technology ambassador, “My personal focus is algorithms which focus on cognitive, sensory and physical spectrum such as AI for dyslexia, cognitive impairments, autism, medical technologist education, and on one hand, I oversee portfolios in technology transfer in this field on behalf of the government on behalf of my personal projects. Also, I work on policies to better understand how to adopt these technologies.” His mission? To infuse every algorithm and system with the essence of human experience, transcending mere lines of code.

The idea is that it is the worker, the everyday man or woman who will be using AI technologies is better informed, and so Welker works with UNESCO and governments to foster AI education, “I work on policies to better understand how to adopt these technologies. It was not only the system, but the classroom, the teacher or nurse who will use these technologies provide better understanding of literacy in capacities,” he says.

“I still believe that when we work together, then we respect the diversity behind the teams. We can create not only the human centered systems for hospitals, schools, workplaces, but actually solve bigger social challenges for more collaborative cooperation. at national and regional level. That’s my message,” he says.

In navigating the complexities of international collaboration, Welker confronts multifaceted challenges. He acknowledges the nuanced intersectionalities within data, emphasizing the imperative of gender-specific studies and the recognition of historically marginalized communities, “AI is just two lines of code. Everything that happens, whether positive or negative, is actually about society. An algorithm is just a reflection of society. For instance, when we build AI for autism, we discover cognitive impairments unique for girls. We need to conduct gender-specific studies to better understand the data in this area. For years, medical studies primarily focused on men, excluding women and disregarding intersectionality. When discussing cognitive spectrums, we often overlook comorbidities or underlying conditions, as well as how some specific conditions are unique to certain ethnicities, geographical locations, or communities that were historically excluded from access to hospitals and classrooms,” Welker says.

“Two years ago, when I first visited Riyadh and worked on the global AI Summit, the idea of human capacity was at the forefront. Two years ago, the Saudis signed the agreement and declaration of AI ethics with UNESCO. Now, through the Center of AI Ethics and Research here in Riyadh, we can see how it comes in parallel, not only with the EU and AI and digital services, but also actively working with our counterparts globally. We all agree that we should balance the facilitation of technology and the protection of people, because humanity is always behind the system,” he says.

A YouTuber and an AI interviewer

The rise of deepfakes and AI-generated avatars is a cause for concern.

Aaron Jones, co-founder of Yepic AI

At this year’s DeepFest, curious crowds saw Kwebbelkop, one of the world’s biggest gaming YouTubers, getting interviewed by his own AI avatar.

With the recent increase in deepfakes and AI-generated avatars on our social media feeds and messaging threads, Aaron Jones, co-founder of Yepic AI, was keen to stress that “it’s about the realism, to reach beyond novelty, to have an emotive connection, or to offer an experience that either excites and delights.”

Jones was discussing the endless possibilities for, and the inspiration behind, creating and being turned into an AI avatar. Yepic AI had just completed a remarkable project – The creation of an AI interviewer that would talk with YouTube sensation Jordi van den Bussche, aka Kwebbelkop, “[It] came together in a remarkably fast timeframe—literally days. As a company that specializes in this type of technology, we just needed one photo and less than two minutes of Jordan’s voice to create the clone.”

The mind-bending interview between van den Bussche, and a digital avatar based on his YouTube persona, Kwebbelkop, touched on the differences in gamers across the world and whether van den Bussche would like to clone his loved ones.  “It’s fascinating to see how certain jokes or video games can be popular in one region but not in another. These cultural nuances definitely make the gaming and streaming landscape diverse and unique across different locations,” says van den Bussche. With regards to cloning a loved one, he agrees that it is “a little bit interesting and strange. But it can help people who have social anxiety or who are very lonely, even those with dementia,” battle with their dwindling grasp on their memory.

Creating an avatar from scratch is not a cakewalk, despite the assumption that it is just “custom promptings and instructions” typed into an AI model. The backend heavy task “is literally millions and millions of frames of people talking in hundreds of languages that create huge datasets that are trained over a long period of time to give us a foundation model that enables us to generate videos like this on the fly in real-time with very little GPU,” says Jones.

Jones even alluded to the possibility that “every single customer-facing knowledge job will be replaced by an avatar,” stating that the most obvious and logistically viable use cases of these AI avatars would be in “customer service and airport kiosks.” As the “smartest video model in the world,” Yepic AI works tirelessly to ensure that “people can access the world through AI avatars without giving over their data sovereignty,” according to Jones. That’s a good thing, considering how widely he anticipates AI avatars to be used.

Yepic AI intends to launch their system, Jordi 2.0, on mainstream platforms soon after its inauguration on the LEAP main stage. The updated avatar is “dynamic and even more lifelike, trained on just a few minutes of video that also works in real-time. Running on an RT x 4080, which requires very little computation, Jones adds that the demo they are “working on right now will run on the new iPhone. So it’s really an exciting time to be at the cutting edge of the new UI.”

Overall, Yepic AI’s goal is simple: to bring APIs (that support 84 percent of the world’s internet) to LLMs in a personified way to create deeper connections.   

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The original article is published here LEAP 2024: A grand celebration of generative AI | WIRED Middle East

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