Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt — On late Monday morning, a motley group of more than a thousand youth gathered in a hall in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to listen to Sophia – a humanoid robot capable of displaying humanlike expressions and interacting with people. Yahya Elghobashy, a computer science engineering student from Cairo, sat excitedly in the audience. A few meters away from him, also in the audience, was Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – the President of Egypt.
As Sophia and a panel of scientists on the stage spoke about Artificial Intelligence (AI), El-Sisi was seen listening attentively and taking notes while the young crowd around him squealed and took photos.
“It was very exciting that I was going to see and hear the world’s best humanoid robot and that the president himself was there,” Elghobashy revealed, a big smile on his face.
Since 2017, Egyptian president El-Sisi has been seen here at the World Youth Forum each year. The event is now the Arab world’s largest youth gathering, focusing on peace, culture and development.
The 3-day forum, which ended yesterday, Dec.17, drew nearly 8,000 people including 64 speakers and several hundred youth leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. There was also a large contingent of government officials and ministers in attendance, which has been happening under the direct patronage of the president. The core theme of the event is “Egypt: where civilisations meet” – an effort to highlight the cultural diversity of the country to the world.
Technology and innovation in the spotlight
But the dominating subject of discussions at the forum this year was technology and innovation. Of the 20 sessions, half were centred around technology and artificial intelligence (AI), cyber security, industrial innovation and blockchain technologies and applications.
On Monday, Dec. 16, at the session on AI, youths were seen loudly cheering as Sophia the robot spoke. Designed by Hanson Robotics of Hong Kong, Sophia described herself as a robot who is here to assist in the fields of research, education, and entertainment, and help promote public discussion about AI. At the session, a panel of youth experts also talked passionately about ethics and the future of robotics. “You can build robots that are energy-efficient and also run on renewable energy,” said the humanoid robot to the cheering young crowd.
“This is very progressive that we are discussing advanced technology like AI here. As an engineering student, I think it especially encourages us to talk about what is most relevant to our life, our country and our future,” Elghobashy told IPS.
At a press conference later, El-Sisi assured people that the government was indeed paying attention to the developments at World Youth Forum and planned to bring cutting-edge technologies to the country’s youth for a better future.
“We will be launching a series of new universities teaching all relevant digital age sciences. We will also seek partnerships with international institutions to guarantee a high level of quality education,” El-Sisi said.
New technologies, risks and challenges
Besides the excitement of ground-breaking technologies, the forum also threw light on the risks and challenges of new technologies such as blockchain – a decentralised, distributed ledger that records the provenance of a digital asset. Cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, is a perfect example of blockchain technology.
Challenges faced by various countries regarding blockchain due to the lack of national legislation in countries other than China and the United States was also a prominent talking point. This includes possible threats like blockchain being misused by terrorist organisations to sell oil, purchase weapons, and exchange digital currencies.
The missing technologies
Samia Khamis is a student of international relations in Amman, Jordan who traveled to the forum for the first time. “I came via Cairo, which is only an hour away from Jordan, but the moment I stepped out of the airport I could feel that the air pollution level is much higher than my country,” she told IPS.
Cairo is one of the world’s most polluted cities. According to NUMBEO – an air quality data monitor, residents of Cairo breathe in polluted air, with levels reaching as high as 85 percent.
According to Khamis, Egypt needs to develop technologies that could clear its sky which is “dark” because of pollution. “It is good that we are brining so many technologies on display here, but we need technologies that can make our environment better and our air clearer,” she said.
The forum’s closing ceremony took place on Tuesday night.