#WeekendRead: AI & Dubai

by Poon King Wang
19 Jan 2020

Dubai’s story is one of economic miracles. It is also a tale of “enough is enough.” 

In 1966, Dubai made its first oil discovery. It was a much-welcomed find: New revenues were needed for a city that had suffered an economic crisis barely three decades before. 

For centuries, pearl fishing and trade had fueled Dubai’s economic engine. In 1590, Venice’s state jeweler described Dubai’s pearls as some of the “best, biggest and most beautiful pearls [that] could be found.”

In 1929, however, pearl demand and prices plunged with the Great Depression. They would never recover, as mass manufactured pearls and regional tariffs dragged them down to new depths over the next two decades.

The discovery of oil thus gave Dubai’s fledgling efforts to diversify its economy a big push. In both the literal and metaphorical sense, there was a small problem. 

The oil reserves found were too little to be a reliable long-term revenue engine. Compared to neighboring Abu Dhabi’s reserves, for example, Dubai’s was 25 times smaller.

In fact, in 1991, 25 years after this first find, Dubai’s daily oil production reached its peak. It has been declining ever since.

This turned out to be fortuitous. In his book “Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization,” Justin Marozzi points out that the small find “proved conversely advantageous.”

“It was enough to get started and had the unexpected benefits of providing too little to rely on. Wealth, in other words, had to be earned elsewhere and required ingenuity.”

That was precisely what Dubai did, as it invested in ports, aviation and tourism, among others. In the years after the find, oil dominated the economy; today, it is less than 2 per cent of Dubai’s economy. 

Just enough was enough for Dubai. It turns out what is true for Dubai is also true in general. When we do not have so much that we become complacent, or so little that we feel hopeless against the odds, we are compelled to be creative.

Moreover, “enough is enough” also guards against excess. Alibaba founder Jack Ma recently told an audience at the University of Tokyo that “too much money [leads to] a lot of mistakes.”

The same goes for work and food too — too much of either is likely to be bad for our health. In many areas of our lives, it seems wise not to have too much. 

Enough is enough is, however, hard to abide by. In human history, more was often better.

When food was hard to come by, it was better to gather and hunt more. With the advent of agriculture, a bountiful harvest was always welcomed.

In recent decades, increasing affluence meant accumulating more money, material goods, and experiences. Enough was never enough.

This has had social, economic and environmental consequences. Societies have become more money-minded and materialistic, undermining the values that hold them together.

Overconsumption by consumers and corporations has led to waste and the degradation of nature and the environment. The pursuit of experiences means the fear of missing out has become a neurosis for many.

More and more also underlie the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence (AI). Ever more data and computing power have given us AI innovations that have outstripped our capacity to foresee their consequences.

That is why we are now grappling with the social, economic and political problems posed by technology addiction, fake news and geopolitical interference.This pursuit of ever more powerful AI might even outstrip our capacity to control it.

Leading AI thinkers have been warning about this since the first generation of AI in the 1960s. For example, Stuart Russell explains in his recently published book “Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control” that the challenge we face with AI is that “we have no reliable way to make sure that [AI’s] objectives are the same as [humans’] objectives.”

How then do we guard against more and more? It will be hard to go against human history, but perhaps we can take a page from the world of design.

Across art, architecture, and increasingly technology, “less is more” has become a guiding philosophy. Designs are simplified to what is necessary and essential; excess and the superfluous are thrown out.

That can be our guiding philosophy too.

In many ways, this is wisdom passed down through the ages. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans have advised that we should strive for “moderation in all things.”

They were really teaching us how to reach for just enough. “Enough is enough” is thus good advice across many spheres of our lives.

But we must not think that there can never be enough of a good thing. We must remember what is often attributed to Oscar Wilde: Everything in moderation, including moderation.