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A group of smart, young Bahraini women are determined to carve a niche for themselves and leave a mark in the rapidly growing field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Alaa Ali Jasim, Sara Meshari Alotaibi, Shaikha Sulaiman Buhaimed and Shaima Shawqi Almeer are the forerunners of a new herd of digital natives who are poised to define the AI landscape, an area that is predominantly led by men.
In a study conducted by the World Economic Forum and LinkedIn, it was found that only 22 per cent of the world’s AI professionals are female, a gender gap that hasn’t changed much in recent years.
AI is teaching machines and computers to think like humans through machine learning. Renowned global AI and deep learning expert Andrew Ng has called AI the new electricity, and believes it will soon power most of our activities in society and business, drastically changing the way we work and live.
The innovative projects of these women offer an idea of how AI can be used for humanity’s benefit and boost Bahrain’s image on the technological front.
Take, for example, the ‘Interactive Manipulator Arm’ built by Alaa and her colleagues. The 21-year-old, a graduate in Electronics Engineering from University of Bahrain (UoB), sees such devices significantly changing the way work is done in the industrial sector.
The use of advanced and autonomous robots in the industry is widespread. They have not only remarkably improved production, but have over the years increased in their learning, precision and intelligence abilities.
Alaa says their aim was to create an automated manipulator arm that’s capable of multitasking without being “exhausted and bored”.
She said: “The automated arm can perform several tasks, such as counting items, removing defective pieces, picking and placing items, and implementing chemical operations. And it does this by processing images and executing voice commands.”
An advantage the interactive manipulator arm serves is increasing the number of manufactured goods (with accuracy) on production lines while decreasing the number of defective products. Additionally, on the humane side, workload on workers is decreased and working conditions can be made safer, especially in hazardous situations, where robots instead of humans can be deployed.
For Alaa and her team, who were supervised by UoB assistant professor Dr Mohammed Majid Al Khalidy, the motivation behind the project was the use of technology to make life easier and convenient.
It all began when she started reading about the history of robotics and how they developed over time. The focus then came down to manipulator arms and their classification based on application, degree of freedom, kinematic structure and movement.
To build her project, Alaa had to source parts from different places. Some were designed by the group in 3D Max, some taken from old machines and others were ordered online.
Like challenges in any project, Alaa and her team faced their fair share. The main challenge, she says, is illumination of the surrounding.
“Since we are using image processing, changing the lighting of the place will affect the detection of the colour and shape of the object,” she explained.
Another major constraint for the students was the shortage of time and pressure of studies. Alaa’s project won first place and Best Project Award at UoB’s senior projects exhibition. She wishes her project could be turned into an investment.
Alaa says Bahraini women in the emerging technological fields face inequality, lack of support, guidance and discrimination and would love to see authorities support them financially as well as morally.
She is also not content with how educational institutes are promoting new technologies, and suggests they should add related courses to raise the awareness and interest of students in this field.
For Sara, 24, a graduate of Electrical Engineering from UoB, her interest in AI developed through her professors and self-studying of the topic.
Her project, which is up for patent, gives a voice to the hearing impaired and empowers them to communicate with the world. Calling it the ‘Speech Translator for ASL Glove’, the electronic glove can convert American Sign Language (ASL) into speech.
“We built the glove by sewing electronic sensors into it and programming these sensors so that they can detect hand gestures,” said Sara, who was supervised by Dr Mohamed Fnaiech, an assistant professor at UoB. “We used three kinds of sensors, some of which were acquired locally and others were ordered online.”
The project offered her another advantage as well. To be able to programme the glove and use it effectively, Sara had to learn ASL alphabet.
Sara believes Bahraini women are competent in facing any challenge but regrets they are underestimated.
She says support for those who are interested in new technologies should start right from a young age, and schools and universities should offer courses to inspire students.
The youngest of the digital bunch, Shaikha, 17, has graduated from Shaikha Hessa Girls School and is on her way to the British University of Bahrain.
Shaikha developed an interest in AI after taking an IGCSE’s Information and Communications Technology course and carrying a detailed research into the ethics of AI during her IB Theory of Knowledge course. It was then that she decided to create something related to AI for the INJAZ Company Programme. She was encouraged by school counselor Rima Baghdadi and Thawra AlDhaen from INJAZ Bahrain.
“My concept – The Knowledge Hunt – is an educational app linked to a board game through QR technology and which assesses different types of user intelligence,” she said. “It puts emphasis on self-learning and developing necessary soft skills. The areas of application are education, gaming, and emotional intelligence.”
The project was designed entirely by her and then outsourced to different companies for production. The app was built in collaboration with AK IT Company and the board game by another media company.
Shaikha has won multiple awards and recognitions for her project including first place in the INJAZ Bahrain Young Entrepreneurship Competition and first place in INJAZ Kuwait Young Entrepreneurship Competition where she was also offered to sell her idea.
She has also been invited to pitch in New York in addition to being nominated to participate in the Youth Solutions competition in the UAE.
Like Alaa and Sara, Shaikha too complains of the stereotyping that men are better in technological fields, and the lack of sufficient opportunities for women. To address this, she stresses intensive internships and courses for women, empowering them by supporting their projects, and demanding gender balance.
To women, she tells them to boldly explore technological fields and never be afraid as everything can be learnt. “It is also important to believe that not only men are capable and you can do it too,” she said. “Keep in mind that technology is changing rapidly and hence continuous learning, motivation, and innovation is what you need to keep on shining.”
In Shaikha’s view, Bahrain lacks centres for individuals to find tools, learn and work with AI. She added: “Bahrain is a bit late in implementing technology and there is a need to support and attract tech projects and investments like creating tech exhibitions and making more tech mentors available.”
Shaima’s story is also one of resilience and determination. It was rejection that catapulted her into the world of AI and robotics.
The 23-year-old proudly flaunts the title of the ‘first robotics programmer in Bahrain’.
“I was never a fan of code,” Shaima explained. “In fact, I enjoyed working around cables, routers, and switches inside freezing server rooms. I had big dreams of gaining different certifications in networking, penetration testing, and cyber security until one day I was refused entry into a server room of a company simply because I was a girl.”
That was a turning point for Shaima. It was then she decided to change this stereotypical perspective and embarked on the robotics project even though she had no knowledge in the field of AI and robotics.
Shaima had just three months to self-educate herself in the said fields to help change the general opinion about women in technology.
Her formal education includes a bachelor’s degree in Information and Communication Technology from Bahrain Polytechnic, with double majors in Network Engineering and Management Information Systems. Additionally, she has also studied Computer Programming and Database Systems.
In her last semester at Bahrain Polytechnic for her final graduation project, she trained at Bahrain Islamic Bank (BiSB) and was tasked with programming their robot.
Named BisB AI-Agent, the robot acts as a customer service agent. It meets and greets walk-in customers, provides them with the latest services and offers, tutorials on how to complete certain tasks, and asks them to rate their experience.
Shaima says the concept behind the project is to employ the latest technologies for possible solutions to ease tasks undertaken by customers in any industry.
However, her journey was fraught with countless challenges, starting with the lack of resources and dearth of people to refer to regarding humanoid robotics programming. She, therefore, had to communicate with experts outside Bahrain.
She attributes her success mainly to her supervisors Ali Shahbaz and Abdulsalam Alasaadi, but also to an all-round support from Bahrain Polytechnic and BisB.
Shaima has received several recognitions for her project, including Role Model for Women in Technology by the Supreme Council for Women; first robotics programmer at the E-Payments and Online Banking Summit; and Bahraini Female Pioneer in Technology.
She was also given a chance to showcase her project at the Google Startup Grind held at the Emerson Dhahran Techno Valley. To her delight, there she met many women who were interested in technology and robotics.
Three major companies have contacted Shaima for investing in her project.
About women in technology, she says things have quite changed in Bahrain in the last few years. The government and the Supreme Council for Women have been trying to empower women through technology and engineering.
Shaima wants to tell Bahraini women to follow their passion and dreams at whatever cost, “because you have no idea how satisfying that is”.
Shaima calls upon the authorities to introduce STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education into curriculum. This, she says, will aid in exposing students to explore STEM-related concepts at a young age, thus developing a passion through it for the emerging technologies. At the higher education level, she wished curriculum could be changed every three months to keep pace with rapid chancing technology.
After her robotics project, Shaima worked on another assignment, called the ‘Smart Mirror’. The device displays information on the surface such as time, weather, news, etc.
But she is not stopping there. In the next five years, Shaima aims to launch her own startup, and continue in excelling and creating new viable solutions using the latest technologies, to become the first leading women in technology.
All four girls and a few others were recently awarded certificates for Excellence in AI Innovation by the Artificial Intelligence Society Bahrain.
The society is led by Dr Jassim Haji, its president and himself an IT expert and veteran. Throughout his 34-year career, he has held many high posts including Director of IT in Gulf Air, in addition to having worked with multinationals like Electronic Data Systems (EDS), Sabre, and Sprint International.
The AI Society Bahrain was founded in 2018 to promote AI in society and establish Bahrain as a regional hub for AI in the Middle East. Regarding the latter, the Society has somewhat been successful in putting Bahrain on the AI map. Several GCC firms have conducted their regional seminars in Bahrain and awareness is spreading about Bahrain’s capabilities.
Dr Jassim strongly believes in the Bahraini talent in the area of AI and other emerging technologies compared to other countries in the Middle East. However, he laments the dearth of job opportunities due to which many technology graduates opt for to work in unrelated fields.
He stresses the need for further efforts from both private and public sectors in employing more women in the field of technology, especially since the majority of graduates of computer science and IT are females.
Dr Jassim suggests establishing a world-class regional research and development centre in the kingdom to encourage international technology companies (especially from the Silicon Valley) to invest in Bahrain and export their AI programs from here to other Middle Eastern countries.
He also calls for measures at the basic educational level. “There are many countries that teach new technologies at the primary level and I believe we too should bring forward technology and future technologies (such as AI) to earlier stages of education.”
Meanwhile at the higher educational level, although institutes are designing courses in this vital and important field, there is a need to faster revise syllabuses to meet the demand.
His advice to parents is to rethink selection of specialties for their children and understand that traditional jobs in fields of medical, law, accounting, etc are all moving towards AI and robotics.