Amazon’s Rafid Fatani on Artificial Intelligence: Abu Dhabi Congress Interview

In News by Porter Anderson

The debate around AI comes to the Abu Dhabi Congress on Publishing and Creative Industries with Amazon Alexa’s ‘Dr. Raf’ onstage.

Rafid Fatani, regional general manager with Amaon Alexa, MENA. Image: Amazon

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also: 
Edutainment Entrepreneur Luma Al Adnani: Abu Dhabi Congress Interview
Screenwriter and Author Ahmed Mourad: Abu Dhabi Congress Interview

The Artificial Intelligence Debate
We’re glad to bring you another of our interviews here in a series of conversations ahead of Sunday’s and Monday’s (May 21 and 22) Abu Dhabi International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries, the second season for this extensive conference program.

Today (May 17), we hear from Rafid Fatani. Known to many as “Dr. Raf,” he oversees Amazon’s Alexa programs and strategies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

And he’s scheduled to appear in Sunday’s 30-minute debate in the congress on one of the hottest topics of the day, a session called “AI and the Future of Publishing: Risks or Rewards?” He’ll be discussing the issues with the author and former CBO of Google X, Mo Gawdat.

Fatani has more than 15 years of experience in international tech firms, having previously been Amazon’s head of public policy in the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey for its retail and cloud businesses.

He was part of the core Amazon team that worked on the 2017 acquisition of Souq, which had been launched in Dubai in 2005 and at the time it was acquired for a reported US$580 million was said to be the largest such e-commerce platform in the Arab world. In 2019, Souq would become known as Amazon.ae.

Prior to Amazon and AWS, Fatani held various consultancy roles, working with Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Dell, and other tech, telecom, and satellite firms, and his background also includes work with the United Nations’ Internet Government Forum in Geneva. Fatani was part of an advisory committee to the board of ICANN, the body responsible for coordinating the technical management of the Internet. “Dr. Raf” has taught politics at the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter, at which he took his multidisciplinary PhD on global Internet policy challenges and associated stakeholder stances. He has an MA in international affairs and a BS in Internet engineering.

‘Expanding Our Understanding of What’s Possible’

In our exchange with him—this report has been written within “earshot” of four Alexa-enabled devices, each answering to a different “wake word”—we’ve started by asking Fatani for his assessment of just where things stand with the “artificial intelligence” dynamic that was popularized by the arrival of OpenAI’s  ChatGPT.

“AI is advancing at a fast pace,” Fatani tells Publishing Perspectives, “with ‘generative AI’ and machine learning expanding our understanding of what’s possible, particularly in natural language processing. As AI adoption and investment continue to grow, the public is becoming more aware of how these technologies can positively impact our lives.”

Fatani points to PWC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers) estimates that the potential impact of artificial intelligence in the Middle East could reach some US$320 billion by 2030, and could account at that point for as much as 13.6 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ gross domestic product.

Artificial intelligence is a complex field that requires significant knowledge to understand fully. The general public is only beginning to get a glimpse.Rafid Fatani, Amazon

The largest gains, according to the report, might be seen in Saudi Arabia, at estimated levels of US$135.2 billion. Analysts also point to what may become a torrid rate of annual growth in the AI sector, reaching between 20- and 34-percent levels across the region–fastest in the UAE, followed by Riyadh.

“At Amazon,” Fatani says, “our voice AI platform, Amazon Alexa, embodies our continuous efforts to push the boundaries of AI technology, and make AI accessible to everyone, and we’re thrilled to be a part of this transformational journey toward new approaches to solving complex problems, especially those related to language barriers.

“We have a saying at Amazon which is ‘Every day is Day One,’ and this drives us to continuously leverage Alexa’s advanced AI technology to better understand our customers and deliver personalized experiences.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide people with an optimal smart home experience that’s effortless and seamlessly integrated.”

Indeed, since the congress is focused both on publishing and many “nearby” creative industries, it’s worth noting that many users of Echo devices in world markets have the Alexa AI play audiobooks and even read their Kindle ebooks to them. 

‘An Authentically Khaleeji Personality for Alexa’

The Echo Show is one of the cloud-powered devices from Amazon, with Alexa able to speak Khaleeji and Modern Standard Arabic, while being able to speak Khaleeji or English. Image: Amazon.ae

Of course, one of the most interesting elements of where we are today in market awareness and comprehension of AI’s potentials and issues. 

“Artificial intelligence,” Fatani says, “is complex field that requires significant knowledge to understand fully. This complexity means that the general public is only beginning to get a glimpse into the world of AI, and this is what makes this period so exciting.

We added a layer of hyper-localized voice to the AI by creating an authentically Khaleeji personality for Alexa, one that recognizes local customs and traditions and delivers personalized experiences.Rafid Fatani, Amazon

In 2022, Amazon announced and rolled out our 20B LLM Teacher model,” he says, that term LLM referring to a large language model. “It garnered significant attention from the research community for its efficiency and SOTA results,” the acronym SOTA standing for state of the art.

“AI is expected to, and will continue to, significantly impact people’s lives in the next three to five years,” he says, “with the renewed public and developer interest in existing AI tools such as ‘generative AI,'” which refers to a model that can take “learned” knowledge and create something new from it.

“Amazon has experienced AI’s potential through Alexa’s success in the Middle East,” he says, “where it has become a reliable companion for customers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE within one year, providing localized experiences in ‘smart home,’ entertainment, gaming, and more.

“Our investment didn’t stop at the AI,” Fatani says. “We also added a layer of hyper-localized voice to the AI by creating an authentically Khaleeji personality for Alexa, one that recognizes local customs and traditions and delivers personalized experiences. Amazon aims to demonstrate how AI can make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable.

“AI has the potential to revolutionize various industries, such as healthcare, finance, and transportation, by automating tasks, analyzing data, and providing personalized experiences. To ensure we maximize AI’s societal benefits, it’s essential to promote understanding and awareness of AI capabilities and limitations.”

‘We’re Committed to Promoting Privacy’

As many Publishing Perspectives readers know, amid all the promise and excitement, there are also concerns about artificial intelligence systems operating in largely unregulated environments, raising controversy around issues that Ryan Heath and Ashley Gold at Axios this week have listed, relative to Tuesday’s (May 16) congressional hearings in the United States:

  • Election misinformation [and/or disinformation], and impersonation of public and private figures
  • Job disruption and economic displacement
  • Weaknesses in non-English languages, including Spanish
  • Copyright and licensing problems
  • Dangerous and harmful content
“APolicymakers, AI developers, and customers must collaborate to foster responsible AI and promote transparent authorship.”Rafid Fatani, Amazon

Eyebrows were raised when Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, which released ChatGPT, told a US Senate Judiciary Committee that the industry needs regulation in the form of “a new agency that licenses any effort above a certain threshold of capabilities.” 

And Fatani notes that the deployment and management of AI operations requires real care, something he says Amazon takes very seriously.

“It’s worth noting that generative AI increasingly produces content that appears human-like or human-produced,” he tells Publishing Perspectives, “compelling us all to revisit our evaluation of trustworthy information. Policymakers, AI developers, and customers must collaborate to foster responsible AI and promote transparent authorship. By building AI systems that prioritize privacy, trust, and responsible usage, we can amplify the potential benefits and opportunities AI advancements.

“At Amazon for instance,” he says, “the privacy and security of our customers’ personal information is of utmost importance. Alexa and Echo devices are designed with multiple layers of privacy protection, including microphone and camera controls, and the ability to view and delete voice recordings. We think this is imperative to building responsibly.

“We’re very transparent in using customer information responsibly to enhance our products and services,” he says, “and we take steps to secure and protect their data. Alexa’s ability to understand diverse speech patterns, accents, and dialects helps build a more inclusive product, and customers can manage their privacy settings through the Alexa app or Alexa privacy hub.

“We are committed to promoting privacy,” Rafid Fatani says, “and providing our customers with the necessary tools and resources to protect their personal information.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, and more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here. More from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here. More on translation is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here, and more on Amazon is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. Our extended coverage of ADIBF 2022 is supported by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.