Saudi Arabia has unveiled its ambitious mega project called Neom, a high-tech business hub based on artificial intelligence and Internet of things. Are we going to see a humanoid robot colony emerging from the Middle East in the upcoming decades?

They call it “The world’s most ambitious project”, “An entire new land, purpose-built for a new way of living” and “A startup the size of a country”. The Arab world, including Saudi Arabia has been planning to diversify its economy and move away from pure revenue off of its oil industry. Last week the UAE unveiled its plans for implementing AI in different sectors of the country and even established the first Artificial Intelligence Ministry in the world. Now, a week later the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia proposed its plan for Neom, a trade-free zone and mega-city bigger than Dubai.

“We want the main robot and the first robot in Neom to be Neom, robot number one. Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things—everything,” said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an interview in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia had started other ambitious projects in other places of the country, but many of them such as Riyadh office park or King Abdullah Economic City are still left behind or are unfinished.

The Saudi government has promised to invest $500 billion on this mega-city and has invited foreign investors to take part in this massive project. Neom will be structured in an area of 26,500 square kilometers (33 times bigger than New York City) and will be placed in the borders of Jordan and Egypt. Energy and water, mobility, biotech, food, advanced manufacturing, media, entertainment, technological and digital sciences are the main investment sectors of Neom.

“Neom will innovate on an open source platform, inviting the world’s top data scientists to analyze data and innovate. Inventors will enjoy a world-first opportunity – to use the destination itself as a test ground for urban innovations,” reads on the website dedicated to this project. The city is intended to run on solar panels and wind turbines and will harness green transport systems.

The city is intended to run by solar panels and wind turbines and will harness green transport systems.
The city is intended to run on solar panels and wind turbines and will harness green transport systems.

Neom will also have its own laws, taxes and regulations with eased restrictions comparing to other parts of the country. The city also plans to have more robots than humans and the country became the first nation to grant citizenship to a humanoid robot named Sophia. People on social media are already making jokes about how robots in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the country’s actual human citizens.

“If they had the luxury of waiting for 15 or 20 years until this project generated Saudi jobs, then fine. But Neom, is a speculative project, and by itself it is not going to help with the problems they are going to have in the next five to 10 years,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor at the London School of Economics and the author of a book on the Saudi bureaucracy, as the New York Times reported.

All this may seem like a Sci-Fi movie made up by Hollywood and set in the Middle East. But what if this project actually flourishes? Or maybe we have to get ready for another conflict in the upcoming decades, this time with the robots!

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