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Inside the world's first AI-focused university in Abu Dhabi, which opens in January 2021 and will offer all students full scholarships


MBZUAI AI university Abu Dhabi

  • The world's first university dedicated to the field of artificial intelligence is set to open its doors to students in Abu Dhabi in January 2021. 
  • The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is part of the Emirati city state's 50-point plan to diversify its economy for the future. 
  • Trustees includes Dr Kai-Fu Lee, previously of Google China, and Sir Michael Brady, a former director at MIT's AI Lab.
  • The UAE has a problematic record on human rights. Sir Michael told Business Insider he did not "have anxieties" about the issue. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In the wake of a three-month delay induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world's first university dedicated to the study of AI is gearing up to welcome its first cohort of students in Abu Dhabi.

The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), named for the city state's crown prince, will open its doors in January 2021. As a new university, students will be entering into something of an experiment. However, the university says it will pick 85 Masters and PhD students after whittling them down from more than 1,400 applicants.

The specialist graduate school is part of Abu Dhabi's wider diversification drive, as it attempts to move away an from oil and gas-based economy to focus more intensely on knowledge and skills.

The US and China continue to dominate developments in AI, thanks to the vast amounts of capital at their disposal. A 2019 report by the Center for Data Innovation found that the US had the most AI startups and the most capital flowing into the sector. China, it found, is rapidly catching up.

Students at MBZUAI take a range of courses on the core components of AI, including "Mathematical Foundations for Artificial Intelligence", "Big Data Processing", "Human and Computer Vision", and "Natural Language and Speech Processing".

Business Insider understands the full syllabus is still being finalized.


All students admitted to the university will receive a full scholarship, plus benefits including a monthly allowance, health insurance, and accommodation.

The university's board of trustees includes Dr Kai-Fu Lee, former president of Google China, and Sir Michael Brady, one-time associate director of the AI Laboratory at MIT.

Speaking to Business Insider, Sir Michael said MBZUAI was "bound together" with the local government's vision for the future.

"We're not trying to build Stanford by the sea," he said. "Abu Dhabi has devised a 50-point strategy to diversify its economy, they knew they wanted to move into a number of new industries, and there were glaring gaps in AI – that's how this college came to be."

MBZUAI AI university AI university

In spite of Crown Prince bin Zayed's forward-thinking agenda, the UAE has been riddled with claims of human rights abuses in recent years, with reports of Emirati citizens being disappeared by government agents, the continued use of flogging and stoning as forms of punishment, and censorship of the press.

Asked about the UAE's record on human rights, Sir Michael said: "I've been asked this question by pretty much all of my friends [and] it's not something that I, personally, have anxieties about."

He added: "I am unconvinced that the human rights record of the UAE, which is pretty liberal compared with other countries in the region, is any worse than a number of other countries with which I am extremely familiar."

Last month, MBZUAI signed a deal with Virgin's Hyperloop division to collaborate on researching applications of AI for the transportation industry.

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