Deep science, high-tech industry, Artificial Intelligence—each avenue is repeatedly identified as a mechanism to propel Armenia into a more prosperous future. An emphasis on the latter was the central ethos of the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology’s highly anticipated 2022 Global Innovation Forum (GIF), which painted AI as a “life-altering” technology indispensable to the nation’s development. Entrepreneurs, technologists, investors, and public sector representatives took to the stage over the two-day event to discuss Armenia’s path to becoming an international leader in the field, highlighting achievements and underscoring reforms needed to break into the top 20 AI nations over the next five years.
GIF rightly argued that “innovation is critical,” but it is imperative to remember that it is a means to an end, not the end itself. Exceedingly critical is determining what Armenia is “innovating” for in the first place. In his keynote presentation, founding CEO of FAST Armen Orujyan asserted that one of the most important dimensions of AI is the opportunity for humanity to further understand itself; to overcome its innate limitations. While the practical takeaways from GIF largely mirrored those of the preceding Science and Technology Convergence Conference, the most consequential conversations echoed Orujyan’s call for introspection, isolating values that Armenia must work towards cultivating. Of these, embracing the unknown, earning authority through accountability, and replacing criticism with constructiveness were most resonant through the participants’ discussions and debates.
The principal role of technologies—AI or otherwise—should be to enable development in accordance with what Armenia stands for as a nation. While I previously espoused the imperative of developing a comprehensive national AI strategy, it should be framed as a tool to facilitate sustainable development—not a catch-all solution to economic and security challenges. While it may seem immaterial to unite stakeholders around a common purpose—a vision of what “Armenian Intelligence” would entail, to borrow Noubar Afeyan’s phrasing—is a powerful mechanism for guiding collective action. Mindset may be harder to capture through KPIs, but it nevertheless indispensable to advancing an “innovative” Armenia.
Embrace the Unknown
Scientist, philanthropist and entrepreneur Noubar Afeyan opened the forum with a revelatory anecdote. He recalled that during the first iteration of GIF in 2018, he nearly put an entire conference room to sleep while outlining Flagship Pioneering’s newest endeavor—an RNA therapeutics initiative named Moderna. While uncompelling just a few years previously, not only did every person in the audience now know what Moderna was—it had grown to become a household name around the world. The point, he stressed, is that some of the most important innovations—the ones that will rise to combat global challenges—may seem fringe or irrelevant today only to become indispensable tomorrow.
Recognizing and pursuing radical opportunities requires exploring “beyond adjacencies”—what Afeyan defines as looking past the incumbent or obvious into truly pioneering fields. The crux is that this posture is difficult to institutionalize, as it requires convincing an inherently risk-averse nation to “believe in the unseen” and put resources behind “leaps of faith.” Afeyan advocated that artificial intelligence, as a powerful generator of novelty, can be an instrumental facilitator of this end. Developments in AI will happen regardless of whether the country is “intimidated” by them, and Armenia should use apprehension as a catalyst for creative action.
Communicating the political immediacy of “whimsical thinking” to citizens lacking basic services may prove to be difficult, but the country can learn from others who have successfully taken on the task. Public sector innovation lab initiatives like Accelerate Estonia, for example, were established to apply “audacious ideas” to address local problems, help businesses exploit new markets, and ultimately scale solutions internationally. Through implementing a “sandbox” model—which provides the private sector a testbed to try out radical solutions free from regulatory hurdles—Estonia has removed barriers so that innovators are able to launch revolutionary products and services. The country also plans to implement the sandbox model to develop AI tools and solutions across both the private and public sectors, an initiative first piloted by Spain as a means of ensuring the conditions for “smooth implementation of the future regulatory rules in the field.”
Governor of the Central Bank of Armenia Martin Galstyan emphasized the necessity of ensuring that institutions are agile and are able to act proactively, rather than in a constant posture of crisis mediation. While it is hard to apply typical cost benefit analysis to future scenarios, long-term forecasting—exploiting the unknown—must be prioritized alongside addressing short-term demands.
Authority Through Accountability
The most important lesson from the Estonian initiatives isn’t just the means of creating environments conducive for radical innovation, but their source of legitimacy: the extent to which programs create public value. Similar conversations surrounding transparency, authority and accountability around the development and implementation of artificial intelligence across the Armenian public and private sector came up frequently throughout the conference.
In his opening remarks, Deputy Prime Minister Hambardzum Matevosyan spoke to the necessity of exploring how new and emerging technologies like AI can be leveraged to improve social welfare. Accountability to public interest, he underscored, is a central tenet of the government’s ongoing digitization strategy. He also noted that any progress made toward digitization in the public sector comes with risks, and that while it is important to capitalize on opportunities presented by AI in improving programs and services, it must be done carefully.
This caution was reinforced by panelist Monique Morrow, Distinguished Architect of Emerging Technologies of Switzerland-based Syniverse Technologies. She rightfully stressed that AI is introducing new ethical questions, and that while the implications shouldn’t be painted as purely dystopian, uncertainties must be addressed before they manifest into more pervasive issues. One of the core challenges posed by AI relates to algorithmic bias, or the “systematic and repeatable errors in a computer system that create unfair outcomes, such as privileging one arbitrary group of users over others.” Canada, the first country to develop a national strategy for AI, has been proactive in developing ways to mitigate biases and increase transparency and accountability of AI solutions—particularly through its Algorithmic Impact Assessment tool. During a panel discussion around the use of AI in R&D, a debate broke out regarding whether or not the “explainability” of an AI-driven decision was necessary. Some were defensive of the black box model, while others were insistent that transparency is indispensable to the legitimacy of AI applications.
Ultimately, the takeaway from these debates was the necessity for public buy-in when it comes to implementing transformative policies. The push towards AI will affect everyone, not just the science and technology sector, and it is important that a diverse representation of stakeholders have a seat in driving the change.
Constructiveness Over Criticism
The closing panel of the conference rallied around one key debate: what makes Armenia “innovative”? The panelists were measured in their responses, cautioning that while there are many promising preconditions for success, the country cannot afford to be complacent. They emphasized that innovation currently occurs in “pockets” rather than at scale, and an orientation towards more open collaboration is paramount to ensuring that there is space for new entrants alongside existing actors.
Al Eisaian, co-founder of Intelinair and CEO of Cognaize said the most pervasive issue is an endemic “culture of criticism”; a general unwillingness to take ownership of seeing ideas through to their close. He decried that while everyone may claim to know the source of a problem, it is much more productive to approach challenges with a solution-oriented mindset. Not only is it decidedly unfun to live in a society conducive toward complaining, but it is counterproductive—“taking the oxygen out of execution” of potential remediations. “Criticism should be sourced from caring, rather than condemning,” Eisaian asserted, and be in the service of the values that “make us call ourselves Armenian.”
Defaulting to criticism is different from being critical. The alternative, indifference, is a “death sentence”—asserted FAST co-founder Ruben Vardanyan in his closing remarks. While the “expectation of excellence” should not be compromised, humility and willingness to fail are a key part of the process. Fundamentally, building on Afeyan’s opening advice, being “wrong” and making mistakes is an important facet of breakthrough innovation. David Papazian, CEO of Armenian National Interests Fund, posited that not only do Armenians sometimes exhibit fear of failure, but also of success. While this might seem paradoxical, an ingrained posture of resilience and patience hasn’t conditioned the country to act in pursuit of the unknown.
Voicing a New Narrative
Historian Yuval Noah Harari speaks often about the power of storytelling in shaping the evolution of humankind; molding the trajectory of nations. Crafting “fictions” around facts, rather than being deceitful, can be a positive force for progressing collective goals. Armenia’s narrative has conventionally been framed through incessant hardship, internal and external. As a young country striving to gain its footing post-independence and revolution, Armenia is now confronted with the task of finding and asserting its identity outside of adversity. Moving forward, it’s time to get more specific about what the country is trying to achieve through national innovation aspirations. Economic development and security driven by excellence in science and technology, however important, is not a robust enough rendering to keep the nation on track.
National innovation isn’t just about developing and implementing impressive inventions, but creatively leveraging existing resources to proactively build a better society. Technology is a tool rather than a deus ex machina, and although AI is an important player in Armenia’s development it cannot carry the plot alone. Ultimately, the story we need to start telling is that the core driver of innovation is cultural. The underlying tenor of GIF—the imperative of cultivating an environment conducive to creativity, accountability and constructivity—must not get lost in the margins.
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