Thursday May 23, 2024

A different democracy

By Atta-ur-Rahman
January 18, 2023

The present alarming situation of the country, which stands at the brink of a financial default, is a reflection of the failure of successive governments to transition from a low value-added agricultural economy to a strong knowledge economy. This is primarily due to massive corruption and a failed judicial system.

Even tiny countries such as Singapore or Taiwan have forged far ahead of Pakistan by investing in education, science and innovation, whereas we remain trapped in a weak natural resource-based economy with low-value textiles comprising some 60 per cent of our exports. The low hanging fruits are in the field of information technology, agriculture, minerals and emerging disruptive technologies.

India has exports of about $150 billion annually for IT products and services whereas we have only been able to reach about $3 billion. Even if we take our six-fold population difference into account, these should have been about $25 billion. This target can be achieved if we spend a paltry $0.5 billion on training our graduates with high quality faculty and focus on such rapidly emerging areas such as Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing.

Artificial Intelligence is evolving at a mind-boggling pace and before we know it, lawyers, doctors, and even judges will be robots. It is predicted that by 2030, computers will become more intelligent than humans and even acquire self-awareness with a level of consciousness. IBM has launched two services, an IBM Watson medical service that offers medical advice to patients, and an IBM Watson legal service that offers legal advice to customers within seconds. Such disruptive innovations are transforming the landscape of our societies and opening up amazing new opportunities for socio-economic development.

Another disruptive technology is that of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I had facilitated the use of MIT Open Courseware in Pakistan in the year 2001 when I was the federal minister of Science and Technology by creating a mirror website of MIT that allowed ready download and access to educational materials. Some 10,000 CDs of computer science courses were prepared and distributed to colleges and universities.

The use of MOOCs has since grown a million-fold, catalyzed by the advent of the covid pandemic. An integrated version of MOOCs launched by us at the Latif Ebrahim Jamal Science Information Center located within Pakistan’s leading research center, the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences, is providing free access to school, college and university lectures from around the world. It may be accessed through the website and several thousand Khan Academy school level lectures translated into Urdu have also been recently added to it to facilitate school level education.

The advent of energy storage systems has led to the development of electric cars, and within a decade, there will be hardly any cars or buses with combustion engines on the road. Anti-ageing compounds have been discovered and when given to old mice, they showed the remarkable features of changing the body mass and making them much younger. It is therefore expected that children being born today may be aged 120 years or more because of such fantastic advances in medicine.

The field of regenerative medicine continues to grow in leaps and bounds and stem cell technologies promise to cure damaged organs and may change the manner in which medicine will be practiced tomorrow. Similarly, exciting advances in genetics and biomarkers will alert people before the onset of a disease so that they can take precautionary measures months or years before the onset of a disease. Living human organs can now be produced by 3D printing.

Such advances in medical research present huge commercial opportunities to the pharmaceutical industry of Pakistan. The development of telemedicine technology has disrupted traditional healthcare delivery models. Telemedicine allows patients to consult with doctors remotely, through video conferencing or other digital communication methods. This technology has made healthcare more accessible and convenient for patients, especially those in rural or remote areas, and has also created new opportunities for healthcare providers.

Similar opportunities exist in agriculture, energy production, new materials, engineering goods and defense related products. We can produce energy from hydroelectric power, from solar cells or from windmills at a rate of only Rs6 per unit. However, we are charging our industries a rate of Rs30 per unit or more because of the legacy of past mega corruption that has led to criminal long-term contracts between past governments with IPPs. If we set up 1000 MW plants near industrial zones and offer electricity at Rs6 per unit to our industry, the whole industrial sector can come alive again and our exports can increase several fold within five years. Similarly, with relatively simple and affordable inputs, our agricultural productivity can be easily tripled and become comparable to that in India and other countries.

In the transportation industry, the emergence of ride-sharing services like Uber, Careem and Lyft have disrupted the traditional taxi market. With the integration of AI into the transportation system, autonomous driverless vehicles will soon become available. This would do away with the need to keep personal cars as it will become far more economical and comfortable to just order a robotic vehicle for your transportation needs.

Pakistan’s real wealth lies in our youth, and it is only through investing in them that we can rise again. We are fortunate that some 67 per cent of our 230 million population is below 30 years of age, but this demographic advantage will become a huge burden if we don’t wake up now and start to divert our limited resources from other sectors to education, technology and innovation.

To benefit from these exciting innovations, we need a government headed by visionary technocrats who understand where the world stands today after the 4th Industrial Revolution. Pakistan must therefore abandon the parliamentary system of democracy, which is today a victim of elite capture, and move towards a presidential system of democracy where the brightest minds in the country can be appointed directly as ministers and secretaries.

A knowledge economy must be driven from the top through a visionary, competent and honest leader, backed by a cabinet of the top specialists in the country in their respective disciplines. It is only through investments in education, science, technology and entrepreneurship that we can emerge from the pit we have dug for ourselves.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: