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Tuesday April 23, 2024

A future of innovation

By Atta-ur-Rahman
February 01, 2023

Rapid socio-economic development is now only possible if national innovation policies are directed at the development and export of high-tech products. For Pakistan to progress, we need to change tracks quickly and try to tap into our real wealth – our children. Our key areas of focus should include information technology, next generation genomics, new materials, energy, regenerative medicine, minerals, and advanced agriculture.

In the information technology field, artificial intelligence (AI) is already having a fast growing impact in various sectors. It is finding use in medical diagnosis, financial forecasting, self-driving cars, etc, and replacing humans in repetitive tasks. It is estimated that the market size of AI will be about $16 trillion within five years. Other technologies in this field include blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G/6G networks.

6G networks are expected to be much faster than 4G or 5G technologies and are likely to support applications such as virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR), instant communications, pervasive artificial intelligence and the IoT.

Blockchain is a decentralized digital ledger that is used to record transactions in a secure and transparent way. It has the potential to disrupt many industries, including supply chain management, finance and voting systems. Blockchain can also be used to create a decentralized digital currency that will ensure faster, cheaper and secure transactions. Another fast-emerging area in the information technology field is that of Internet of Things (IoT). This is a network of connected devices that can communicate the data with each other and share it. This technology has already begun to impact many industries such as transportation, manufacturing, and healthcare. IoT-enabled devices track vehicles in real time, monitor and control manufacturing processes and remotely monitor the health of patients.

The next generation of mobile networks will depend on 5G and 6G technologies. They provide much faster internet speeds with lower latency. This will have a huge impact on many industries including telecommunications, gaming, virtual reality, and remotely controlled surgery. 6G networks are expected to be even more diverse than their predecessors and are likely to support applications, such as virtual and augmented reality, instant communications, pervasive artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Another fast-developing area is that of genomics. It is being used in medicine to develop precision medicine that considers the individual’s genetic makeup. This has resulted in the development of targeted therapies for various diseases such as cancer. Thus, individual mutations in cancer patients can be identified and drugs then used to target those patient-specific mutations. The advent of gene editing tools is allowing disease-causing genes to be spiced out, and such techniques promise to cure genetic diseases.

Researchers have also succeeded in using genomics in agriculture to identify those genes that are associated with desirable traits such as disease resistance or higher yields. This has led to the development of genetically modified crops that can better survive conditions of environmental stress and have resistance against pests. Genomics has also led to improved breeding of livestock, cows that produce more milk, grow faster and are resistant to diseases. Researchers have also identified genetic markers in humans that make them more prone to certain diseases. A dedicated research center named after my father – the Jamil ur Rahman Center for Genomics Research – is located in Karachi University and equipped with state-of-the-art facilities.

Another area is that of regenerative medicine. Anti-ageing compounds have been developed that can slow down the process of ageing, and this is a hot area of current research. Stem cell technologies are being developed to cure heart, lung, kidney, and eye diseases. An excellent laboratory focused on stem cell research has been established in the Dr Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research, located within Pakistan’s premier research institute, the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) at the University of Karachi.

The field of new materials is disrupting the manufacturing sector. It has seeped into various sectors such as those related to automobiles, space engineering, biomedical devices, pharmaceuticals, and a host of other fields. Lightweight composites and advanced steels are being extensively used in the automobiles industry as they result in improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. ‘Metamaterials’ that have the strange ability of bending light are being used for stealth purposes to make objects such as tanks, airplanes and submarines invisible.

Carbon fibres and ceramics are finding wide use in aircraft and space craft because of their increased strength and lightweight nature. In the construction industry, self-healing concrete and shape-memory alloys are being used in the building industry as they lead to improved strength and sustainability of structures. Nanotechnology has come to the fore in a big way and graphene as well as carbon nanotubes are being used in the electronics industry because of the resulting improvement in devices such as smartphones and laptops.

An excellent centre for nanotechnology research, The Latif Ebrahim Jamal Nanotechnology Center, has been established in the ICCBS, and it is carrying out ground-breaking research in nano pharmaceuticals with improved biological activity and lower toxicity than the currently available drugs. Biodegradable polymers and hydrogels are being widely employed in the medical field. New smart materials that can change colour, shape or function are finding use in the textiles industry. Similarly, silicon-based solar cells, lithium-sulphur batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are being employed in the energy industry.

Appropriately crafted government policies are key to promoting innovation and economic growth. The government must also contribute to the creation of an eco-system that is conducive to innovation, promotes healthy competition, reduces barriers to entry for new businesses, and considers the factors concerned with ease of doing business, such as effective and efficient dispute resolution law, patent protection laws, and removal of cumbersome bureaucratic procedures for imports, exports and funds transfer. Innovation can also be promoted by offering tax incentives and grants to businesses for research and development.

The future of Pakistan lies in investing massively in such developing innovative fields. We must give the highest national priority to education, science, technology, innovation and commercialization to enhance our exports from the present $30 billion to $100 billion over the next decade. For this we must have a visionary, honest and technologically competent government to better understand the challenges and transition to a technology driven knowledge economy.

The writer is the formerfederal minister for scienceand technology and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: ibne_sina@hotmail.com