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Thursday June 13, 2024

Pakistan and the technological race

By Shaza Arif
June 14, 2023

In an era marked by technological innovations and significant breakthroughs across different sectors, the transformative prowess of artificial intelligence is shaping a whole new reality defying the bounds of our expectations.

For this reason, states worldwide are awakening to the never-ending potential of this technology, which is evident from the fact that many countries have already launched their national AI policies in this regard, with 69 countries now with active policy initiatives.

Over the last few years, it has been repeatedly highlighted at various events that Pakistan needs to be more receptive to AI and embark upon its exploration to ensure national competitiveness and improve the life of its citizens. Finally, the state has shown its inclination towards embracing the possibilities of this technology, as shown by the launch of the National AI Policy of Pakistan by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom.

The 41-page document highlights the goals of instilling AI competencies and transforming Pakistan into a technology-empowered nation. The policy aims to create public awareness regarding AI, develop skilled human capital and upskill the existing workforce, invest in research and development, establish a national AI fund, invest in more centres of excellence of AI, build better infrastructure for AI and allied technologies.

It also pushes for launching national projects in AI to address social and civic problems, ensure responsible behaviour in its use, develop regulatory mechanisms, promote the best practices, and support accessibility to AI models. Finally, it aims to transform the public sector with AI, provide sectorial support and enable academia with the technology.

At its core, the policy directives are based on four pillars, market enablement; creating AI awareness and readiness; building a progressive and trusted environment; and transformation and evolution.

Launching the national AI policy is a positive development and a crucial requirement. The policy is relatively comprehensive and provides a detailed roadmap regarding integrating the technology across various sectors. It is worth noting that it particularly aims to transform areas such as agriculture and manufacturing, which are profoundly significant to Pakistan’s economic landscape. The emphasis on employment of AI in public services, including healthcare, education and the citizens’ portal, may make public service delivery more efficient. It is also encouraging to see that the inclusion of women in the trajectory towards AI has been prioritized in the policy document.

Drafting the policy has marked an important chapter; equally important now is its subsequent implementation. However, towering challenges lie ahead on the path to realizing the policy’s potential and witnessing positive results in Pakistan.

First, the policy has been formalized in the absence of specific data laws, thereby raising doubts about its credibility. Apart from the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom, the involvement of relevant ministries such the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Science and Technology is lacking, casting a shadow of doubt over the seriousness of the policy and suggesting lack of coherent effort towards the cause. In addition, the proposed timelines appear considerably tight, making implementation a tenuous, if not unrealistic, task. Complicating matters further, Pakistan is facing economic challenges which could impede seamless AI integration.

Pakistan is also encountered with human resource problems vis-a-vis AI. It requires a better-trained workforce, skilled in domains such as machine learning, programming and data science to put the state in a better position to unleash the possible benefits. However, a survey conducted in 2022 revealed only a trivial number – less than 10 per cent of the IT and commuting workforce was found to be adept with this technology. Recognizing this pressing need, the AI policy aims to train a million IT graduates in AI and related technologies by 2027, which is somewhat of an ambitious plan.

Compounding the issue is the persistent challenge of ‘brain drain’, whereby talented individuals migrate to seek better opportunities in other countries. In Pakistan’s rural areas, the infrastructure to support AI deployment is far from adequate, hindering the adoption of AI technologies in the foreseeable future. Although the policy emphasises more public-private partnerships (PPPs), the intricate dynamics of the process is an unfortunate story in itself with numerous obstacles and structural challenges.

It is also surprising that the defence angle is largely absent in the policy document, disregarding the fact that it is one of the most pressing issues pertaining to militaries around the world. Last, the review section of policy implementation is unconvincing and appears weak, raising questions about its practicality and effectiveness over the short and long term.

Implementation requires a futuristic vision and persistent efforts beyond the political cycle to realize the objectives set - something that would require a strong commitment towards the cause, regardless of who is in power. Hence, there is still a long way to go before Pakistan can gain socioeconomic benefits from this innovative frontier.

Pakistan’s road to AI is paved with unprecedented opportunities and formidable challenges. Treading this path requires utmost sincerity on the part of the state. The country needs a multistakeholder approach involving the government, industry, academia and civil society for progress in this domain. Nevertheless, it is a path worth pursuing safely, responsibly and with a pragmatic approach.

The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached at: cass.thinkers@gmail.com