Thursday May 23, 2024

The amazing world of discovery

By Atta-ur-Rahman
July 19, 2023

We live in an amazing world of discovery where truth is often stranger than fiction. Thanks to technological advancements, we do not need seeds any more to grow plants as plant tissue culture has transformed the way many types of plants may be grown.

Other inventions are even more incredible: the blind can have their eyesight partly restored through a lollipop device placed on their tongue. Objects can be made to disappear to the naked eye when cloaked with a special sheath of metamaterials.

The ageing process can be slowed down, even reversed, using certain anti-ageing compounds such as resveratrol, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), curcumin and metformin. New animal and plant species can be ‘created’ in the laboratory using gene editing technologies.

The advent of nanotechnology has created huge international waves in areas such as new materials, pharmaceuticals and electronics. Artificial intelligence coupled with quantum computing are on the verge of transforming civilization. Bio-saline agriculture is already allowing edible plants to grow on saline soils, and before long we may be able to develop varieties of wheat, rice, fruit and vegetables that can be grown with seawater, thereby permanently solving the issues of food security on our planet.

The combustion engine that we use in our cars and buses is taking its last breath as it is being replaced by electric vehicles running on lithium or sodium batteries, and before long our present vehicles will simply adorn museums and history books.

These incredible advances are no fairy tales. They are happening right now all around us, and those countries investing in research and development are progressing rapidly, leaving others lying in the dust. From precision farming and genetic engineering to nanomaterials and medical innovations, we need to understand and appreciate the potential benefits, challenges and ethical considerations associated with these groundbreaking discoveries.

The realm of scientific discovery is indeed a constant source of awe and wonder, driving progress and shaping the future. Some of the most exciting new developments hold immense potential to revolutionize various aspects of our lives, from enhancing food production and sustainability to enabling breakthroughs in healthcare and creating cutting-edge technologies.

A McKinsey report forecasts a $33 trillion impact of these new and emerging technologies, with artificial intelligence alone having a $ 15.6 trillion dollar impact. If we in Pakistan can capture even 1.0 per cent of this potential, it can result in the enhancement of $156 billion in our exports. It is for this reason that I am deeply involved in the establishment of centres of artificial intelligence across the country.

Three such centres have been established through our efforts in the Pakistan Austrian Fachhochschule in Haripur, Hazara; the Pak University of Engineering and Emerging Technologies in Sambrial, Sialkot; and the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi, Karachi.

These centres will focus on the myriad applications of artificial intelligence in health, agriculture and industry. The feasibility of another mega project of Rs40 billion has been completed by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications in Islamabad, and this should give a huge national boost to our expertise in this fast-emerging transformative field. These projects involve training in machine learning algorithms that combined with vast amounts of data enable computers to recognize patterns, make predictions, and learn from experience.

Deep learning models, inspired by the human brain’s neural networks, excel in image and speech recognition, natural language processing and autonomous systems. Robotics and automation technologies are indeed revolutionizing industries ranging from manufacturing and healthcare to transportation and agriculture. Collaborative robots (cobots), exoskeletons and autonomous vehicles are transforming the way tasks are performed, increasing efficiency and reducing human error.

Let us consider the recent advances in the field of agriculture. The advent of precision farming techniques, such as GPS-guided equipment and remote sensing technologies, enables farmers to optimize resource allocation and enhance crop yields. Sensor-based systems, real-time data analytics, and machine learning algorithms enable farmers to make informed decisions about irrigation, use of fertilizers and pest control.

Genetic engineering allows scientists to develop crops with enhanced traits, such as increased yield, disease resistance and nutritional content. Biotechnology tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9, offer precise gene editing capabilities, thereby accelerating crop improvement efforts and reducing environmental impacts.

Gene editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9 hold immense promise in agriculture and medicine for developing new high yielding crops as well as treating genetic disorders and diseases. Synthetic biology combines engineering principles with biological systems to create novel biological parts, devices, and systems for plant and animal life. The field offers possibilities for biofuels, bio-based materials and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.

Let us now turn to new advances in material sciences. Nanomaterials possess unique properties at the nanoscale (a billionth of a millionth of a metre), enabling advancements in various fields, including electronics, energy storage, and medicine. Applications range from lightweight and flexible electronics to targeted drug delivery systems and efficient solar cells. Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms, is about 200 times stronger than steel and it exhibits extraordinary mechanical, electrical, and thermal properties.

Potential applications include ultrafast electronics, high-performance batteries and water purification systems. New materials can be combined with novel fabrication technologies to produce novel high-quality products. Thus, the manufacture of products using 3D printing enables the creation of complex and customized objects, ranging from prototypes and consumer goods to medical implants and aerospace components. Even living human organs such as parts of human kidneys or livers, can now be produced by 3D printing. The technology offers reduced waste, increased design flexibility and accelerated production processes.

Turning to medicine, advances in genomics and personalized medicine allow for tailored treatment plans based on an individual’s genetic profile. Precision diagnostics, targeted therapies and pharmacogenomics improve patient outcomes and minimize adverse effects.

Regenerative medicine aims to restore damaged tissues and organs through cell-based therapies, tissue engineering and biomaterials. Approaches such as stem cell transplantation and 3D bioprinting hold promise for treating injuries, organ failure and chronic diseases.

In short, the world of scientific discovery continues to astonish and inspire with ground-breaking advancements in agriculture, biotechnology, new materials, artificial intelligence, engineering, and medicine.

These innovations have the potential to transform industries, address global challenges and improve the quality of human life. By harnessing the power of scientific discovery and implementing sound policies and practices, we can navigate a path towards a brighter, healthier, and more sustainable future.

Pakistan needs to rise and make the best use of these new opportunities by investing in quality education, scientific research, innovation and entrepreneurship so that it can escape from the trap of low value-added product manufacture and exports and migrate to a strong knowledge economy with the focus on the manufacture and export of high value-added products.

For this we need an honest and technologically competent leadership that has a deep knowledge and understanding of the transformative impact of these new innovative developments and their potential to transform Pakistan.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former

founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: