Saturday May 28, 2022

Riding the crest of the innovation wave

January 31, 2018

Amazing developments in almost every field of science are transforming our lives at an increasing pace. The Muslim world, however, appears to be a century behind the West in terms of scientific and technological development.

This is illustrated by the fact that the Harvard University has produced 151 Nobel Prize winners while Columbia, Cambridge and Chicago have churned out 101, 94 and 89, respectively. In comparison to this, not a single Nobel Prize has ever been awarded in scientific researches carried out within a Muslim country.

Similarly, about 8,000 scientists have been elected as fellows of the prestigious Royal Society (London) in the last 360 years. But only four of them belonged to an Muslim country – two of whom have worked in the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi (the late Professor Salimuzzaman Siddiqui and I).

Innovations are impacting our lives. Let’s consider the energy sector first. The rapid developments in the mass production of high-quality solar cells have brought down the prices of solar energy. A 1.2 GW (1,200 MW) plant is being installed in Abu Dhabi from which electricity will be supplied to utility companies at a price of $0.0242 (2.42 cents)/kWh. This works out to a remarkably low price of only about Rs2.5/kWh.

The average price of power produced from gas in the UAE is 7 cents/kWh. So, the price of solar energy has become about one-third of the gas prices. How rapidly energy prices have fallen can be judged from the fact that the Dubai Electricity and Water Agency (DEWA) had agreed to a price of 5.84 cents/kWh in a contract with a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power in 2015. As a result, the price now is less than half of what it was in 2015.

The contracts are based on a model under which the companies being awarded the contracts build, own and operate the solar farms while the government’s utility companies just buy the power produced under the power purchase agreements at fixed prices. This is also advantageous in the sense that if the plant is not working properly, then the loss is borne by the contractor and not by the government’s utility company. What has happened in the UAE has triggered a cascade that has impacted prices across the world. Pakistan could also follow the UAE model so as to benefit from the recent price fall in solar energy.

Another area experiencing accelerated innovation and rapid growth is that of artificial intelligence (AI). It has been estimated that the worldwide spending on cognitive systems (both cognitive applications and software platforms) increased in 2017 at a compound annual growth rate of 55 percent. With such investments, IT departments in companies as well as in government departments will be able to establish intelligent systems that can learn and implement tasks efficiently. This could cause major disruptions in the job market because more and more tasks would become automated, eliminating the need for manual labour.

These developments are closely related to ‘Big Data’ that has become a huge area of interest. It has been increasing with each passing year as more departments in companies digitise their operations. The IT departments will be required to provide support through AI to help quickly analyse large sets of unstructured data.

A related sector also rapidly developing is that of autonomous vehicles. New concept cars are being designed as such that they can function as a working office. Many companies, including Google and Tesla, are making major investments in the development of autonomous vehicles. Once fully developed, this would lead to a sharp reduction in the sale of individual cars as it will become much more feasible to use autonomous taxis. This could give a huge boost to companies such as Uber, but spell disaster for motor car manufacturers.

Furthermore, machine translation is also another area witnessing accelerated development. A number of companies are developing real-time translation devices that can be fit into the ear. This would help in the instant translation of a person’s language. For example, if somebody is speaking in Chinese or some other language that you don’t understand, it would be instantly translated into English or another language that you can understand.

One company investing in this field is Skype. Its AI-based translator eliminates the language barrier and allows us talk to anyone, anywhere, in several languages. The artificial intelligence uses layers of machine-learning algorithms so that the words and accents are instantly recognised and can either be transcribed into text in another language or converted into sounds that can be understood. Presently, the audio can be received in eight different languages and transcripts can be made in 50 different languages.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also developing rapidly as an increasing number of ‘things’ can now be connected. These range from medicine and farming to gardening, transport, energy, sport and cars, smart homes. and smart cities are also being planned. The IoT in industries is receiving particular attention. This will have a major impact on our lifestyles as well as the manner in which we run our businesses or industries.

The development of legal bots, AI journalists and diagnostic robot doctors will result in the rapid accessibility to such services. However, this would also cause major disruptions in the job market. Global spending on IoT products has already reached about $130 billion annually and is increasing rapidly at the annual rate of about 17 percent. Moreover, blockchain technologies have grown rapidly beyond the use of currencies like Bitcoin. This has disrupted the banking and mortgage systems. Such technologies are being extended to industries such as security management, fashion as well as music.

Some amazing developments are also taking place in the healthcare industry through the application of genome editing techniques such as CRISPR-cas9. These techniques result in changes in the genetic structure of organisms and thereby alter their characteristics. Genome editing in this manner has been used in various ways to alleviate genetic disorders in animals and are likely to soon be made use of in clinics to treat human diseases, particularly of the eye and blood.

Genome editing tools are also being employed to expedite crop and livestock breeding, engineer new antimicrobials and control disease-carrying insects. An excellent facility for such genetic engineering has been established in the Jamil-ur-Rahman Centre for Genomics Research, a part of the Dr Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicine located at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi.

Countries that are investing in education, science, technology and innovation are advancing rapidly. Pakistan must do the same if it is to progress.

The writer is the former federalminister for science and technology and former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).