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Opinion

May 3, 2018

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The promise of technology

L P Hartley once said, “The past is a foreign country”. He clearly wasn’t thinking of Pakistan when he said this.

As election season draws closer, one theme that sticks out the most is ‘sameness’. The names are the same (Khan, Sharif, Bhutto), the acronyms are the same (PPP, PTI, PML), the faces are the same, and of course, the promises are the same. And it is this sameness of promises that hurts the most. Because, while one can grudgingly accept all the rest, it is painful to accept the same litany of heady promises and bombastic pronouncements bellowed down from pulpits, trucks, containers, bulletproof glass chambers, and the rest. Because the reality is that at the current pace and trajectory, Pakistan’s future might well mirror its past. And no one should want this, barring two categories of people: the corrupt elite and masochists.

And if things, indeed, are to change for the better, then the mediator will not be a new messiah, neither will there be a spontaneous reversal of the ruling classes’ morals, nor will it be China’s benevolent hand, or America’s renewed interest in Pakistan. In fact, short of some fortuitous, localised, miracle mutation of genes, nothing can change Pakistan’s trajectory if it continues to go in the same direction – under the same thought(less) leadership, guided by the same short-termism which ignores history and reliably produces the same mistakes that brought us here to begin with.

But there is hope. We live in a world where old problems are being fixed with new solutions. And what is enabling this is technology. To understand the power of technology, one need only observe how far we have come along in the human story. Today, we have multiplied our food supply through advances in GMO technology, high-tech farming methods, and enhanced preservation techniques. We have collapsed classroom learning to virtual learning, opened portals to whole digital universes of archived knowledge on almost every discipline known to man. Diseases which were once a threat to entire civilisations are now rendered impotent by no more than vaccine shots.

Furthermore, we have cloned animals, sequenced human genome, and discovered energy sources which can power our planet with far greater efficiency than ever before. Our digital communication, which once relied on manually operated phone exchanges, is today enabled by a single click on our smartphone touch-screen. Billions of bits travel through air, delivering our favourite content – movies, shows, games – to our personal device, all in real time.

And all this has been achieved in just the last few decades. Imagine the possibilities of the time horizon stretching centuries into the future. Or even possibilities nearer still. We are close to producing meat in laboratories via cultured muscle tissue. Through stem cell research, we are close to unpacking neuronal irregularities which give rise to mental disorders like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. We have augmented reality (AR) just around the corner, which if combined with smart glasses or goggles, could unlock a whole new level of cognitive assist applications – visual aids for the visually impaired, digital overlays for real-time guidance (think industrial applications, on-site support, etc).

Above all, we have artificial intelligence and self-learning algorithms which will not only capture the accrued knowledge of the smartest people alive, but will ultimately exceed it by several thousand orders of magnitude –thereby delivering radical labour saving solutions to workplaces, cut out tedium and repetition, and yield solutions to human problems so far deemed insoluble.

So where does Pakistan come in all this? Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world – home to 207 million people in the world. Almost two-thirds of this population is under the age of 30. This implies a large working-age population; a demographic dividend favourable to economic growth (if only captured properly). Some of the key drivers of Pakistan’s economy are its agriculture and services sectors, and a somewhat anaemic industrial sector. There is also a huge reliance on foreign remittances and international aid. At present, these sectors, along with several others, are neither capable of absorbing the massive youth bulge, nor are they capable of adequately delivering products and services which would gainfully impact Pakistan’s economy.

For example, Pakistan’s agricultural produce is anchored in outmoded farming methods that are a drag on the economy, and offer zero prospects of upward mobility to the next generation of farmers. Likewise, the industrial sector lacks innovation due to minimal R&D, and operates fundamentally on borrowed principles of foreign contractors. Factories are dilapidated, supply chains are inefficient, and bureaucracy and red-tape suck whatever little efficiency is flowing through the system.

This dismal status quo will not reverse under the pulpit rhetoric discharged by megalomaniacs every election cycle. It will only change when the tech ecosystem is lifted several levels up from where it is, and when tech start-ups will be funded by government subsidies. And when aspiring entrepreneurs will have all the financial and funding channels open to them to dream big and take chances; when universities will train and incentivise young minds to think critically and aspire for more than the mere 9 to 5 employment; when the state, not lone heroes, will bring funding and engagement from the Apples and Googles of the world.

It is time we internalised the lesson fast-developing economies have taught us in the 21st century: that solutions for most public service challenges tend to emerge from technology and innovation. This cannot happen without generous government investment in the field of science and technology. But this will require a significant shift in the mindset at the highest levels, a mindset that views Pakistan as a technocratic state and not a frontier state for international wars. The challenge for us is that such shifts rarely ever occur in ossified minds.

Pakistan already has a thriving telecom sector. Some of the great technologies of the future – IoT (internet of things), 5G, VR and AR (virtual and augmented reality), connected vehicles, smart cities, etc – will be enabled, to some significant degree, by telecom operators. These operators will require the support of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, and relevant government institutions, by way of spectrum availability, construction permits and relaxed regulations around infrastructure deployment. But even more importantly, they will benefit most when other tech players (handset manufacturers, cloud service providers, software developers) are incentivised to build their operations in Pakistan, because it is the whole tech ecosystem that is required to usher in the next wave of innovation that lifts all boats.

Now that is a promise we can all believe in.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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