Thursday May 30, 2024

Gateway to knowledge

By Atta-ur-Rahman
December 12, 2018

On December 4, a historic development occurred in Pakistan. The prime minister convened a meeting to consider the means through which education, science, technology and innovation could be used as engines for socioeconomic development.

Following intense discussions, the decision to set up a national taskforce on a technology-driven knowledge economy was taken. This taskforce will be chaired by the PM and co-chaired by one of Pakistan’s leading scientists. It will work in close coordination with all the relevant ministries and sectors of the economy, including agriculture, industry, science and technology, and information technology. It will help prepare policies, ensure the implementation of programmes that will lead to national self-reliance, and enhance exports by manufacturing and exporting medium and high-technology products.

One concern that was brought up during the meeting was that natural resources and low-technology products now have diminishing importance in terms of their share of the global market. It is the ability to manufacture and export medium and high-technology products that is now the key to the prosperity of any nation since they have the lion’s share of the world’s manufacturing sector and export market. This requires us to prepare our nation in many respects.

First, we need to be able to acquire, adopt and adapt key technologies needed to manufacturer medium and high-tech industrial products. Second, we need to modify our schools, colleges and universities so that they can provide our youth with problem-solving skills. Third, we need to focus on emerging and new technologies so that we aren’t perpetually in the ‘catching-up’ phase and are able to become world leaders in manufacturing and exporting some selected products.

With some 100 million people below the age of 20, Pakistan has a demographic advantage that Japan, Germany, the UK and many other advanced countries don’t have. We can train our youth in handling certain emerging technologies that will allow us to magnify our exports of value-added products and take us out of the quagmire of hunger and deprivation that the policies of previous governments have mired us in. The ineffectiveness of past policies is reflected from the fact that we spent Rs270 billion on the Orange Line Train project near Lahore while only Rs0.8 billion was released to the Ministry of Science and Technology last year for its national science and technology initiatives. One can only gasp in horror as to what went on. Our enemies could not have done more damage to the country.

In order to enter the fields of medium and high tech-industry, we need to have scientists and engineers of the required quality and in sufficient numbers to meet the requirements of various industries, such as engineering goods, metallurgy and biotechnology products. The two areas that emerge as the ones with the fastest return on investment are computer science (artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, cyber security, big data and the internet of things) and agriculture (hybrid-seed production, horticulture, tissue culture, the genomics applications for yield increases, animal husbandry and fisheries).

The advantage of investing in areas such as artificial intelligence is that no major investments are needed in terms of infrastructure or heavy machinery and the results can become visible within a few years. There is now a huge international demand for well-trained professionals in this field. Most advanced countries are searching for young trained professionals so that they can benefit from development taking place across the globe. Visa restrictions have been relaxed for these professionals. Artificial intelligence will find applications in almost every sphere of activity, ranging from industrial automation to defence, from surgical robots to stock-market assessment, and from driverless cars to agricultural sensors controlling fertilisers and pesticide inputs.

Pakistan churns out about 22,000 computer-science graduates each year. With additional high-quality training, a significant portion of these graduates could be transformed into a small army of highly-skilled professionals who could develop a range of AI products and earn billions of dollars in exports.

Another important step in developing a knowledge economy is to uplift our technical and vocational training centres while being mindful of the needs of industrial hubs that are to be set up under CPEC. There are over a thousand such centres, but they are in a bad state. If some of these centres are converted into high-quality technical training institutes for teachers in collaboration with Germany, China or other advanced countries, well-trained teachers can then be absorbed in the thousand or so technical training centres. This could contribute to industrial development. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us with all of its challenges. We live in a world where truth has become far stranger than fiction. Each day brings thousands of new discoveries. Many of these discoveries are transforming our lives in numerous ways. The blind can now see using their tongue. Molecular scissors have been developed that allow genes to be cut from one species and transferred to another, resulting in new plant and animal species. Genes have been transferred from deep-sea jelly fishes to orchids to make flowers that glow in the dark.

Nanotechnology is being employed to commercially purify water. Superfast gene-sequencing will allow the entire human genome to be sequenced in minutes. Objects can now be moved by thought control and driverless cars are being developed. We now have anti-ageing compounds that have been known to reduce the signs of ageing among mice. Children being born today are expected to live up to the age of 120 or more.

3D-printing is being used to produce parts of human livers and kidneys. Stem cells promise to cure damaged organs and may change the manner in which medicine will be practised in the future. Our own work on the molecular basis of thought processes has provided exciting insights into the functioning of the human brain – arguably the most complex object in our universe, with 100 billion neurons in a brain, each neuron communicating with some 10,000 other neurons. This work has led to new approaches to treat Parkinson’s disease. A knowledge economy requires a different approach to socioeconomic development than that adopted by Pakistan so far. It needs to rely on carefully crafted policies and the development of knowledge and skills in selected fields for inclusive sustainable socioeconomic development.

The formation of a taskforce to strengthen knowledge economy represents one of the most important developments in the history of Pakistan. The PMmust be congratulated for focusing on this critical area. The challenge now lies in the efficient implementation of the taskforce’s recommendations.

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