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September 4, 2019

The power of technology

Opinion

September 4, 2019

Pakistan stands at a crossroads. The fourth industrial revolution is upon us, and technological changes are happening at a mind-boggling pace.

New species of plants and animals can now be developed in the laboratory through gene-editing techniques and the process that used to take millions of years through the process of mutations and evolution can now be achieved in months, if not weeks. The combustion engine will soon disappear and be replaced by self-driven electric vehicles.

Graphene has been discovered, a material made of pure carbon about 200 times stronger than steel; it is finding amazing applications in construction materials, electronics and medical devices. Regenerative medicine is advancing in a manner that promises to change humanity as we know it, with the discovery of anti-ageing compounds that not only slow down the process of ageing but reverse it, making old animals young again, changing their body features in magical ways. Children being born today have therefore been predicted to ages well over 150 years, because of such advances, laying the foundations of serious social problems. 3 D printing is being used not just to produce entire houses in days, but also to print parts of living human organs such as kidneys or livers within hours.

Quantum computers work hundreds of millions of times faster than conventional computers, and the state of synthetic consciousness may soon be reached, with the ability of computers to learn from their mistakes and to self-improve. Once such a state of ‘singularity’ is achieved, us puny human beings may become extinct on our planet. Stephen Hawking has indeed predicted that the greatest threat to humanity may be posed by artificial intelligence. The author’s own work on the molecular basis of thought and memory is providing a fundamental understanding of such neurodegenerative processes as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy – leading to developing treatments for such incurable diseases.

Commercial considerations are often driving these developments forward. Toyota has announced that it will be manufacturing only electric vehicles by 2025. Volvo will similarly produce either electric or hybrid vehicles from next year. With lesser moving parts and simpler technologies, electric car prices will drop sharply and they will become cheaper than petrol or diesel powered cars with a couple of years resulting in a huge increase in sales of such vehicles. Volkswagen is in the process of installing 2800 supercharging stations in 17 cities of the US.

With the rapidly growing advances in artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles will replace human driven cars soon, and almost all manufacturers are developing such self-driven automobiles. This is predicted to lead to many car manufacturers going out of business as the number of cars on the roads will be reduced sharply, there being no need to own a car of your own with the availability of robotic taxis. This will also put thousands of car insurance companies out of business because there will be hardly any road accidents.

Bots will also take over many businesses to improve business efficiencies and improve customer experience. Lawyers, judges, doctors, nurses and teachers will be replaced by intelligent round-the-clock robots powered by artificial intelligence. A beginning in this direction has already been made by IBM which has developed a system named ‘Watson’ that is available in the US to offer legal or medical advice at a fraction of what it would cost to consult a doctor or a lawyer.

The manner in which teaching is done is also changing as hundreds of thousands of courses at school, college and university levels are available free or at very low cost through the internet. MIT Open Courseware has been available for the last two decades free of charge but in the last seven years, Stanford, Harvard, Yale and many other top universities are offering courses at college and university levels through the internet. Excellent school-level courses, thousands dubbed in Urdu, are also available from the Khan Academy for school students. Thousands of these school, college and university courses have been compiled by us, as the first integrated version of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). As result of our efforts at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi these are now freely available at www.lej4learning.com.pk and can be used by our educational institutions to uplift educational standards.

The PTI government is aware of the opportunities and challenges of these developments and their applications in agriculture, industry and defence. A task force on ‘Technology Driven Knowledge Economy’ was therefore formed with the prime minister as chairman and this writer as vice chairman. Its members include the federal ministers of finance, planning, education, science & technology, IT/telecom, chairman HEC and several secretaries and subject experts. Prime Minister Imran Khan takes a personal interest in the projects of this task force, which include the fast-emerging areas of artificial intelligence, high value added agriculture, next generation genomics, applications of biotechnology and nanotechnology in industry and agriculture, mineral development, food processing technologies, renewable energy and other areas related to the transition of Pakistan to a strong knowledge economy.

Projects worth about Rs200 billion are currently under approval and about Rs13.6 billion have been allocated for this strategically important initiative that is aimed to making Pakistan a leader in some of these new and emerging technologies. An important recent spin-off of one such initiative was to work with Nadra and the FBR to increase the tax net. Mathematical algorithms were developed to identify non-tax filers or low tax filers. Within three months using Nadra’s (limited) transaction records with innovative Artificial Intelligence (AI) protocols, the model identified 3.8 million non-filers – each with a tax liability of more than Rs100,000 who should have paid an estimated Rs1.6 trillion in income tax in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017.

The FBR initiated a voluntary self-declaration Amnesty Scheme from May 15 to June 30, 2019. As a live test, Nadra opened an online, interactive portal accessible to all 118 million CNIC holders from June 21 - July 3. It enabled individual citizens to personally glimpse their personal assets and income data records held with Nadra.

Before the opening of the portal, only 458 people had declared an insignificant amount of income and assets to the FBR. After June 21, the number of declarations went above 110,000 in the subsequent 14 days. Another 21,000 declarations came in after the deadline. Resultantly, total declared assets moved sharply up to Rs3 trillion and actual taxes paid to Rs65 billion. More than 90,000 non-filers became filers and total tax returns for the year ending June 30, 2018 crossed 2 million. This was by far the highest number ever in the history of the FBR.

This was one of the first projects taken up by our task force and cost the government nothing, but helped generate about Rs65 billion revenue, illustrating the tremendous power of technology in every sphere of human endeavour.

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

Email: [email protected]

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