Monday September 20, 2021

Disruptive innovations

August 18, 2021

After the advent of the 4th Industrial revolution, the world has started changing at a mind-boggling pace. We now live in a world where truth has become far stranger than fiction. Each day brings a myriad of new discoveries, many of which are transforming our lives in a multitude of ways.

The blind can, amazingly, today partially see using their tongue. This is a device developed about 10 years ago by a company in Wisconsin. A camera is fitted on the glasses worn by the blind person which collects the optical signals and after conversion to electrical signals, transfers them to a hand held lollipop like device that has some 400 sensors. The moment the blind person places this device on the tongue, the image is transferred to the brain via the nervous system, restoring partial eyesight.

Exciting developments have taken place in the field of materials science. You can hang an elephant on a thread made of ‘graphene’, 150 times thinner than a human hair and the strand will not break as this material, made of pure carbon, is 200 times stronger than steel. We can make objects disappear to the naked eye if we cover them with a material that has the ability to bend light. Harry Potter’s invisible cloak is therefore now a reality.

The advent of nanotechnology has also brought many exciting applications. Bulletproof paper made of nano-cellulose has been developed and bulletproof jackets are being developed from paper. Nano-pharmaceuticals are under development that are less toxic and more effective than their parent compounds. Before long you will be using nano-aspirin, nano-paracetamol and nano-antibiotics because of their improved safety and efficacy.

Fascinating developments have also taken place in the field of genetics. Genes have been transferred from deep sea jellyfish to flowers such as orchids – the result are truly spectacular luminescent flowers that glow in the dark. Certain ‘molecular scissors’ have been developed that can splice genes fairly accurately. The properties of one plant or animal can thus be transferred to others and we can thus ‘create’ new plant or animal species that have never existed before on this planet.

Genes responsible for the ageing process have also been discovered, and by turning these genes off, humans may be able to live for hundreds of years. Anti-ageing compounds now under investigation include resveratrol, metformin and NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide). When given to old mice, it made them years younger.

Objects can be moved by thought control. These are devices that you can wear on your head and give mental commands to drive a car or move a wheel-chair. Stem cells are now being used to cure damaged organs. The field of regenerative medicine is still in its infancy, and it may well change the manner in which medicine will be practised tomorrow. New methods are being developed to alert us before we fall ill. Advances in genetics and biomarkers will be able to inform persons of the looming danger ahead before the onset of a disease so that they can take precautionary measures. We have all heard of 3D printing. Living human organs are already being produced through 3D printing.

Artificial intelligence is evolving at a fantastic pace and before we know it, lawyers, doctors, and even judges will be robots. It has been predicted that by 2030, computers will become more intelligent than humans and will take over many of our functions. IBM has already launched two exciting services in medicine and law. The IBM Watson medical service offers medical advice to patients, while IBM Watson legal service is offering legal advice to customers. In an amazing demonstration a few years ago, Watson helped nurses diagnose cancer four times more accurately than human nurses. Similarly, IBM Watson offers legal advice within seconds, with 90 percent accuracy as compared to 70 percent accuracy when the same task was performed by humans. Indeed, many budding young lawyers in the US are worried regarding future job availability because of the services available through robots.

Driverless cars are also under development by all major automobile manufacturers and soon it will be far cheaper to have access to robotic cars that will be at your door-step within minutes of your request. Most car insurance companies will vanish and there will be hardly any accidents with cars under robotic control. The combustion engine is on its way out and petrol or diesel driven cars will vanish from our roads and be replaced by electric cars with super-fast charging batteries.

The upheaval that is occurring can be judged from the fact that the total value of shares of Tesla, a company established about 20 years ago, overtook the value of shares of Ford, which was established in 1904. The CEO of Mercedes in a speech stated that the real completion of his company was now not with other traditional car companies but with companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, and Tesla. Already we see the disruptive manner in which the face of businesses is changing because of the advent of computer sciences.

Solar energy will soon become the main source of world energy and already installations in UAE are taking place with 1000MW farms at a price of l2.5 cents per kilowatt hour. This will allow the water problem to be solved as cheap desalination plants to supply water to coastal cities from sea water will become commonplace.

For Pakistan to progress in the 21st century and become part of this 4th Industrial Revolution, we need to focus our efforts largely on establishing a strong knowledge-based economy. The change requires the need for visionary leadership in Pakistan, as was achieved by Korea (General Park), Singapore (Lee Kwan Yew), Malaysia (Mahathir Mohammed) and China (Deng). Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken the first steps for such a transition by establishing the Knowledge Economy Task Force and funding many important projects through this initiative. So, there is light now at the end of the tunnel.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.

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