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Thursday June 30, 2022

Emerging technologies

April 27, 2022

The rapid emergence of new technologies is transforming the world around us in almost magical ways. They range from strange new materials that make objects invisible to the naked eye when they are coated by those materials, to new species of plants and animals that can be ‘created’ in the lab through a process of gene editing.

Devices have been developed that restore partial eyesight to the blind through images that can be transferred through the nervous system of the tongue to the brain. Anti-ageing compounds are being developed that slow down the process of ageing. It is thought that children being born today will have average lives of 120 years plus. Graphene has been developed which is 200 times stronger than steel and it is finding many applications.

Artificial intelligence is developing at a very rapid pace and finding its way in a myriad applications, ranging from city traffic management to drug discovery, from stock exchange appraisals to unravelling health and environmental issues. There is particular interest in the applications of artificial intelligence in areas like neural networking.

Some of these new technologies are finding their way into modern warfare. Swarms of intelligent drones that can interact together and attack enemy tanks in a highly organized and orchestrated manner are changing the dynamics of war and making the tank and the foot soldier progressively redundant. The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone, a combat drone with a wingspan of 12 meters and an armament of four laser-guided bombs, along with others supplied from the West have caused havoc to Russian tanks and other heavy ground weaponry. Small portable switchblade drones are also being successfully employed in Ukraine. These are comfortably transported in a tube from which they can be launched directly. Once launched, their wings snap out and the propulsion systems are activated.

Another rapidly emerging field is that of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology emerged serendipitously when it was discovered that remarkable changes of properties in materials occur when their sizes are reduced to between one nanometer (nm) and 100 nm. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter – about the same proportion to a meter, as a marble is to the earth. For instance, if we pulverize gold particles and bring them to the nano-meter size, then the colour of gold changes to blue-green, red or purple, depending on the particle size

Nanotechnology applications range across all science fields such as biomedical, chemical, mechanics, electronics, computer sciences and material science. Nanoscale sensors and devices are providing cost-effective continuous monitoring of the structural integrity and performance of bridges, tunnels etc. They are also being employed to support an enhanced transportation infrastructure to help drivers maintain lane position, avoid collisions, adjust travel routes to avoid congestion.

Nanotechnology is also finding a multitude of applications in water purification, medicine, cosmetics, electronics, new materials and many other fields. In the field of nano-electronics alone, the market size is estimated to be around $4 trillion and is growing rapidly. Similarly bullet-proof jackets have been developed based on bullet proof paper made from nano-cellulose – these jackets are light, absorbent and bullet proof! The global nanotechnology market size is estimated to be at about $1.80 billion and it is projected to reach $33.63 billion by 2030, registering a CAGR of 36.4 percent from 2021 to 2030.

Another exciting area of rapid development is that of energy. New and more efficient solar cells are being developed. Special paints have been developed with built-in solar cells so that they can produce electricity when sunlight falls on them. Advances on new more efficient batteries to drive electric cars are another area of hot research.

These and other amazing technologies are rapidly transforming our world, and the businesses that can produce and make use of them are flourishing. It is interesting that computer systems based on biological models was the fastest-growing technology among the new and emerging technologies with 67 percent growth in terms of new patents filed between 2016 and 2020. Google, Microsoft and Intel are leaders in the area. Major increases are also being seen in the new patents filed in the fields of machine learning, quantum computing, autonomous technology and 3D printing.

Excellent beginnings in some of these fields have been made in Pakistan with the establishment of the Pak Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering (Pak Austrian Fachhochschule) in Haripur, Hazara and a similar university is now under construction in Sialkot. Several centers for Artificial Intelligence have been established including the excellent National Center for Artificial Intelligence in NUST, Islamabad, as well as in NED Engineering University, UET Lahore and other universities.

The Sino-Pak Center for Artificial Intelligence has also begun operations in the Pak Austrian University in Haripur in collaboration with top universities in China and Austria. Pakistan’s first National Center for Nanotechnology has been established at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at Karachi University.

The Pak Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering will be particularly focusing on the training of Pakistani students in such new and emerging technologies. It is headed by an eminent Pakistani scientist Prof Mohammed Mujahid, and has Prof Nasser Ali Khan leading the development effort as project director. It happens to be the first university in the world with two key features. First, it has two academic sections, a ‘Fachhochschule’ section providing high level technical training at the BSc and MSc levels, and a postgraduate PhD postdoctoral level research university section. Second, each department of the is ‘godfathered’ by a reputable Austrian or Chinese University that will be closely involved in quality assurance, faculty development, technicians training and ensuring the quality of examinations. A major priority of this university is on high-technology product development and so its centre piece is its technology park where vigorous development of various commercial products are under way in close collaboration with industry. Another similar university is under development in Sialkot.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: ibne_sina@hotmail.com

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