Short-cut to prosperity



M. Ziauddin

Over the last 70 years or so Pakistan has been missing the technological bus at several stops. The chase continues but the gap between the next stop and the point of technological development at which our country finds itself currently seems to be widening.
Our ruling elite’s total neglect of education is perhaps the main reason why this country has remained far behind other similarly placed countries in short-cutting to a higher level of development through technological advances like China and India have done and are now finding themselves standing almost at level with the first world countries including the US and Europe.
And while the world is poised on the brink of what is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution Pakistan continues to lack digitization, the major driving force propelling this revolution. We are at present located on the poorer side of the global digital divide.
The pathetic state of affairs in Pakistan’s education sector is perhaps the main reason for the country’s very low global standing in digitization. Pakistan is the second country in the world with the highest number of children who do not go to school. A large number of students who make it to schools, however, drop out by class five. About 72 percent make it to grade five which means a dropout rate of 28 percent. This significant figure further brings down the chunk of the population that makes it to school. Such a large number of students outside school mean that they are deprived of the opportunity to learn and acquire skills for playing a meaningful role in society.
Also, the emphasis in education in the country is still on a general and liberal type of BA or MA degree. The change towards scientific and technical education has still not taken place. The quality of education is low; the teachers are under-paid, under-trained and dispirited. The students are apathetic as they see no relationship between education and higher earnings or status in the society.
Pakistan’s planners continue to allocate insufficient resources for education. Moreover, the money allocated is not effectively spent. The hostility of the feudal and the indifference of the educated elite are responsible for the gross neglect of education in the country.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is currently suffering from an acute shortage of both capital and energy as it also lacks the enabling base (education) that helps produce a critical mass of technologically savvy manpower. With such a state of affairs there is hardly any hope of Pakistan travelling to other side of digital divide even by 2050.
In order to cover the distance to enter the positive side of the digital divide in the shortest possible time it is essential for us to embark up on short-cutting the route by adopting the new technological opportunities entering the global market at a very fast pace.
Technology has had exponential growth in the past decade and is playing a key role in the lives of today’s generation world- wide. The way we communicate, entertain ourselves and work, has changed for the good, thanks to technological advances.
And there are technologies in the market that if accessed by countries like Pakistan are likely to solve a much larger and pressing real world problem like food shortage. Satellite image data along with predictive analytical tools could potentially help farmers foresee disease onset and give governments a heads up on an approaching season of drought.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning can thus reduce the burden for Pakistani farmer in the fields and help government in Islamabad better handle an anticipated food crisis.
Nanotechnology is constantly diminishing the size of computer chips and ensuring new innovations in materials which are lightweight and strong for space applications. More importantly, nanotechnology can help solve a macro problem in developing and underdeveloped countries like Pakistan which are thirsting for potable water. Nanotechnology solutions can help create a low-cost filtration membrane system to make water drinkable and disease free, available across the world, even in the remotest regions. This technology can significantly multiply the philanthropic work of organizations like the United Nations.
Even in instances of hybrid seeds from biotech research, known to achieve higher yield and being disease resistant, the common farmer views it as a double-edged sword. Expensive prices of seeds and difficulty to access such products keep the overall benefit to society, low.
Agricultural countries like Pakistan should invest a considerable percentage of the taxes that they collect into biotech research, specifically, to solve farming problems. This would be an investment for a better future and a reduced burden for tomorrow’s generations who could otherwise face soaring prices for food from expensive genetically modified seeds sold by large corporations.
Energy storage is suddenly the need of the hour thanks to the fast growth of solar technology. Solar panels have been around for decades but a recent drop in production prices has made countries rethink their energy choices.
The world has reached an inception point and the wind is blowing in favor of renewable sources such as solar, thanks to comparative per-unit energy generation prices with non-renewable coal. Supply and demand is however a big issue, since the sun shines 10-12 hours a day, but energy consumption is 24/7.
The government, therefore, must equip all power grids, urban and rural, to buy excess electricity generated from rooftop solar panels from those who move to solar energy. This will push the sector and encourage mass adoption. Large barren, unused farmlands generating solar power for neighboring energy-guzzling cities seems like a good business model to generate money for those whose only source of livelihood, previously, was farming.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution brings the next bus-stop within reach of countries like Pakistan. The technological developments promised by this latest revolution provide us with a guaranteed short-cut to reach a point where we would not be so far behind China and India in what is termed as socio-economic advancement.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.
The possibilities of billions of p eople connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.
Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Digital fabrication technologies, meanwhile, are interacting with the biological world on a daily basis. Engineers, designers, and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.
Innovation has always had a top down approach to solving problems. The top-level management have been the first to benefit from new technological advances at the workplace. This trend is now changing because of the fast- paced technological developments that are rendering access to these developments highly economical as well as within the reach of masses. Added advantages due to technological advances have begun to impact the masses and have become a tool to bridge economic gaps between the rich and the poor.
Inclusive growth is what is being promised by these tech developments which in turn is expected to guarantee that the gaps in economic disparity would be closed soon so that countries maintain strong GDP per capita growth rates.
The technological advances that the rich enjoy, endorse and help bring to the market are not likely to remain exclusive to the rich and privileged only anymore and are expected soon to be deployed to uplift countries like Pakistan located currently at the bottom of the pyramid.
Biotech advances from billions of dollars spent on research and development, are not likely any more to remain limited to the four walls of Fortune 500 biotech companies.