Disruptive innovations

Wednesday / Oct 04 2017

Newspaper : The News

In this rapidly changing world, innovations are disrupting established businesses. Elon Musk, an American entrepreneur, established Space X, which is able to launch rockets to space at a fraction of the cost of what Nasa could achieve. It was the first private company to launch a Space Station into orbit and then recover it in 2010. Space X now routinely sends cargo to space stations under a cargo resupply contract.

Earlier this year, the value of the shares of the electric car company Tesla, founded in 2003, overtook the value of shares of Ford – a company that is 100 years older. It is expected that within a decade, most petrol/diesel cars and buses will disappear from roads all over the world and will be replaced by electric vehicles. In a speech last month Dieter Zetsche, the MD of Daimler Benz, stated: “Our competitors are no longer other car companies but Tesla, Google, Apple [and] Amazon – Uber is just a software tool, they don’t own any cars, and are now the biggest taxi company in the world –Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company in the world, although they don’t own any properties”.

Zetsche is right. The car industry is in a huge disruptive turmoil brought about by developments in batteries that can now allow you to drive a car for more than 300 kilometres on a single charge and software that is transforming cars to autonomous self-driving vehicles. This will result in car insurances becoming 100-fold cheaper than what it is today as there will be fewer accidents, putting most car insurance firms out of business. Soon, hardly anyone will need to own a car as it will be far cheaper to use autonomous taxis that will be at your door step within a couple of minutes of your call.

A test flight for the world’s first flying taxi service was conducted in Dubai last month. The drone vehicle was manufactured by the German company Volocopter. This may mark the beginning of a new era in which you fly your children to school each morning in autonomous drone helicopters and thus avoid heavy traffic.

Artificial intelligence will now be transforming almost every sphere of human activity, ranging from medicine, agriculture, industrial manufacture, transportation, home appliances and warfare. IBM’s Watson, is already helping nurses diagnose cancer with an accuracy that is four times greater than humans. Lawyers in the US are finding it difficult to get jobs because IBM’s Watson can offer legal advice within seconds with a 90 percent accuracy as compared with 70 percent accuracy of human lawyers.

It is predicted that by 2030 computers will become far more intelligent than humans and will develop the ability to acquire knowledge by themselves, learn from their mistakes and improve their abilities. Even the pressures of housing in major cities will vanish as office staff will be able to work virtually from their homes that could be located in distant scenic localities. Artificial intelligence can now be used to recognise minute facial expressions and determine when people are lying. This could make life difficult for criminals.

Another area which is undergoing huge disruptive changes is the energy sector. The prices of solar cells have collapsed to under three cents per kilowatt hour. A bid for a solar farm in Abu Dhabi was made by a consortium of the Chinese solar panel-maker JinkoSolar and the Japanese company Marubeni at a price of 2.42 cents (Rs.2.5) per kilowatt hour. This makes solar power cheaper than coal or gas, which are priced between four and five cents per kilowatt hour.

One of the largest impacts of cheap electricity will be on the availability of water through desalination plants operating at low costs. This will allow drinking water as well as water for agriculture to become available at a low cost. We can now desalinate one cubic metres (264 gallons) of water, which amounts to Rs20 for about 1,000 gallons. This can have a huge impact on life in countries that are under water stress, such as Pakistan. We urgently need to install such low price solar farms – as is being done in the UAE.

Genetics is another field that is undergoing rapid transformation. The spectacular advances in genetic engineering will impact both health and agriculture. Certain ‘aging genes’ have been identified and the reasons why we age are beginning to be understood with greater clarity. Compounds have already been discovered that not only slow down the process of aging but can actually reverse it successfully in animals. The average ages have been growing by three months every year. But with the discovery of new approaches to slowing down aging, it is expected that children who are being born today will live to an average age of more than 120 years.

Genetic manipulations are also allowing new varieties of fruits, vegetables and cereal crops to be developed that have much higher yields, are disease-resistant and salt-tolerant. The production of plants is now possible purely through tissue cultures without using seeds. If you visit the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at Karachi University, you will discover thousands of beautiful orchids growing in greenhouses, which are produced through tissue cultures.

Exciting innovations are occurring in the field of education. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been available for MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, University of California and many other universities. High-quality school level courses are available from the Khan Academy. In Pakistan, an integrated version of MOOCs (iMOOCs) has been developed at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences, Karachi University. This allows access to tens of thousands of school, college and university level courses which are available at www.lej4 learning.com.pk.

This initiative from the Latif Ebrahim Jamal Science Information Center at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences, Karachi University allows any individual anywhere in the world to benefit from these materials at the school, college and university levels. Many of the school level courses are dubbed in Urdu, which could allow students across the world to benefit from this Pakistani initiative at no cost and in an integrated and easily accessible manner.

In order to enter this fascinating world of innovation, we must raise the standards of education. In Turkey, no one can be appointed as a teacher in a public sector university unless he or she has gone through a centralised test that assesses their basic command on the subject. In Singapore, A levels has become mandatory for all schoolteachers. There are now thousands of innovation parks in China, India, Turkey and many other countries where entrepreneurship is promoted through access to mentorship, legal and financial services, venture capital and office or lab facilities. We need to follow these examples if we are to rise as a nation.


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