The world of science

Wednesday / Aug 02 2017

Newspaper : The News

There are exciting discoveries taking place in almost every field of science that are transforming our lives in an unpredictable manner. In an earlier article, I wrote about the advancements made in artificial intelligence. However, the pace at which this field is evolving has posed a clear and present danger which, if not checked immediately, could lead to the extinction of human beings from our planet.

Elon Musk, the CEO of the electric car company Tesla and of the space transportation company SpaceX, issued a sombre warning recently on this emerging threat. Speaking to the governors of various US states at the summer meeting of the National Governors Association, he warned that artificial intelligence is the “biggest risk that we face as a civilisation”. He stated that it may soon be too late to reverse its effects as we will soon have robots that will be far smarter than us and will be able to learn rapidly from their mistakes. Overall, a far more intelligent “species” will emerge within the next few decades.

According to Musk, industries will soon become completely autonomous, leaving countless people jobless. National safety will be endangered unless proper regulations are put in place. He lamented that governments largely lack awareness and foresight on what is going on. Urgent action is needed before matters spiral out of our control.

The scenario portrayed by the film series ‘Terminator’ is about to become a reality. Wars will not be fought by human soldiers but by machines that far smarter than human beings and nations with the ‘smartest computers’ will rule the world. Before long, the needs of humans and their inherent weaknesses of irrational behaviour, ruled by anger and impulsiveness, may necessitate their elimination and the dominance of the ‘electronic species’ that will be ageless and completely logical. Musk stated that when people realise what is going on, they will be afraid.

Another exciting area of rapid development is genetics. The hereditary information in plants and animals is contained in the genes. Think of a tiny molecular necklace (DNA) with about three billion beads (molecules). There are four types of beads and it is their sequence that determines everything about us humans – our colour, height, the structure of our body, the limits of our intelligence and our susceptibility to diseases. This sequence is known as the genetic code.

The first such code to be detected in humans was that of Professor Jim Watson in 2007, even though a partial human genome was announced by the US President Bill Clinton in 2003. That cost about a million dollars and took several years to accomplish. With faster sequencing machines now available today, this can be done within a week at a cost of about $5,000. At the Jamilur Rahman Centre for Genome Research at Karachi University – which was named after my father – Pakistan’s most advanced gene sequencers have been installed and intensive research is being carried out on human and plant genomics.

There have been amazing advancements in this field over the last 10 years. Since all the characteristics of different species are determined by their genetic structure, it is possible to identify the genes responsible for some special characteristics and transfer those genes into another plant or animal species. As a result, this would create those characteristics in that species.

Many of us have seen fireflies glowing in the dark. How does this happen? There is a fascinating underlying chemistry behind this phenomenon that involves a compound called luciferin. Luciferin combines with oxygen to emit light. A similar mechanism for the production of light exists in deep sea jelly fish that can light up their surroundings in an otherwise dark ocean.

A few years ago, a group of Israeli scientists succeeded in identifying the genes responsible for light production and transferred them into orchids. The result was luminescent orchids that could glow in the dark. In a similar manner, characteristics of disease-resistance, salt-tolerance and greater yields are being incorporated into wheat, maize, rice and other crops and genetically-modified crops are being planted in an increasing number of areas in different parts of the world.

Spectacular advancement are also being made in attempts to artificially make organisms in the laboratory that can reproduce themselves. Dan Gibson and his coworkers at the J Craig Venter Institute in the US had reported the preparation of the entire section of bacterial genome in ‘Science’ in 2013. This bacterial genome comprised 582,970 base pairs that were artificially modelled (by synthesis) after a bacterium called mycoplasma genitalium. The time is not far when, with a deeper understanding of the functions of these building blocks of life, we will start assembling them in the laboratory to produce new plant and animal species that suit our requirements. The process has already begun.

Another important field of rapid development is new materials. You can now cover objects with certain materials that will make them invisible. Known as metamaterials, they have the remarkable ability to bend light. Developed by scientists in Germany and the US, they are now being used to cloak tanks, aircraft and submarines from the enemy. Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak has become a reality.

Another material that has been developed in recent years is graphene. Made of pure carbon, it is about 200 times stronger than steel and is finding numerous applications in the electronics industry, the pharmaceuticals sector and in household appliances. The lightest solid known has also been made at the University of Central Florida. It is so light that it has been nicknamed ‘frozen smoke’ since it is a translucent aerogel made of fine carbon tubes (nanotubes). Aerogels consist of 99.8 percent air, and they are a thousand times lighter than glass. They are 39 times better as insulators than carbon fiber materials. The material is springy and has the ability to be stretched thousands of times.

Work on many of these fields will begin next year under the auspices of the Pak-Austrian University of Applied Engineering and Technology (Fachhochschule) that is being established in Haripur and at the Pak-Italian University of Engineering and Technology that is being established at the Lahore Knowledge Park on the basis of my proposals to the KP and Punjab governments, respectively.

Pakistan stands at a crossroads of history, with some 100 million young people who are below the age of 20. If we educate them and unleash their creative potential by establishing an environment where science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship can be fostered, Pakistan can swiftly develop as a strong nation – just like China. However, if we continue to ignore education and science – as successive governments have done in the past – this country is doomed.


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