The road to real progress

Wednesday / May 30 2018

Newspaper : The News

It is time we take suitable steps to make the transition towards a knowledge economy – especially since a new government will be sworn in later this year.

The first area that we should focus on is agricultural science. The field of agriculture offers vast opportunities for rapid growth through the application of agricultural engineering – including biotechnology and genomics – to enhance crop yields and create crops that are resistant to diseases, droughts and salt.

Our low productivity as compared with India or Egypt can be attributed to the lack of good seed varieties; low genetic potential; frequent droughts; and high temperature stress. The losses in agricultural output due to salinity and waterlogging are worth more than Rs30 billion per annum. Furthermore, post-harvest losses for fruits and vegetables stand at Rs60 billion every year.

A sustained growth rate of between five percent and six percent in agriculture is imperative to ensure rapid growth in national income, macroeconomic stability, fair distribution of wealth and a reduction in poverty. This can be realised by exploiting the unachieved potential of all the sub-sectors of agriculture, diversifying agricultural production towards high-value crops, and conserving land and water resources.

Another equally important field is engineering science. The tragic reality of our industrial sector is that 60 percent of our industry is in the field of textiles, which constitutes a small portion (six percent) of the global market. We are absent from the major sectors of the world market, such as engineering goods, pharmaceuticals, IT industry, ship building, electronics, biotechnology products and new materials.

The most important sector for industrial development is engineering. This requires the development of the technological, financial and physical infrastructures. There is also a need to create a seamless integration with the emerging trends of global production systems. The lack of high-quality technical education has been identified as one of the key reasons for the limited progress in the engineering sector.

We must also develop design engineering capabilities, databases and infrastructure; create testing laboratories and instruments; and initiate public -private partnership in projects. Universities need to be strengthened and centres of excellence must be established in various branches of engineering sciences. An excellent beginning in this direction has been made through a project that seeks to establish the Pak-Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering (“Fachhochschule”) in Haripur.

A related field that has emerged over the years is robotics and artificial intelligence. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is marked by breakthroughs in a number of fields, including autonomous electric vehicles, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, 3D printing, genomics/bioinformatics and humans with embedded electronics. Self-driving cars are being developed by all major manufacturers.

Cloud services are now evolving with a combination of AI and creating an exciting new dimension. A major US company has introduced more than 20 cognitive services, including image analysis (computer vision) and language comprehension. Predictive analytics (data mining and forecast trends) are also being offered by some companies. Facial recognition technology could lead to more effective security systems. It has been predicted that in 2018, we will enter the Robotics 3.0 era, with smarter robots that are capable of ubiquitous sensing and connectivity, cyber-physical fusion and autonomous capabilities (such as cognition, decision-making, learning and adaptation). They will also be capable and guarantee more human-friendly multimode interactions.

Blockchain (distributed ledger technology) is another fast evolving field. It has so far underpinned Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But now, it can be used in real estate, intellectual property protection and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. A related disruptive technology that is developing rapidly is quantum computing. Quantum computers will outperform super computers and many companies are investing heavily in this field. Pakistan needs to prepare itself and strive to become a world leader in these new and emerging technologies.

The development of new materials is critical for economic growth and competitiveness. Composites are finding applications in many industries, particularly in the areas of defence, electronics, engineering, transport, energy and sport. We need to open centres of excellence in metallurgy and departments for advanced studies in new materials in various universities. We must also establish centres for the development of polymeric and photonic materials. An important area of materials science is nanotechnology, which offers countless industrial opportunities. It involves the study and use of materials of tiny dimensions – dimensions at the scale of a billionth of a metre – that are referred to as nanometers (nm). When materials are reduced to this size, their properties undergo dramatic changes. Fascinating new industrial products have been developed in a whole range of fields based on nanotechnologies. The applications range in fields as diverse as surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics and microfabrication.

The corresponding applications are found in a wide variety of fields, including medicine, engineering and electronics. Billions of dollars are now being invested internationally in various fields to make new nanomaterials with exciting new applications and improved properties.

Mineral extraction and mineral processing are aligned with this field. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are rich in many minerals that can earn valuable foreign exchange for our country. We should, therefore, focus on establishing of geo-data and geo-mapping centres as well as centres of excellence in mineral processing. Similarly, research and development centres to exploit gemstone resources also need to be set up. Efforts were made in this regard between 2001 and 2005. However, the dearth of attention from successive governments has weakened these initiatives. Pakistan has a strong mineral base as compared with many developing countries. But it hasn’t been able to extract maximum potential benefits from it.

These and other developments are part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that will propel some countries forward and leave others behind. To make use of emerging opportunities, we need a visionary technocratic government that understands the key pillars of a knowledge economy and has the ability to make much-needed changes in our education system as well as in our science and technology institutions.

At present, our governance is nothing short of being schizophrenic in nature. Our national budget for science and technology in the current year is a pathetic Rs2.1 billion while we are spending a hundred fold more – Rs270 billion – on a 27-kilometre-long bus transportation scheme. Drastic changes of direction are needed in Pakistan before we start making real progress.

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