We live in an age where innovation determines progress. Truth has indeed become stranger than fiction. The remarkable manner in which innovation is transforming our lives is illustrated by the following examples. The blind can today see with their tongues. How do they do that? A company, Wicab, in Wisconsin, USA has developed a device that comprises a camera fitted on the glasses worn by the blind person. The optical signals captured by the camera are converted into electrical signals and then transmitted into a lollipop like device in the mouth of the blind person. These signals are then transmitted to the brain through the nervous system in the tongue, thereby restoring partial eyesight. Almost miraculously, the blind person can then differentiate between a knife and a fork and see the lift buttons!
In another development a cap fitted with certain sensors has been invented that allows a completely paralysed person to move his wheel chair just by thought control. Our brain emits four types of thought signals, one of which is the command signal. This can be recognized by the sensors on the cap linked to a computer and the paralysed person can thereby move his wheelchair in any direction purely by giving a thought command through a computer to the wheel chair. A car was driven around Germany last year just by thought control using the same technology.
There have been other striking developments too. The “disappearing cloak” in the Harry Potter books is now a reality! This is the result of the development of “metamaterials” that have the ability to bend light around them. Objects cloaked with this magical material actually disappear! The technology is now being applied by defense agencies for cloaking tanks, submarines and airplanes. Bullet proof paper has been invented using nanotechnology. Genes of luminescent deep sea jelly fishes have been transplanted into orchids, thereby affording flowers that glow like fire flies in the dark! 3D printing has come into the fore, and many objects are being manufactured using this exciting new technology. Tomorrow you may well be driving a car most of the components of which may have been printed on a 3D printing machine. Anti-aging compounds have been discovered, and when these were administered to old mice, the mice became younger (work of David Sinclair at Harvard, http://www.hms.harvard.edu/agingresearch/pages/faculty.htm). A small building was constructed last year in China with flying robots working in unison. Airplanes have been developed that can fly without internal fuel. These are scramjets. When they reach 12 times the speed of sound, they can capture oxygen from the stratosphere and use that as fuel. A robotic fly has been invented that is alive but fitted with cameras and sound systems. It can be remotely manipulated and guided. It can sit on the desk of your Prime Minister or President and send all the pictures and conversation to the foreign embassy of a super power a few miles away. A car has been invented in France that can run purely by compressed air. The first synthetic life was experimented with and a cell has been developed that is fitted with a completely synthetic genome. It replicates and exhibits the features of life. A completely synthetic cell is now being built (work of Craig Venter in Maryland, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/may/20/craig-venter-synthetic-life-form).
These are just a few examples of the strange and wondrous world of science and innovation that we live in. Countries that have invested massively in quality education, science & technology, and have then linked the research to the development of innovative products through fostering entrepreneurship are cashing in from the brain power of their youth. Some 4000 companies have emerged from the graduates of just one institution, MIT, that have annual sales of about $250 billion and employ over a million people. Stanford, with the silicon valley that emerged around it, is one of many examples how the strengthening of the triple helix, government, academia and the private sector, can result in huge benefits to those countries that have the will and passion to travel on the “knowledge road” to socio-economic development.
Pakistan too had embarked on this road to developing a knowledge economy in 2002 when the Higher Education Commission was established with a clear mandate to strengthen our universities and research centers so that innovation and entrepreneurship could flourish. In the subsequent decade a remarkable transformation occurred. In October 2008 I resigned in protest and left HEC after the new government suspended the release of scholarships of thousands of poor students studying abroad. However by then we had several universities ranked internationally (Times Higher Education UK rankings) among the top 300,300 an 500 of the world. The research output has grown from only 600 research publications in international journals in the year 2000 to about 8,000 research publications last year, placing us at par or slightly ahead of India on a per million population basis. Universities and degree awarding institutes grew from 59 institutions in the year 2000 to 137 institutions last year. Enrolment in universities grew from 270,000 in 2002 to about a million presently. PhD output grew from only 3,600 PhDs produced during the 55 year period during1947 to 2002, to about 6,000 PhDs in the subsequent 10 years. This was described as a “Silent Revolution” in a World Bank report on the higher education sector of Pakistan. During the period 2008-2013, fake degree holders in the parliament ganged together and repeatedly attacked HEC, but the Supreme Court came to the rescue twice on my petitions and HEC has fortunately survived.
One key scheme that could have given us a head start to develop a knowledge economy was alas abandoned by the last government and needs to be revived by the next who come into power. This was to establish a network of foreign engineering universities in Pakistan, so that our students could get engineering degrees from top foreign universities without ever going abroad. This was being done in collaboration with Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Austria, China and Korea. Each university had an integrated technology park so that the research could be quickly translated into innovative products and entrepreneurship could be promoted. Four law universities were also being established to strengthen law education. That too was abandoned. The devastation of our education, science and technology sectors that took place in the last 5 years has no parallel in the history of Pakistan.
However all is not lost. We can look ahead with hope for better days. Mahathir Mohammed once told me that Malaysia had decided 30 years ago that they will cut the size of all sectors and divert funds towards education as the future of Malaysia lay in an educated population. Today remarkably over 80% of all high technology exports from the Islamic world come from Malaysia alone. If Pakistan is to get rid of poverty, terrorism and injustice, it must establish a knowledge economy. Therein lies our salvation. The new government must declare an “education emergency” and allocate at least 7% of GDP to education with a quarter of this going to the higher education sector so that we can finally embark on the road to prosperity.
The author is the former Federal Minister for Science & Technology, former Chairman of Higher Education Commission and currently President of Pakistan Academy of Sciences