Change in the world known to us is accelerating at a breakneck speed. If you are a fan of science fiction and informed enough about the technical advancement, you must realize the two will soon become indistinguishable.
As per IDC’s Digital Universe Study sponsored by EMC dated December 2012 which is accessible online, since its inception till 2005 the human civilization had created total 130 exabytes (1 exabyte = one million terabytes, TB) worth of data. This includes every written word, every music note, every movie and whatever else your mind can think of. In a short span of only 5 years the total data had reached to 1,200 exabytes level. By 2015 it was around 7,900 exabytes. In 2020 it is expected to reach 49,000 exabytes. What does it mean? In a span of 15 years mankind has created over 375 times more data than it ever did, despite the help of the Mozarts, Spinozas, Shakespeares and Kubricks. Notice how busy we have been? While some of this data might be noise, it is plain that mankind is quickly taking the civilization to unimagined historical heights.
This acceleration in data creation is characterized by the evolution of smarter machines, more agile robots, software invention at a terrifying pace and exploding human population. The confused state of political affairs you see around the world is merely on the surface. Underneath the surface of disturbing and petty politics among nations lies the preparation, or lack thereof, of the greatest transformation ever; of the kind that can easily bring in an early doom and yet which can equally comfortably take us to the conquest of the stars.
A question arises here: What has Pakistan done so far to fit in? When the mankind takes the next giant leap into the future will there be enough Pakistani contribution to deserve an honorable mention? The sad answer so far is a big no. Owing to a unique set of challenges, decline in the quality of academic standards, population acceleration and lack of infrastructural arrangement to handle all these matters leads one to believe that things are far from being satisfactory.
Consider this: In the Global Innovation Index 2016 – co-published by Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a specialised agency of the UN – Pakistan occupied the 119th position. In 2015, the Toronto Martin Prosperity Institute introduced following three criteria to measure a nation’s creativity: technology (the research and development investment and patents per capita), talent (the share of adults with higher education and the workforce in the creative class) and tolerance (the treatment of immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities and the scope for civil liberties). As per these conditions Pakistan stood at the 111th position out of a total of 139. This must offer us some food for thought. But a wide institutional awareness is late and is still awaited.
In my humble view Pakistan needs to do many things at once. But before that let us consider the cutting-edge fields that need our immediate attention.
Max Tegmark in his Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence identifies three categories of intelligence. Life 1.0; of paramecium and amoeba, which can neither reprogram their software or hardware, Life 2.0; of us humans who can reprogram our software through learning and thought, and Life 3.0; of the smart machines which at some point will be smart enough to reproduce their hardware as well as software. There already are software routines out there which not only run other machines but also design and program them. At this moment it is widely believed that Life 3.0 or the Artificial Intelligence, has not achieved technological singularity (the ability to surpass the human levels of intelligence) but that may soon change. Now consider nations endowed with this technology to reshape their research and progress. The country that remains behind faces extinction. It is important to note that while on its own the rise of the AI poses numerous challenges to the society, its benefits outweigh the threats. One of these benefits is that its industrial use can revolutionize how industries function in any country, including ours.
We mortals live on a giant rock hurtling around a star. This rock has its limits. Not only are the resources it can provide severely limited and under remarkable stress, it is also politically divided making an optimum use of available resources a far cry. With an exploding population, degrading environment and shrinking resources, mankind is looking in the vast depths of the sky where space and resources appear endless. So far space exploration has had little to do with anything but national prestige. That, however, is changing. With Donald Trump’s decision to create a U.S. space force, it is clear that space exploration is soon to transform into space exploitation and colonization.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has so far carried out 97 spacecraft missions and 68 launch missions including Mangalyaan, its low-cost unmanned orbiter mission to Mars. The agency also plans to launch its own spacecraft soon. With other countries quickly joining the fray, it is clear that space competition is soon to acquire mythic proportion. In comparison, however, Pakistan’s program remains rudimentary at best. It needs huge investment as a shot in the arm to reach a competitive level.
As man seeks to renegotiate his environment as well as own intellectual capacity, it is a given that he would also try to renegotiate his own form and other organic life around him. Huge strides have been made in the field in this regard. Gone are the days of Dolly the sheep. Now the humanity’s work is reaching new, unbelievable limits. Disease is now being viewed as just another software coding problem. If you can rewrite computer code to kill computer viruses, why should a slightly more complicated genetic code be treated differently? Genetic engineering is also having a significant impact on the agricultural produce like crop yields and quality.
In Pakistan, however, tokenism rules this field as well. You do not find too many quality research institutes or new discoveries or for that matter any commercial patents. This has to change if the country wants to be significant part of the future’s many revolutions.
Nanotechnology deals with the things that are very small. At the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers; a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. It handles the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. From drug delivery in health, curing the incurable, terraforming the environment to warfare and espionage, the uses are endless. However, Pakistan’s educational institutions don’t seem to be paying much heed to the field. While capital intensive in nature, the research in the field can allow industries and nations unimaginable sway over all materials known to man. There is a need for the creation of a war chest to sponsor research in the field with the matching intellectual resources.
If you think that flying drones pose serious threat to national security, you simply need to check out the YouTube channel of Boston Dynamics. The adventures of Atlas, Buddy and other robots will give you a headache. Notice their agility and imagine these robots flying in the air fully weaponized in the place of drones. Apart from firing rockets from the sky they could land and take out the mark individually. That is how radically and soon the warfare is about to change. And that is only one aspect of it. As technology mainstreams and owing to imitation or copycat the industry gets cheaper by the minute, you can see the utilities of these robots in every walk of life.
In Pakistan you have already seen token uses of robotics in the shape of a robot waiter which is hardly more than a contraption to carry trays around. At a rudimentary level work has already began in the country’s startup industries, but the field needs immediate attention, or the country will be left far, far behind.
As the name suggests, three-dimensional printing is a lot like manufacturing but at one unit at a time scale. But it is more than that. To manufacture anything or to 3D print any item you don’t need to go visit various industries. Get all the raw material needed in the printing and a blueprint of the product and you are good to go. Pakistan needs to invest heavily here because in a matter of decades this technology will completely revolutionize industrial production.
As the world braces for a dramatic shift from the unknown to the unknown and unfixed, Pakistan seems ill prepared for the future. It is imperative that the country finds substantial investment in the field so that the future does not ambush us with total surprise. Sadly, the subject is neither being taught nor being supported anywhere in the country. But how can a nation ignore issues that may impact everything from future of jobs to economics, sociology and national security? It is important that at least one institute be established with the best human and material support that the country can offer.
What Can be Done
The list above is neither exhaustive nor final. The shape of technology and with it the trajectory of our journey to infinite possibilities keep changing with every passing minute. It is imperative for academic circles and the industrial base in the country to push for advanced research in these and other fields.
The first thing to do is to establish a research and technology endowment fund at every reputed university along with the creation of state-of-the-art labs. Initially the country will have to borrow human resource from other countries. But with the passage of time these academic and research facilities will be able to train enough professionals to help both in education and research.
The second important step is to harness this potential research with the industrial sector. Through a public-private partnership venture the two can be linked. With every passing day economic incentive and innovations in technology can work together to take the country out of the current mess.
The third step is to create research and technology related special committees in the parliament and provincial assemblies.
Fourth step includes optimum use of television and radio resources available in the country to impart knowledge and pique interest. Initially this doesn’t have to start with documentaries or audio-video lectures. Hardly any part of Pakistani pop culture is dedicated to this wonder. Neither are sci-fi books, comics or magazines being published; nor are sci-fi movies or TV shows being made. This has to change. Simultaneously, it is important to encourage institutions like Virtual University and Allama Iqbal Open University to up their game in the production of audio-video resources that can build better knowledge base. Instead of solely relying on the television broadcasts they need to use well designed apps to distribute visually enriched content.
Another crucial step is to encourage computer use in the country. During General Pervez Musharraf’s rule the government had allowed the import of second-hand or refurbished machines at a cheaper cost. Since then the next governments have replaced that policy with the introduction of laptop schemes. However, given the heavy sums that costs the exchequer it will be prudent to go back to the original idea. Cheaper but more efficient machines can easily be bought by the students and put to good use. This of course will be a preliminary step. Once the country starts producing its own units the cost can be brought even further down.
Last but not the least, there is a need to encourage science and technology journalism. Without more public focus on these fields, the country will not be able to move further into the future. And this genre of specialized journalism will go a long way in laying foundation of scientific thought in the country.
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist.
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