Disruptive innovations | Dr Atta-ur-Rahman


The world is changing at an incredible pace and each week brings a thousand new discoveries, many of which are changing the way we live and interact with others. These are making rich nations that invest in science, technology and innovation richer.

One rapidly developing field is that of autonomous vehicles. Prototypes of cars that drive themselves are already here, and within 10 years we may well find driverless cars, trucks and buses in abundance on the roads. Technology has developed to a sophisticated level, and the only major barrier is that of regulators who need to rethink the safety, insurance and traffic laws. Indeed some manufacturers are already thinking about how passengers may be engaged in a driverless vehicle.

Audi has developed a replaceable console. VW now has ultrasonic technology that predicts where parking space may be available. Mercedes has a prototype concept car F 015 the side panels of which are all flexible displays that transform the ‘car’ into a theatre for infotainment, social media and ICT applications.

In the health area too there are exciting devices now becoming available that can monitor your health and report abnormalities as soon as they occur. With the growing ageing populations these devices will find increasing use. They include products that measure and report on a wide array of biometric data including glucose levels (iHealth), temperature (TempTraq and Pacif-i by Blue Maestro), sleep patterns (Sleep Number), pulse (Fitbit’s PurePulse), alcohol level (Alcohoot), weight (Withings), blood pressure (QardioArm by Qardio), emotional state (Being by Zensorium), pain blocker (Quell) etc.

Before long all-in-one devices will be developed to monitor all aspects of your health and suggest medications before things go seriously wrong. Anti-ageing compounds have been discovered which not only slow down the ageing process but reverse it, making old animals young again. New stem cell technologies promise to change the future of medicine, and regenerative medicine involving tissue engineering is a hot growing field.

Another technology that can lead to ‘big bang disruption’ is that of 3D printing. Initially the technology was applied using polymeric materials but more recently it is being used to ‘print’ objects using iron, bronze, maple and lime stone. The world’s first airplane all-metal jet engine was produced by 3D printing last year by scientists at Monash University Australia. Food items such as custom made chocolate designs can be produced by the company CoCoJet.

A pen named ‘3D Doodler’ has been developed that extrudes heated plastic filament thereby allowing solid objects to be ‘drawn’ in 3D using the process. 3D printing is now being used for printing human hip bones, jaw bones, and more recently parts of human liver and kidneys with living tissue.

A rapidly developing technology is the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), which allows connectivity between all things around us. Small devices are being embedded into various everyday things making them ‘smart’. The blind can see with their tongue through a camera developed by a US firm, Wicab which transmits images through a lollipop like device in the mouth to the brain. A real time translation device has been developed so that you can talk to a Chinese person in English but he will hear the translated version in Chinese in real time, and vice versa (Waverly Labs, New York).

A Smart Pot has been developed by the company ‘Parrot’ which has built-in sensors that measure temperature, moisture, sunlight and fertiliser levels. You are sent an alert on your smartphone when attention is needed. Integrated smart homes are being developed that automatically detect and adjust lights, temperature, refrigerator performance and will cook the food for you so that it is hot and ready when you arrive home after a long day. DARPA, a US defence research funding agency, has developed cyborg insects that can be manipulated from miles away.

Objects can be moved by thought control, using a mind-reading hat that transfers thought commands to a computer fitted in a car or in a wheel chair. Electronic textiles are commercially available with a large number of designs built-in so that you can change the colour and design of your dress by simply pressing a button. ‘Ebb textiles’ change their colour slowly so that you go to a party wearing one colour and come back wearing another.

Advanced robotic devices being developed include robotic surgical tools that allow procedures to be less invasive. Robotic prosthetics and “exoskeletons” can restore functions of the elderly and the amputees and dramatically enhance the physical abilities of soldiers to lift huge weights or run and jump at super human capacities.

Perhaps the field that will impact our lives in the most dramatic ways is that of next generation genomics. The ability to sequence animal or plant genomes rapidly and cheaply is opening up a vast new field of tailored organisms. With the growing ability to accurately cut the desired pieces of the DNA of one organism and insert them into another organism, a whole new world is opening up.

Socio-economic development is often directly related to the extent of investment in R&D. For example Samsung has an annual R&D budget of $14 billion annually, compared to only $8 billion of Apple. The result is the domination of Samsung in the world market. This is also the secret of China’s emergence as a world power. China continues to send hundreds of thousands of students to top universities abroad and builds centres of excellence around them when they return.

Last year China sent 523,700 students to advanced western countries for training and 409,100 students returned to China in the same year after completing their studies. Establishments of world-class universities that support high-tech industry is the reason behind Singapore (with a population one-fourth of Karachi with no natural resources) having annual exports of $518 billion while ours in Pakistan stagnate at $23 billion.

Motorways and other transportation systems are necessary but we must now think beyond. The four key pillars for progress today are (a) knowledge; (b) science, technology and innovation; (c) quick access to justice; and (d) a visionary honest and technocrat government that appreciates the importance of a knowledge economy for socio-economic development.

For rapid socio-economic development we need a technocrat government of specialist ministers and secretaries, each ministry supported by the best think tanks in that field. In this knowledge-driven world, quality human resources represent the real wealth of any nation.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation and former chairman of the HEC. Email: [email protected]