Post-pandemic reconstruction – Dr Atta-Ur-Rahman


As Pakistan begins to emerge from the financial crisis imposed upon it because of massive corruption by previous governments, and the subsequent coronavirus pandemic, we need to work out a strategy to transition to a strong knowledge economy. There are several key actions now needed for us to emerge and become a world leader.

First, there need to be basic reforms in the system of governance. The present parliamentary system is a huge farce as power and funds are not passed down to the grassroots and local bodies are not empowered. This has allowed huge wealth to be looted and plundered by provincial governments while poverty levels have increased. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah had anticipated this hijacking of the democracy by feudal powers. He had therefore advocated a presidential system of democracy in a hand-written note in his diary.

Second, we need drastic changes in our justice system so that all cases filed are decided within 90 days, failing which the hearing judges should be replaced. Key Performance Indicators should be laid down for each judge and those under-performing should be replaced under a new performance-based contractual system of appointments.

Third, we need to divert our resources to education and health with a minimum five-fold increase in financial allocations along with major governance reforms. The emphasis should be on developing a strong knowledge economy as done by countries such as Singapore, Korea, and China. This requires emphasis on Education, Science, Technology, Innovation and Commercialisation (ESTIC) with focus on the manufacture and export of high technology products.

The prime minister had formed a strong Knowledge Economy Task Force that is chaired by him and of which I am vice-chairman. The task force has several federal ministers as members including the ministers of finance, planning, science & technology, education, and IT/Telecom In close collaboration with top scientists engineers in Pakistan and abroad, we formulated many important projects. Projects with a total cost of Rs128 billion were reflected in the PSDP of the last financial year, with an allocation last year of Rs24.31 billion. This was however drastically cut down by over 80 percent, and in this financial year the financial allocation is only Rs2.62 billion. This was probably necessary because of the national emergency situation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic that required diversion of funds to the health sector and to the Ehsaas programme that provided much needed relief to the poorest of the poor.

However, as we emerge from the financial crisis and from the pandemic, it is time to revert to the original vision of the present government to establish a strong knowledge economy. The main thrust areas should be emerging fields in IT (such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Cyber Security), advanced agriculture, industrial biotechnology, genomics, microelectronics, mineral development, alternative energy, and other new emerging technologies.

Just to illustrate the huge opportunities that lie ahead, let us consider the area of Artificial Intelligence. According to McKinsey Global, AI will have an impact of $15.7 trillion annually by 2025. If Pakistan can capture even one percent of this huge market, we can have exports of about $160 billion annually in AI-based processes alone. The recent advances in artificial intelligence promise to change almost every aspect of human endeavor, including agriculture, health, manufacturing, defence, education etc.

Dr Ray Kurzweil, an authority in futuristic thinking, has predicted that by 2045, the state of ‘Singularity’ will be reached when machines will be able to learn from their mistakes and quickly correct themselves. They will become far more intelligent than human beings in logic and creativity. They will give us the ability to replace our biology with superior hardware, so that by the 2030s we will be able to copy human brains and consciousness onto electronic media. As fully immersive Virtual Reality develops, we will no longer need to physically commute to offices and physical office spaces will become obsolete. People will then be able to ‘telecommute’ to work in virtual offices. This will result in populations becoming decentralized because they won’t need to go to specific cities for their jobs.

Artificial Intelligence is expected to overtake human intelligence in the next few decades and robotic systems will develop the abilities to read, write as well as sense and react to emotions. Indeed, experts are beginning to discuss how robots may become indistinguishable from humans as hybrid living systems emerge.

Similar opportunities are now opening up in other fast evolving fields such as the Internet of Things, alternative energy, energy storage systems, next generation genomics, industrial biotechnology, advanced agriculture, and 3D printing. A fantastic development to benefit from these new developments in Pakistan is the establishment of the Pak Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering that will be inaugurated by the prime minister soon. This will allow our students to be trained by top notch Austrian and Chinese professors in these new and emerging technologies as well as get degrees from top foreign universities in Austria and China. The heart of this university is a Technology Park where new products and processes will be developed for commercialization in partnership with foreign and local industry. This will mark the beginning of a new revolution in the field of higher education in Pakistan.

A related exciting field is that of neuroscience. According to Nobel Laureate James Watson, “The brain is the last and grandest biological frontier, the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe. It contains hundreds of billions of cells interlinked through trillions of connections. The brain boggles the mind.”

My own research has been focused in recent years on this fascinating field. What are thoughts made of? They are not abstract, as many would imagine, but are made up of atoms and molecules. We had proposed that memories are made of certain physical molecular patterns of glycoproteins found in the brain. These patterns are formed instantaneously while learning and remembering through a process called “hydrogen bonding”. Our research in this exciting field has led us to develop powerful substances against epilepsy and towards understanding neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Pakistan’s wealth lies in its youth. The median age of citizens of Pakistan is 22 years, and there are only four percent above the age of 65. This gives us a huge demographic advantage. We must take full benefit of this advantage by massive investments in education, science, technology and innovation so that we can unleash the creative potential of our youth and leapfrog into the future.

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