There has never been a better time to be bold and imaginative | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 24, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:30 PM, December 26, 2019

There has never been a better time to be bold and imaginative

Dr Sam G Samdani is a senior industry expert in global chemicals and agriculture practice at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. In this interview with Eresh Omar Jamal of The Daily Star, Dr Samdani talks about the benefits Bangladesh can obtain from digitisation, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and how countries must evolve in order to keep up with the ongoing economic changes caused by rapid technological advancements.

You co-authored a book some years ago called “Going Digital: Realising the Dreams of a Digital Bangladesh for All”. What is its central thesis?

The book is actually the outcome of a request from a friend, who reached out to me saying that the party in government had “Digital Bangladesh” as one of its election points. What we wanted to say is that this is a unique point in time. Digitisation means that physical assets, which used to be a constraint for a resource-poor country like Bangladesh, are no longer a constraint. In fact, you could argue that for a city-state like Singapore—also resource-poor—that could be a benefit, because they are a lot more motivated to be creative as to how they can take advantage of that resource poverty.

Our point was that digitisation is a theme we should learn more about. If you read the book, you will see there is a chapter called “Reporting live from where the future has already happened”. What I meant by that is, what Bangladesh aspires to do has already happened in some other parts of the world. We can learn from countries that are already ahead of Bangladesh by 50 to 100 years, and use that to get there, not in 50 or 100 years, but in 20 years. And I hope we made a compelling case to say that it is possible.

How can developing countries such as Bangladesh benefit from the ongoing digitisation and other technological advances?

Digitisation does not require a lot of capital. In the past, if you were to develop a business or start a new company, you needed significant start-up capital, which you still do to build a cement factory or food-processing factory.

But to start a business with digital technology either through an app or website, what you need is creativity. So, if you encourage creativity and imagination, new and innovative businesses can thrive and that can be of huge benefit.

Doesn’t it make human capital more essential?

Yes, that’s a good point. And that’s where I think Bangladesh has an advantage—the reason being that Bangladesh is a highly populated country, some would say, overpopulated. The conversation has changed over the last 15-20 years. Overpopulation was considered a problem, now it could be turned around into an asset. For young people who are hungry and energised to really do something with their life, I think this is the time to be bold, creative and imaginative.

In Bangladesh, if we can motivate the young generation and also equip them with the right set of tools, capabilities, education and training, this is a time of phenomenal opportunities. Access to knowledge through YouTube and other channels today is unprecedented. I would encourage young people to really take advantage of this because there has never been such a situation before when you could start something big with so little financial capital.

To give you an example, look at how Google started—two graduate students in their dorm rooms—and Facebook too. The point is, we have to give young people the courage to dream big and really help them when they fail. Failure is nothing to be ashamed of. In Silicon Valley in the US, failure is taken as a badge of honour, because you can learn something from it.

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how is it different from previous revolutions?

The First Industrial Revolution was essentially steam-engine-driven. The second was when generating electricity became possible. The third happened in the 1940s and 50s when computers were introduced and you could automate a lot of routine tasks including counting, data management and other numbers-driven activities. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is connecting all of that. The idea is that there are different phases of development of industries and the future is now connectivity.

There are three essential ingredients of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: first, connectivity, which is key; second, flexible automation; and third, intelligence—artificial or human. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fundamentally different from the first three, because you can have a social network of things, not only of people. It is no longer limited to a company, as you can have the entire supply chain integrated into the “industrial internet”.

How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution change the global job market?

I think there is a concern—and it’s a valid one—that there will be some job losses because certain tasks are so mundane and routine that machines can do them far faster, cheaper and better. In fact, a lot of these tasks are so boring that humans should not be doing them. And humans would probably be happy that those would be taken away because a lot of them are hazardous and those could be done much safer by machines.

But how do you now transform the jobs in a way that people would be able to do them better, faster in an augmented way by machines? This will require a lot more creativity than in the past. But we have to be careful, because there is a danger. In the past, people used to say there are three classes—upper, middle and lower. Now some fear that there will be another class below them—the “class that will not have any skills”—meaning that there will be no use for them because they will not be able to contribute in any way to the economy.

So we have to encourage people, through training, to develop the skills that are going to be needed. Now you could ask: “What are those skills?” The short answer is that nobody really knows. But in the past, people would need to know how to read, write and do arithmetic. Now you have to add data literacy to that.

What should countries do to best adapt to the technological changes currently happening?

In terms of preparedness, I think different countries will have different kinds of challenges depending on where they are in terms of economic development. But a country like Bangladesh should also look at what most countries in Europe or the US did 20-30 years ago—that we could be doing today.

I would say we have to do some kind of strategic roadmap type of exercise where we say, what are our current capabilities in terms of human resources and other endowments in terms of natural resources, etc. And we also have to be flexible and ready to capitalise on any breakthrough technologies that may be coming.

What are some of the leading evolving technologies today?

We at McKinsey did a report several years ago called “disruptive technologies”. We picked 12 out of about 100 technologies that we looked at. It included things like advanced materials, next-generation genomics that is going to revolutionise agriculture as well as pharmaceuticals and chemicals by changing the structure of life. We also had others like fracking technologies and mobile internet.

It is only a starting point, not meant to be an exhaustive list of new technologies. But “disruptive technologies” is a category you have to keep an eye on. And there will be some surprises. New breakthroughs will happen, like when machines will be able to read a book and write a summary better than any human. That is the kind of breakthroughs that will be required when Artificial Intelligence can compete, probably outcompete humans, in terms of synthesising huge amounts of knowledge that is currently not possible.

How are Big Data and AI changing the industrial landscape?

On the supply side, there is a lot of data available now which was not available before. A lot of work is underway to find out how to make sense of that data and create what is called “actionable intelligence”. The idea is to convert the data—or you can be even selectively strategic about what kind of data you tap into—so you can make sense of them. And that is a part of analytics.

Data science brings the concept of algorithm that can learn from new data, given a training set of data, to train an algorithm. There are probably going to be new breakthroughs to make sense of the large volume of data out there, so we have to wait and see how data science revolutionises everything we do with data.

But what data is doing is making everything more evidence-based, because you have the back-up of data based on actual measurement of the system that you are monitoring or trying to improve—whereas, previously, you had to rely a lot more on intuition, judgement and experience. So that is definitely a new way of operating, which is being adopted across the board, across all industries.

What is your opinion on the privacy concerns related to Big Data?

It’s a huge issue. It’s somewhat of a sensitive issue, because currently there is a perception that there is a lot of data out there that is being collected without our knowledge. Whenever we go to Google to search for something, they have cookies to monitor what we are looking for, where we are located using Google Maps, etc. And these companies that are collecting this data have to be very responsible so that the data cannot be used against the people who are providing the data, sometimes unbeknownst to them.

In certain parts of the world such as Europe, they have some regulation that enables the users to give permission to companies to use cookies. So, that gives them some sort of control. And such control is increasingly being offered, but not everyone is sophisticated enough to know how their data can be misused and their privacy can be compromised.

So there needs to be a lot more education, awareness and some level of regulation. But regulation also comes with the problem of regulators being too slow and playing catch-up with the development of technology. Ultimately, there needs to be far greater awareness. And opting whether you want to be in or out has to be made simpler.

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