Emerging technologies for an emerging economy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 28, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:34 AM, February 28, 2018

Emerging technologies for an emerging economy

Bangladesh has been riding the growth waves in the last two-and-a-half decades with spectacular results: our exports grew six folds, our GDP quadrupled and our extreme poverty levels got slashed by more than half, not to mention our 30 percent increase in longevity and other human development achievements. Many global institutions from Gartner and McKinsey to Wall Street investment banks and the World Bank have been projecting continued healthy growth of our economy and our sure-shot place among the top economic powerhouses of this century.

Sustaining such a growth trajectory for a country with little natural resources, small geographical footprint and the sixth highest population in the world can only be possible through adoption of a diverse array of the latest technologies that will help us eke out an ever-greater output per capita and per square metre. Technology has always been a driver of change and societal development at many levels. We may argue all we want on the merits and demerits of technology but ignoring technological developments is not an option.

Below is a sampler of the emerging technologies that lie at the front and centre of our innovation-driven future. These are the technologies that can carve out a future for us where we remain the pioneers and not followers, where we lead by example and not forced to make knee-jerk reactions. The range of technologies and knowledge paradigms will touch everything from our green pastures in the villages to the tall glass edifices in the cities—everyone from the bottom of the social pyramid to those at the top of the heap.

In agriculture, agro-processing and food industries, bio-technology and bio-informatics can unleash the bounty of nature like never before. Whether through genomics, genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, or high-throughput image analysis, bio-technology and its interdisciplinary cohort—bio-informatics—are bringing about a revolutionary change in the way we hybridise seeds for resilience to drought, increasing sea-levels leading to salty crop-fields and extreme weather symptoms. Bio-informatics has a special significance as it helps unravel the mysteries of cellular biology and gives us the tools to get a leg up on the cutting edge developments in bio-technology.

In manufacturing industries, increasing levels of process automation and use of robotics are enhancing productivity on the one hand and lowering the use of physical labour on the other hand. While double-digit growth of goods exports and accompanying manufacturing jobs growth have been one of the pillars of economic success of the nation, going forward the future success of this sector will no longer depend on our large labour pool but how we turn that labour-force into a cyborg-force by leveraging robotic technologies and machine learning algorithms. The challenge is to retool our work-force into skilled machine-assisted industrial super-human workers or skilled robotic operators. This may sound like science fiction but it's already happening in our largest industrial segment, i.e. in ready-made-garments manufacturing as reported recently in the Wall Street Journal. This transformation is less than obvious in a country where labour is perceived to be plentiful and cheap. However, uptick in labour costs is already felt by the middle class as costs of domestic helps have crept up beyond their purchasing power. With increasing use of machine-assisted process automation and robotic tools there is a huge potential for IT services around machine learning, artificial intelligence, internet-of-things (IOT) and robotic programming.

Machine and deep learning tools are the new frontier where we must create our own footprint if we are to remain relevant in the new industrial paradigm. It is truly heartening that some of our IT industry colleagues are taking bold steps to gain a foothold at the forefront of these developments. However, the entrepreneurial efforts alone will not be enough—there has to be a concerted effort from the trio of government-academia-and-industry for this emerging technology to become mainstream here. During the upcoming BASIS SoftExpo there will be several sessions on these issues—including a session where the machine learning guru from MIT will speak—where it would become apparent how the stakeholders respond to these needs.

The biggest disruptor and enabler in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning is the new paradigm of quantum computing. The classical computing model is based on binary computing where there are only two states—on or off (1 or 0)—but in quantum computing there is a third “quantum” state or “Qubit” that makes a whole slew of new algorithms and computing models that can solve computer-intensive problems in cryptography, big data, 3-D simulations, etc. much faster than conventional computer systems. Microsoft has already launched a programming language for quantum computing and many others are coming. Our universities need to focus on these emerging trends and equip our students with the tools and inquisitiveness to take deep dives into this new computing paradigm and collaborate with the industry to make quantum computing applications to solve our climate adaptation, extreme weather and public health quandaries. The government needs to support such initiatives with appropriate funding, international research linkages and national recognitions.

The biggest enabler of these emerging technologies and trends is the internet and cloud-based infrastructure sitting on the internet. While the government is fast deploying its own data centres and disaster recovery sites that constitute its cloud strategy, the government also needs to encourage private clouds whether they are locally set up or provided by global majors such as Amazon or Microsoft. We simply do not have the resources or the time to wait for computing infrastructures to be built over many years and then leverage such systems for our use. The abundance of cloud infrastructure globally makes it quite easy for us to take on any large problem and try it out on the cloud without having to get weighed down with big capital expenditures before we have figured out what works and what does not. In this area the availability of cloud infrastructures is a great boon for IT entrepreneurs and start-ups as well as tinkerers. Who can tell: today's tinkerer can be tomorrow's Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and serial entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd.

Email: hnkarim@gmail.com

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