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Stepping Into the Unknown

Amir Jahangir on how AI can create a new ecosystem for innovation and economic growth.
Published 03 Jul, 2023 11:41am

As AI continues to advance, the potential for disruption in Pakistan’s society and economy becomes increasingly apparent. Drawing from the insights in Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark, it is essential to recognise that the integration of AI into aspects of daily life may lead to both positive and negative outcomes.

Although AI could significantly improve healthcare, education, and transportation by providing personalised services, enhancing efficiency and reducing costs, it may also result in job displacement and increased income inequality. Traditional roles in industries such as manufacturing, customer service and agriculture may become obsolete as AI-powered automation takes over. As a result, it is crucial for Pakistan to proactively address these challenges, invest in education and reskilling programmes, and foster a culture of innovation, to ensure that the benefits of AI are harnessed both effectively and equitably throughout society. By engaging in thoughtful discussions and strategic planning, Pakistan can navigate the transformative age of AI and build a future that ensures prosperity and well-being for all its citizens.

One of the most significant potential impacts of AI on the economy are jobs. While some jobs may be at risk due to advances in automation and AI, there is significant potential for new job opportunities in fields such as data analysis, software development and AI research. Some industries that may be particularly affected include manufacturing, transportation, media, and customer service. For example, AI-powered robots could replace human workers on the factory floor. Similarly, self-driving vehicles could replace human drivers in transportation. Media is seeing a rebirth in content creation. In customer service, chatbots and other AI-powered tools could replace human operators in call centres. Approximately 17% of jobs in Pakistan are at high risk of automation. This highlights the need for education and training programmes that focus on AI and related technologies, as well as policies that promote the reskilling and upskilling of workers.

However, the impact of AI on the job market is not necessarily negative. Automation could increase efficiency and productivity, which in turn could lead to economic growth and new opportunities. Additionally, AI could free up human workers to focus on tasks that require creativity, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills, which are less likely to be automated and be better rewarded economically. The impact of AI on the job market is likely to be complex and multifaceted and will depend on a variety of factors, including the pace of adoption, the availability of skilled labour and Pakistan’s economic and political landscape.

AI also has the potential to increase productivity in a variety of sectors. According to a McKinsey report, A Future That Works, AI could increase labour productivity in Pakistan by 30 to 40%, across manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture. However, successful adoption will require significant investment in digital infrastructure, education and training, as well as supportive policies and regulations that encourage the adoption of AI while addressing concerns around privacy, security and ethics. There may also be concerns about the use of AI in decision-making processes, particularly if they are not transparent or accountable. Addressing these concerns is critical in ensuring that the adoption of AI in Pakistan is both responsible and beneficial.

AI has the potential to drive innovation, and start-ups and companies focused on AI and related technologies have emerged in Pakistan. By fostering a culture of AI innovation and entrepreneurship, Pakistan may be able to drive further economic growth and development. Pakistan already boasts a thriving AI sector, with 92 start-ups dedicated to exploration and innovation. According to Tracxn Technologies, the top 10 most promising start-ups are listed below.

1 . AdalFi offers an AI-powered lending platform to consumers and SMEs. Its online marketplace helps users find loans while using proprietary data-based credit scoring and AI-based tools.

2 . Farmdar provides AI-enabled analytical solutions for crops. It uses satellite technology to gather farmland data, subsequently leveraging AI to deliver actionable insights to farmers.

3 . Orbit has developed an AR-based educational app for schools. It enhances learning by offering 3D visualisations of concepts taught in textbooks and which also cover STEM subjects.

4 . Safety Connect provides cloud and AI-based health and safety management software. It uses AI and machine learning to reimagine core HSE processes, such as observation and feedback, incident management and audits.

5 . RankPeek offers product reviews monitoring for brands. It mines performance data from major online retailers and uses the information to suggest insights for improving product ratings.

6 . Aurat Raaj has developed an AI-based chatbot that addresses questions related to reproductive health. It produces an animated series that educates young women on sensitive topics.

7 . PatientFIRST is an AI and cloud-based teleconsultation and practice management tool. The platform assists physicians in managing daily clinical tasks while enabling patients to book consultations, digitise medical records and more.

8 . Techlets provides an AI-based social media monitoring and analytics platform. Users can monitor various topics across social media platforms and gain insights from the analysed data.

9 . TactonBiotic manufactures commercial robots for multiple applications. Its product portfolio includes remote surveys, inspection robots and six-legged robots with computer vision and object detection features.

10 . Merafuture is an AI-based platform offering career counselling solutions. It assists users in selecting degrees, preparing for career counselling tests, and connecting with industry mentors.

Pakistan’s flagship initiative on AI is the Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence and Computing (PIAIC), which was launched in 2018 by the President of Pakistan, Dr Arif Alvi. The objectives are to promote education, research and business opportunities in cutting-edge technologies such as AI, Blockchain, Internet of Things and Cloud Native Computing. The initiative is a privately funded not-for-profit educational programme that partners with non-profit and for-profit organisations such as Panacloud, Saylani Welfare International Trust, and Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX).

In April 2023, the Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, Ahsan Iqbal formed a 15-member National Task Force (NTF) on AI for Pakistan’s national development. The key objective of the NTF is to develop a 10-year roadmap aimed at accelerating the adoption of AI in the business, governance, defence, education and healthcare sectors. The NTF comprises experts in AI, as well as representatives from the government and private sectors.

Such developments indicate that Pakistan is taking significant steps in promoting and adopting AI in various sectors. As a still emerging field in Pakistan, the curriculum on AI at the school, college, and university levels is limited. However, efforts are underway to introduce AI courses in educational institutions across the country. At school level, some private schools have started offering introductory courses on AI and machine learning, mainly in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. At college and university levels, there are a few degree programmes and courses on AI and related fields offered by various institutions. For example, the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) offers a Bachelor of Science in AI, while the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) offers a Master of Science in Computer Science with a specialisation in machine learning.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan launched the ‘Advanced Skills Development through International Scholarships’ initiative to provide young people with up-to-date knowledge of AI and related technologies. The project aims to bridge the gap between the prevailing educational level and international industry demands, ultimately boosting Pakistan’s economy by providing new talent in the local ICT industry. The HEC has established six centres of excellence in AI across Pakistan to promote R&D and education in AI. The Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) allocated a total of Rs 1,200 million (approximately 7.6 million dollars) for the establishment of the National Centres of AI and big data and cybersecurity at NUST. These centres are expected to play a significant role in fostering collaboration between academia, industry and the government. They will also play a crucial role in strengthening Pakistan’s research capabilities and promoting the adoption of AI technologies in various sectors. The Centres are:

The National Centre of Artificial Intelligence (NCAI) is a cutting-edge technological initiative by the government and will serve as a prominent hub for innovation, scientific research, knowledge transfer and training. Its primary objective is to support researchers in AI and assist them in establishing and expanding the AI industry in line with international trends and address indigenous problems through AI-based solutions.

The National Centre of Artificial Intelligence hosts a range of affiliated labs that focus on various aspects of AI research and development and include:

1 . Deep Learning Lab:
Concentrates on the development and application of deep learning techniques, including artificial as well as convolutional neural networks to analyse complex data sets and solve real-world problems in areas such as computer vision, natural language processing, and speech recognition.

2 . Intelligent Robotics Lab:
Focuses on the design, development and implementation of intelligent robotic systems, incorporating techniques from AI, machine learning, and computer vision to create autonomous robots capable of performing complex tasks and interacting with their environment.

3 . Medical Imaging and Diagnostics Lab:
Specialises in the development and application of AI-based methods for medical image analysis and diagnostics, such as automated detection of diseases from medical images, image segmentation, and computer-aided diagnosis.

4 . SmartCity Lab:
Explores the application of AI and IoT technologies to urban planning, infrastructure and services, with the objective of developing smart city solutions that enhance urban life quality, sustainability and efficiency.

5 . Neurocomputational Lab:
Focuses on the study and development of computational models inspired by the structure and function of the human brain, aiming to better understand neural processes and develop advanced AI algorithms based on these insights.

6 . Intelligent Information Lab:
Deals with the extraction, analysis and management of information from various sources using AI techniques to improve information retrieval, filtering and organisation.

7 . Intelligent System Design Lab:
Dedicated to the design and development of intelligent systems, including software and hardware solutions that leverage AI and machine learning techniques to optimise performance and adapt to changing environments.

8 . Intelligent Criminology Lab:
Applies AI and data analysis techniques to the field of criminology, aiming to develop tools and methods for crime prediction, prevention and investigation.

9 . Agent-based Computational Modelling Lab:
Focuses on the development of agent-based models, which simulate the actions and interactions of individual agents within complex systems. These models can be used to study a variety of phenomena, from social behaviour to economic markets, and can help guide the design of more effective policies and interventions.

AI holds immense potential to transform various sectors in Pakistan, offering solutions to pressing challenges and acting as a catalyst for sustainable development. Here are some examples.

Using AI-driven technologies, farmers can monitor crops and predict yields with the help of satellite imagery and IoT sensors leading to precision farming, where AI can provide informed decision-making for optimal resource allocation. Furthermore, the deployment of image recognition techniques can aid in the detection of pests and diseases, ensuring timely interventions and ultimately contributing to enhanced crop productivity.

AI can bring about substantial improvements. By leveraging AI algorithms, medical professionals can facilitate early detection and accurate diagnosis of diseases, leading to effective treatment plans. AI can help manage electronic health records, streamline hospital administration, and reduce errors. Additionally, AI-powered telemedicine services can extend healthcare access to remote and underserved areas of the country.

AI can support personalised learning experiences by tailoring educational content. This can help bridge the gaps in the education system by ensuring that students receive the right guidance and resources. AI-powered analytics can help educational institutions identify areas for improvement and implement data-driven strategies.

AI can develop traffic management systems capable of analysing real-time traffic data to optimise traffic flow and reduce congestion. The development of autonomous vehicles can potentially enhance road safety and fuel efficiency in the long run.

AI-driven systems can optimise power grids by analysing energy demand and supply data, leading to better energy management. AI can play a crucial role in promoting renewable energy sources, enabling better forecasting of solar and wind energy generation.

AI fosters innovation in fintechs, e-commerce and the service industry. By harnessing the power of AI, Pakistan can improve its competitiveness in the global market, generate more employment opportunities and drive economic growth.

The future of AI is very promising. It has the potential to transform an industries and various aspects of our lives. As for the current fad of ChatGPT as an AI language model, it has the potential to change the way technology is used by enabling more effective communication and interaction between humans and machines. With its ability to generate human-like responses and understand natural language, ChatGPT can be used in various applications, such as customer service, virtual assistants, and chatbots. This can lead to better customer experiences, reduced costs, and increased productivity. ChatGPT can also be used for research and development purposes in areas such as natural language processing and machine learning.

AI has the potential to revolutionise the way we live and work and bring about immense positive changes. However, it is crucial to approach the development and deployment of AI with caution given the unknowns that come with it. However, with responsible and ethical practices, we can harness the power of AI to create a better and more sustainable future for everyone.

Amir Jahangir is a global competitiveness, risk, and development expert. He leads Mishal Pakistan, the country partner institute of the Centre for the New Economy and Society Platform at the World Economic Forum.