By: Dr Javaid Laghari

Pakistan is still pursuing its dream of economic revival through exploitation of natural resources and agriculture. While these can certainly provide livelihoods to a large segment of our population, the future lies in value-added manufacturing and high-tech products.

Take the example of Finland, whose population is less than a quarter of that of Karachi. Just one of its companies has exports that exceed all of Pakistan. Even city-state Singapore, with no natural resources of its own, has exports of over $500 billion. Pakistan’s exports stand at under $30 billion.

The world economy, on the other hand, is seeing a seismic shift from resource-based capitalism to intellectual-based capitalism. Wealth is now being increasingly generated from advanced knowledge economies through innovation and creativity. Some of the technologies that have recently generated tremendous wealth include information, computers and telecommunications, space, entertainment, and biotechnology, among others.

Developing countries are clamouring for a piece of the market share in technological products. As an example, India recently entered the currently small yet significant $16 billion space commercial market by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket within the duration of 18 minutes.

Previously, it had already carved a position for itself in the IT sector with exports exceeding $100 billion and in the pharma industry with exports of over $12 billion. India has 201 FDA-approved plants while Pakistan has none.

Space technology is an emerging area. Advances are being made at a rapid pace, and the payoffs both in the commercial and defence sectors are significant. Satellites today weigh as little as 4 kg, and with the advances in chip technology due to Moore’s Law, next-generation satellites within the next few years will weigh as little as one kg with lifetimes varying from two to five years. The US government itself currently spends over $19 billion a year on NASA alone, with additional funding on defence-related space research. In addition to the US, the EU, Russia and certain Asian countries, including China, Japan and India all have space commercialisation plans for 2017 and beyond. Even the UAE has a Mars mission with its spacecraft to arrive at the Red Planet in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. All of this will lead to a mushrooming growth in space commercialisation, expected to grow to over $100 billion within the next decade.

During the 1980s, I was involved with NASA’s space shuttle programme, including the Space Station, and the Mission to Mars programmes, in addition to doing significant research for the Strategic Defence Initiatives, known as the “Star Wars” programme. As a result of this research at SUNY Buffalo, where I was a tenured full professor of electrical and computer engineering, conducted jointly with the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the first generation high energy density storage devices were designed and developed. Power packs for electric railguns for the US Department of Defence were conceived and developed as a part of this research. These electric guns are now finding deployment in the US Navy, where an experimental railgun can now fire projectiles at a staggering velocity exceeding 3 km/second. This can blow out approaching aircraft and missiles out of the sky even before they come within 50 km of the flotilla, can blow holes in enemy ships, and level off terrorist camps with pinpoint accuracy. Today we see a tremendous commercial spinoff of this research in civilian applications ranging from robots to electric cars, mobile phones, drones and hyper-loop transportation system, among others.

While space research is a fast growing area, there are many emerging technologies with similar commercial payoffs. According to the World Economic Forum, these include nanotechnology, next-generation batteries, the block-chain, two-dimensional materials, autonomous vehicles, organs-on-chips, perovskite solar cells, open artificial intelligence ecosystem, opto-genetics, and systems metabolic engineering.

Nanotechnology is a huge emerging area, because Moore’s Law will fail by 2020 (its limit is 30 atoms across). According to Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, “The grandest dream is to be able to construct with the atom as the building block”. Through advances in nanotechnology, we will be able to make computers and robots the size of dust particles, create nano-machines in our bodies and placed in the blood, create DNA chips, create carbon nanotubes and other materials stronger and harder than steel and diamond, create room temperature superconductors, and successfully achieve cold fusion”.

Where does Pakistan stand in terms of research and development in any of these fast-emerging technologies? Clearly at a primitive stage. The reason is that even though we have research-active scholars, we have not focused on any one particular research at any one university, except in defence-related research. Our research is diffused out across a number of universities to make a meaningful impact globally. As a result, we are not able to achieve a critical mass. What we need is to create clusters in emerging and advanced technologies and to make an impact.

First, Pakistan at the national level needs to decide on one or two key emerging technologies that we wish to capitalise on over the next decade or two. Next the HEC and the science and technology ministry need to send off a few hundred scholars for PhDs and post-doctoral research to top universities in technologically advanced countries in these particular areas. At the same time, the HEC needs to work out a mechanism to establish centres of research and development at our research-oriented universities through a competitive process, and should also commit itself to providing long term research funding.

Scholars working in similar areas at other universities should be provided incentives and relocated to these centres to reach critical mass and create a cluster. Only then will we be able to make a significant impact globally in research and development and capitalise on the pay-offs.

The future belongs to nations that are investing and capitalising on advanced technologies, According to Dr Michio Kaku, Professor CUNY, “The challenge of intellectual capitalism is that we have to educate our people to the immense strides being made in science and technology, yet only a handful of nations are doing this. The future belongs to those nations and individuals who understand and can master intellectual capitalism.”