Pakistan must position itself to benefit from AI, automation, and bio-engineering or risk losing out

Mahboob Mahmood, CEO Knowledge Platform

Today was the second day of the 35th AGM and Conference of the Pakistan Society of Development Economists (PSDE), on “Opportunities to Excel: Now & the Future”, hosted by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), in collaboration with the Institute of Management Sciences (IMSciences). The Conference is being sponsored by the World Bank Group, CPEC Center of Excellence, the Bank of Punjab, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Gul Ahmed Textile Mills Limited, National Productivity Organization (NPO) Pakistan, HBL, Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), Saif Group of Companies, Pakistan Microfinance Investment Company (PMIC), Engro, and the Bank of Khyber.

The agenda for the second day included the prestigious Quaid-i-Azam lecture, delivered by Dr. Arshad Ahmed, VC LUMS, the Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Lecture, delivered by Mahboob Mehmood, CEO, Knowledge Platform, a panel discussion on “Opportunities to Excel”, Special Invited Lecture delivered by Hans Timmer, Regional Chief Economist, the World Bank, and the Mahbub Ul Haq Lecture, delivered virtually by Prof. Dani Rodrik of the Harvard University. Besides these lectures and the panel discussion, the agenda also included technical sessions in which research papers on the topics of productivity, entrepreneurship, and sludge; political economy; and aspirations, opportunities, and labor market were presented.

Dr. Arshad Ahmed, VC LUMS, began the Quaid-i-Azam Lecture by thanking Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque, VC PIDE, for bringing together a wonderful gathering, which centers around the theme of opportunity to excel. He said that VC PIDE deserves all the credit for his efforts, especially for hosting 130 webinars since January, a monumental effort in itself.

While talking on the theme of opportunity, Dr. Ahmed said that there is no single lens through which challenges could be looked at. Rather than the traditional methods aimed at problem resolution, these should be looked at through a ‘trans academic’ lens. It is different than the traditional ‘inter-disciplinary method, which focuses on challenges and policy design based on select specialists of the field. Dr. Ahmed said that the trans-disciplinary approach has brought rich insights that could not have been possible with an inter-disciplinary approach to problem-solving.

Dr. Arshad Ahmed, while talking about the 19 Centers of Excellence at LUMS, said that the best way to approach an issue and its resolution is to pool/synergize specialties for a coordinated effort. He said that in thinking about issues, we have to move from the question of ‘what’ to ‘how’ because otherwise. Any query has to explore the theory lying behind it to see whether any biases are at work. He said that we must appreciate the strengths, merits, integrity, and compassion of our nation, which makes us resilient. Therefore, we must stop blaming each other and appreciate each other’s strengths. It is the system that needs correction rather than people. Dr. Ahmed said that according to a long-term study, the children from being extremely intuitive at the start, gradually begin to lose that intuitiveness as they progress. It hints at the flaws in the current schooling methodology. Therefore, we must understand the teacher and invest in them rather than being dependent upon donors who bring in their own people.

He further said that we should think outside the box, outside the typical indicators like SDGs or the World Bank indicators. Simply put, we must have a ‘Growth Mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. It is important to bring down walls of biases and understand our strengths if we have to move forward. He said that in this regard, this PSDE conference is a good step since it is open-ended and filled with energy.

Later, delivering the Sir Syed Ahmed Khan lecture, Mahboob Mahmood, CEO, Knowledge Platform, said that technology is progressing very rapidly and becoming central in our lives. It took IBM over 20 years to develop a program to beat the reigning chess master at the time. It took just 3 years to develop a computer champion of the 300 times more complex Chinese game of Go. And it took only 7 months for a computer AI program developed with no knowledge of the game or its rules to beat the old Go computer champion.

Dispelling the notion that Pakistan has not joined this new trend, he said that a new program based on AI has been developed to help children learn, called “parhai buddy”. But we need to recognize that AI, automation, and bioengineering are all coming together soon, and Pakistan must position itself to benefit or risk losing out.

He said that due to the rise of AI, the jobs of the white-collar workers that are predictable are threatened because a machine can be programmed to complete their predictable tasks, but not the unpredictable workflow. Moreover, the exports that will fade away include those based on basic labor, energy, basic manufactures, and agricultural products. On the other hand, the exports that will bloom are those of minerals, branded goods, high technology manufactures, and IP-centric products. The youth of Pakistan must develop horizontal capacities in autonomous thinking, English, 21st-century learning focusing on communication, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving to compete globally.

The key message of Mahboob Mahmood’s lecture is that the students of today must take their learning and destiny into their own hands – use teachers, schools, and universities, but they must do it on their own. Responding to a question from the chairperson of the session about the future of the civil service in Pakistan, the speaker said that the answer is simple – no expertise, no real future.

The panel discussion on “Opportunities to Excel” was chaired by Dr. Jehanzeb Khan, Deputy Chairperson, the Planning Commission. The panelists included Yahya Akhunzada, Secretary Education, KP, Jehan Ara, Katalyst Lab, Shimail Daud, Former President Rawalpindi CCI, Adnan Jalil, Former President, Small CCI Peshawar, and Asif Hanif, the Bank of Khyber. The discussion started with the question of defining excellence. According to the panelists, excellence is like success; whatever excellence is to anyone, one must do everything they do really well. However, it will not happen automatically; it requires hard work and one must continue to learn to teach one’s self.

Talking about global excellence, the panelists said that since we are competing at the global level, learning and practice have to be up to the global standards. It implies that one needs to be aware of what is happening at the global level. It was said that the digitization of the education system is the key for the government to provide opportunities, which should put the education department on that track.

The panelists also opined that sometimes excellence can be achieved by comparing with the goals of others, i.e., what has been achieved and what has not been achieved so far. Similarly, it was stated in the discussion that in Pakistan, there are more opportunities and more possibilities for people to excel. Similarly, Pakistani people can use the opportunities by producing new products and effective branding. Opportunities are reaped by the utilization of resources effectively. The world is full of opportunities and the ideal thing is how people can spot the opportunities; by spotting the opportunity, we can get the maximum benefit out of it.

In the Special Invited Lecture, Hans Timmer, Regional Chief Economist, the World Bank, talked about “Is Pakistan Ready for a New Normal?’ He appreciated PIDE for organizing a conference on the much-needed and youth-centric theme. He raised the question of whether the Pakistani youth is ready for the new normal. He asked if there exists any new normal at all, the answer to which is that a new normal certainly exists. He said that the year ahead will not be the same as we experienced in the past. With the onset of COVID-19, a new host of problems have arisen; for instance, the tail end risks, i.e., events with low probability but high impact, have increased. The same is the case of climate change. Moreover, inter-regional inequality and disparities, in general, and more specifically from a gender perspective, have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fight against inequality will very much be a part of the new normal.

Talking about the readiness of Pakistan to embrace the neo-normal, Timmer said that as far as resilience is concerned Pakistan seems to be quite prepared, as there is a keen understanding of key issues and an unspoken consensus for their democratic resolution. The other part is the inequality problem. Here Pakistan has a long bumpy road ahead. Without addressing these key issues, an ugly divide would always surface in times of crises, added Mr. Timmer.

The World Bank representative said that Pakistan has come up with an unprecedented social security program along with subsidies and price control. These might seem good in the short run, but this would definitely inflict pain in the long run. These measures distort the markets and do not provide for an ultimate solution. He advised that the way out is to provide access to markets and finance to a broad cross-section of the society, without which the country would always struggle.