• February 23, 2024

Stop whining and innovate

We live in a fascinating age. Technology is quietly re-sketching the contours of our lives. And yet we only quibble about the old things.

Only a little over a month ago a team of scientists unveiled the most complete human genome of all time, filling in millions of missing pieces. The scope of it all is nothing short of revolutionary. From combatting genetic diseases to amending the genome the possibilities are endless.

As Elon Musk prepares to take over Twitter, his backed cutting-edge research into space colonisation and environment-friendly technology is already bearing fruit. And even as his attempts to create the human-machine neural interface might have backfired royally resulting in many injured monkeys, you will agree it is a direction that can dramatically change the course of human progress.

Facebook owner Meta is opening up access to a 175 billion parameter AI language model to the AI research community under a non-commercial licence. While this will help address the known problems like behaviour toxicity it will also help revolutionise how the broader AI developer community will move ahead thanks to the access to the capital-intensive large language models.

This might look like a disparate list of random things but it is not. They all underscore a pattern and forewarn you of the shape of things to come. And yet certain technological breakthroughs in the recent past also raise alarms about our effortless normalising of path-breaking innovations without grasping their true significance. Let’s say the revolution that was ushered in by the advent of smartphones, high-speed internet, and non-combatant drones. How many jobs have been lost to these changes? The video store across the street is gone, the music record shop is gone, the photo studio you used to get your pictures developed from is no more and public phone booths are also nowhere to be seen. Granted new jobs are created every single day but they all need a different skillset each. How will you prepare for the change if you do not even appreciate the scope of it all? Let us not forget our own profession. Many print copies were replaced by online publications. Media staff migrated to TV news channels. Now YouTube and countless other apps are giving these channels and their business models a run for their money.

There is a reason why I bring these matters up. These innovations are now likely to rework the contours of national power and sovereignty. And if you are still compensating for the deficiencies in the old world realities you are unlikely to pay heed to the new things.

Let me give you an example. Only a few months ago while interviewing the then-national security adviser I asked him if the country was giving its space programme its due importance. The response I got was non-committal at best. The country had many far more pressing issues. I reminded him that if ignored the country risked getting boxed in by the Indian space programme. When the new government took over I put the same question to the new minister for industries. He assured me that the government would happily facilitate any private sector interest in the sector but for the government, it was too premature to take a position. What are the odds that the private sector he spoke about would end its real estate obsession and other hackneyed pursuits to explore the possibilities in space? I am not hopeful. Remember this warning then. If you do not act now you run the risk of getting frozen into what will soon feel like a primitive age.

Along with technology, the context of national power and sovereignty is also changing. There is a clear example from history to illustrate this point. In Germany shackled by Versailles Treaty terms before Hitler, there was one Gustav Stresemann, a true visionary. Stresemann realised that the treaty obligations prohibited the growth of an outdated weapons industry and it did precious little to curtail innovations in the field. So even while complying fully with the treaty obligations he doubled down on innovation. It was an unmitigated tragedy that the Weimar republic’s unpopularity overwhelmed its stellar work in recovery and gave way to Hitler’s populism which finally resulted in the country’s destruction. Otherwise, Germany would have been a far stronger power today than it is.

Compare this innovative leadership to our national discourse today. We are debating a cipher sent by our diplomat to own government as proof of a conspiracy. What a useless echo chamber we have constructed. Maybe this serves us right for our unbending desire to remain in the momentary emotional high of the 1980s and 1990s. The leaders you chose back then are now in their sixties and seventies but the country has no plan to move on. The generation that doesn’t instinctively get this age is still calling the shots. Do you honestly expect any breakthrough? If Putin and Erdogan are any examples, leaders with prolonged exposure to power become egomaniacal with age and less open to change. Their nations then pay the price of their arrogance.

For a long time, I have vociferously advocated for innovation. In most cases, my assessments have been on the money. When almost two decades ago Bill Gates announced his charity to combat diseases and poverty I told you that the viruses spreading these diseases were not much different than computer viruses. They sure had more variables but his expertise could come in handy. During the Covid pandemic, his efforts proved my point right as mankind developed vaccines in record time.

During this pandemic on November 28, 2020, in a piece titled ‘Learning in the time of corona,’ I wrote: “In the middle of all this the mere possibility that the quality of remote learning can be improved is lost somewhere. For instance, even if the use of interactive artificial intelligence may not be possible at this stage, I would have expected that at least for high-end customers a few big tech companies would have employed virtual reality technology coupled with visors and haptic gloves to create virtual learning spaces. Imagine if such an immersive experience could be provided how fun education would become. Once an innovation is introduced it takes no time for the business to scale and become cost-effective.” Today platforms like Meta are proving me right. There are ample examples to compile into a multi-volume tome.

And yet my own people keep defeating me. They take without permission or acknowledgment when they like and underplay well-reasoned arguments when not useful. Do not pay heed to sane counsel if you don’t want to, nor pay the piper, but will you quit whining? At no point in history have we seen worse times than post-war Germany or a nuked Japan. But now look at them and look at yourself.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2022.


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