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Whether it will evolve into our greatest creation or existential threat, there is no doubt that the future is artificial intelligence (AI), and we are hurling towards it at lightning speed. As we explore its expansiveness, AI is already evolving the future of the workforce, rippling across sectors, roles and skills.

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2023 Future of Jobs report, over 75% of companies surveyed are looking to adopt AI in the next five years. The survey sample comprised over 800 companies, across 27 industry clusters and 46 economies that represent 88% of global GDP.

It is a well-established fact that no industry or sector will escape AI’s reconfiguration. Similarly, roles that will experience the fastest growth are also AI and tech-centric.

According to the WEF report, these include AI and machine learning specialists, business intelligence analysts, information security/cybersecurity specialists, among others.

On the other hand, clerical and administrative roles will experience the fastest decline as these are most at risk to be replaced by digitisation and automation, let alone AI.

In terms of skills, the age of AI is increasingly valuing cognitive skills (such as critical thinking, creativity, continuous learning), technical skills and – refreshingly enough – emotional intelligence, over physical abilities (such as manual dexterity and endurance).

In Pakistan, we remain at an astronomical distance from the so-reputed global tech and innovation hubs. There has been some recognition of the fact that Pakistan needs to plant its flag on Planet AI.

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Relatively operational or recently launched initiatives include the President Initiative for AI and Computing (PIAIC), Sino-Pak Center for AI, development of a draft AI policy, and the launch of the National Task Force on AI, among others.

Before we start creating research labs and centers of excellence, Pakistan’s policy focus should be on nurturing this shift in mindset towards AI and disruptive tech

While these initiatives represent a delectable assortment of good intentions and remarkable ambitions, they will face shared challenges towards gaining sustained momentum due to the inherent fragmentation of both effort and focus, thus preventing the formation of a stable foundation to build on.

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Ten policy priorities and orientations that cut across all these initiatives lie on the critical path of Pakistan establishing a foothold in the world of AI and 4IR tech, particularly with a view to the rapidly changing job market:

  1. An apolitical agenda: The only way to lay a strong groundwork and build upwards is to shield Pakistan’s AI agenda from the volatility of its political landscape. Progress is incremental, especially if it has to be made from below “ground zero”. It will require time, iterations, and learning through successes as well as failures. A national AI mandate that is pegged to a political campaign is doomed for disaster before it begins.

  2. AI literacy, focused on public sector: This alone is a mammoth task, and separate from AI education. The objective of literacy creation is to catalyse a mindset and attitudinal change towards AI, focused on immersive public awareness and foundational knowledge creation. It should target the private sector workforce, but more importantly the public sector. A major issue with operationalising national programmes in Pakistan is the insufficient capacity within the public sector to drive them. At times, there is a lack of general acceptance that such mandates fall within the facilitative responsibilities of the state and its institutions. As a result, many efforts either fall by the wayside, are shelved, repackaged (leading to further fragmentation and dilution), or worse, create new spaces for rent-seeking to thrive in.

  3. Digitised government: We cannot put the carriage before the horse. In an environment where ‘files’ are still ‘being moved around’, it is hard to imagine AI-integration. Digitising government agencies, functions and processes – both internal and external – using interoperable systems that ‘talk’ to each other, integrate and expedite data analysis, and provide user-friendly interfaces is the inevitable prerequisite. This creates much-needed transparency, agility, the digital architecture to overlay 4IR technologies, and also enables behavioral and attitudinal change within the public sector towards disruptive tech. Coupled with AI literacy, it sets the foundation for AI capacity building and acceptance within the public sector. As for AI itself, its integration into e-gov is undoubtedly the next frontier in public services and already being undertaken by countries such as Singapore.

  4. Systemic private sector integration: Catalysing private sector participation is a crucial ingredient. The private sector houses a critical mass of both expertise as well as investment. Crowding it in is synonymous with developing a domestic market for AI and other 4IR technologies as well as building our future workforce. Furthermore, the government can create cross-sectoral platforms and consortiums where it has a seat at the table but does not dominate it. Such platforms provide an open space for idea and knowledge creation, and a government-industry interface for sound-boarding AI and tech-related policies and programs.

  5. Tech-centric diplomacy: Building bridges is not limited to the private sector alone. This critically includes placing AI and disruptive tech on Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda in the medium to long-term to strategically build government-to-government (G2G) partnerships. The US, Singapore, UK, Finland, Canada, Korea, China among others are taking the lead in development and facilitating AI integration in governance and the economy. Each country has its own focus and forte within AI and disruptive tech. AI-centric diplomacy entails exploring G2G relations in a deliberate and mutually beneficial manner with a view to bringing home and indigenising the unique expertise our global partners offer through knowledge and technology transfer.

  6. AI future force development: Borrowing a term typically used in security and defense planning, we have clear visibility of the fast-evolving roles and skills in growing demand, and are well aware of our increasing domestic skills scarcity. According to P@SHA’s 2022 report ‘The Great Divide: The Industry-Academia Skills Gap’, Pakistan is home to over 300,000 IT professionals, producing over 25,000 graduates annually. Of these only 10 percent are considered “employable” by the industry. And this does not even begin to consider 4IR technology. A cornerstone state-led initiative (crucially in partnership with the private sector, research cells, and innovators) is strategically planning the national workforce so it is well-equipped to cater to the demands of an AI-driven future market. This includes forecasting and identifying in-demand technical and cognitive skills in the short- to long-term, and rolling out targeted programs affecting various stages of the learning lifecycle to develop those skills over the long-term in a phased manner (primary to tertiary curricular education, vocation training, upskilling/reskilling, “train the trainer” programs, fellowship and exchange programs, among others). A key measurable objective would be to produce a targeted number of skilled graduates and professionals within a specified time horizon across various STEM fields, including AI and 4IR tech specifically.

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  1. Innovation haven: Amidst several barriers to entry and growth in a volatile political economy, policy actions to support the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem revolve predominantly around reducing the cost-burden of doing business, and easing commercialisation and access to markets. Effective initiatives would directly alleviate pain points through interventions such as tax breaks on R&D assets, provision of government sponsored or low-cost technology infrastructure to support startups and emerging tech firms, creating one-window licensing and IP operations, among others.

  2. Dual-use technology (DUT): AI is one of the key technologies for DUT, that can be used for both national security and defense as well as socioeconomic advancement. While such DUTs need to be closely managed and monitored, the defense sector’s capabilities as well as its lion’s share of the national budget justifies a proportion of both to be dedicated to the inception, development and operationalisation of dual-use next-gen tech.

  3. Cybersecurity: Deepening connectivity, interoperability, and heightened complexity increases the potential surface area of vulnerabilities to greater and more sophisticated cyber threats. While we work on testing its possibilities and harnessing the power of AI, we need to simultaneously take stock of its potential perils to build fail safes and patch vulnerabilities along the way. This requires developing indigenous cybersecurity skills, and adopting a ‘build by design’ approach towards creating systems and networks focused on not just protection from threats, but more importantly resilience towards them.

  4. Foresight-driven decision-making: AI is not static. An AI policy put in place today could become redundant by next year. Policy priorities related to 4IR need agility and foresight as part of their proverbial DNA. An ongoing stream of structured horizon and threat scanning and future forecasting needs to be systematically fed into such policies and programs to refresh them on a periodic basis, ensuring sustained relevancy and upgradation.

Thus, the key success indicators of policy actions turn on their heads – it is not about the amount of real estate or headlines dedicated to AI and other 4IR technologies. Rather, it is the knowledge and innovation output, the high-quality talent produced, the degree of public awareness and crowding-in of the private sector.

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Before we start creating research labs and centers of excellence, Pakistan’s policy focus should be on nurturing this shift in mindset towards AI and disruptive tech, as well as systematically and collaboratively stimulating the development of the human resources and systems that will activate and operationalise such technologies.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

Aania Alam

The writer is a policy and institutional reform expert focused on MENAP. She is currently consulting with the Asian Development Bank, and has also been a G20 policy advisor

Comments

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Azeem Hakro Jul 11, 2023 06:31pm
It is a good article. The government could create a national AI research institute. This institute would bring together researchers from different disciplines to work on AI-related projects. The government could establish an AI ethics council. This council would be responsible for developing ethical guidelines for the use of AI. It would also monitor the use of AI to ensure that it is being used in a responsible and ethical manner. The government could create an AI skills development program. This program would provide training to people who want to learn about AI. It would also provide certification to people who have completed the program.
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Dabeer Razvi Jul 12, 2023 12:47pm
@Azeem Hakro, I think the Government should lay down the Rules, and Universities be tasked to do the needful. They may be given grants based on their progress. Our government is already bloated.
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