All hail the disrupters!

Published August 28, 2016
Elon Musk’s hyperloop tube
Elon Musk’s hyperloop tube

“So keep looking; don’t settle. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” So said the iconic Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. He was a disrupter. And so was Bill Gates! These two Harvard dropouts disrupted technology to give the world the iPhone and the world’s largest PC software respectively. Another Harvard sophomore, the 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg disrupted his estranged girlfriend’s life by launching a social-networking website called “The facebook.” Within 24 hours, 1,200 students signed on to it. Today, 1.70 billion (and counting) Facebook users connect with family and friends the world over.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, invented the term ‘disruptive technology’ just 19 years back. He explained that disruptive technology always faces multiple challenges due to its novelty. It displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or an existing product to create a completely new entity in its place.  

Reflexively, when we hear the word ‘disrupter,’ we think of a troublemaker. Someone who destroys, interrupts, breaks apart, or causes turmoil. Man by nature being a creature of habit hates disruption in his life. We prefer the existing familial, social and political tools that offer continuity without a break. But it’s disruption that made science and technology reach for the moon! No pun intended. It’s a given that our lives are sustained by modern day inventions. Otherwise, we’d still be living in the pre-industrial age.


It’s disruption that made science and technology reach for the moon


Who invented the telephone? As a teacher of the deaf, Alexandar Bell conceived the idea of “electronic speech” while visiting his hearing-impaired mother in Canada. This led him to invent the microphone and later the “electrical speech machine” that he patented as the ‘telephone.’ 

Who invented the ‘bionic eye’? A Pakistani-born Dr Mark Salman Humayun. When his grandmother Tasleem Khattak, started to go blind from complications of diabetes during Humayun’s medical school in the US, the grandson decided to specialise in ophthalmology and develop cures for blindness. Thirty years down the road, his invention named Argus 11, commonly called the ‘bionic eye’ won Mark the highest award for technology achievement. On May 19, President Obama presented him with the prestigious National Medal of Technology and Innovation. “It is a testament to American ingenuity,” said Obama. The inventor is the grandson of Quaid-i-Azam’s personal physician Dr Ilahi Bakhsh, whom he resembles closely.

Playing the part of catalyst in the life of a disrupter is often a family member. For Alexandar Bell, it was his mother; for Humayun, it was his grandmother; and for Steve Jobs, it was his father. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. Steve Jobs’ life attests to this adage. His biological father was a Syrian Muslim by the name of Abdulfattah Jandali. He came to America in the ‘50s and never went back. While in the US, he met a woman called Joanne Schieble, who would become Steve Jobs’ biological mother. The unmarried couple gave up their newborn son for adoption. Pity the father of this legend. Few know of the 85-year-old Abdulfattah Jandali. Instead, the name that will forever live is ‘Jobs.’ Paul and Clara Jobs “were my real parents,” declared their adopted son, shutting tight the lid on his birth, Arab roots, religion and adoption. But what draws us to Jobs is his Arabian DNA writ all over his handsome face and the tragic tale of a man who searched for his real sister and birth mother for years, and when he did find them, untimely death took him away.

Because his parents were both computer experts, Larry Page, the co-founder of the world’s most popular search engine Google decided to study computer science in Stanford. There he met Sergey Brin. Together they founded Google in 1998. They then went on to own the most popular website for user-submitted streaming videos, YouTube in 2006. Today the site has a billion users.

With the sun as his guiding star, South Africa-born Elon Musk founded the electric car called Tesla and SpaceX, the first private company to launch a rocket into space. “What most people know but don’t realise they know is that the world is almost entirely solar-powered already,” said Elon Musk. “If the sun wasn’t there, we’d be a frozen ice ball at three degrees, and the sun powers the entire system of precipitation. The whole ecosystem is solar-powered.” To make life sustainable on earth is to look beyond the frontiers where man has never gone before. That is exactly what the 45-year-old Musk is doing. He is trying to “redefine transportation on earth and in space,” wrote Forbes Magazine. “Through Tesla Motors, he is aiming to bring fully-electric vehicles to the mass market; at SpaceX, he is working to send humans to other planets.” Dubai recently announced it would begin work on the feasibility for Elon Musk’s so far hypothetical Hyperloop system. This posits using tubes to transport cargo and people at upto 750 mph which could cut travel time between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, for instance to under 10 minutes.

Meanwhile on earth, another disrupter is making travelling easier by linking car services and passengers at the tap of a button. Travis Kalanick found himself stranded without a taxi on a snowy Paris evening in 2008. So he founded Uber! “Whether it’s a ride, a sandwich, or a package, we use technology to give people what they want, when they want it,” says the Uber website. And guess what? The taxi-hailing app that is driving the yellow cabs off the road is already in Lahore. Uber now plans to launch its services in Karachi followed by Islamabad. Likewise, an American internet entrepreneur Brian Chesky disrupted the hotel industry by setting up AirB&B, an online marketplace that enables people to list, find and rent vacation homes for a processing fee. It has spread to 34 cities in the US and 191 countries abroad.

Cancer kills. President Obama wants a ‘moonshot’ at cancer. Just as America landed on the moon, he wants science and technology to land a cure for cancer. He has pledged one billion dollars to the ‘National Cancer Moonshot Initiative.’ Research to find a cure at the breakneck speed of lightning. Already one million people suffering from cancer are alive today because of the latest cancer therapy. Immunotherapy is the latest weapon that lets the patient’s immune system destroy the cancer cells ravaging his body. Dr Allison disrupted customary treatments like radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. Instead he focused on the ‘T-cells’ of the immune system, which are the attack cells that latch onto the cells infected with viruses and bacteria and ultimately kills them.”

All hail the disrupters!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 28th, 2016

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