KARACHI: “Without developing local AI capabilities, Pakistan may become increasingly dependent on foreign AI solutions,” said ByeongJo Kong, Digital Technology Specialist (Data Analytics & Big Data) at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in response to an emailed query.

This dependency not only incurs higher costs but could also place critical infrastructure and systems under the control of foreign entities, creating potential economic and security vulnerabilities, he explained.

AI should be built to address the country’s specific needs and challenges, said Fatima Yasmin, the Vice-President for Sectors and Themes of the Asian Development Bank. The first wave of AI may increase the gap between countries. This is what appears to be happening in Pakistan, which is lagging behind its peers in AI adoption

Lessons from India

In India, AI has found its way to several applications. For example, in Tamil Nadu, army-grade AI surveillance is being used to prevent elephant deaths on railway tracks. AI cameras have been installed on 12 towers along two key rail tracks, which alert forest and railway authorities that elephants are within 100 feet of the tracks. So far, it has detected nearly 400 instances of elephants approaching railway tracks. Given its success, Tamil Nadu plans to expand the AI-based system to other vulnerable areas across the state.

Another example is Kissan GPT in India, a chatbot introduced to assist farmers regardless of their literacy levels. The chatbot allows farmers to speak on their mobile phones for their queries and understands Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi, among other languages. It responds with in-depth answers.

India is going to be a major player as a producer and consumer of AI, says Ozzeir Khan, Director, Digital Innovation and Architecture at ADB’s Information Technology Department. Such uses of AI can be adopted for Pakistan.

OLAM International, a major agribusiness company, uses AI in the Philippines to streamline rice processing and distribution. It’s as simple as uploading a picture of the crop; AI assesses aspects of its quality and connects farmers to buyers, he says. Applications like these can help address Pakistan’s arthi challenges.

Singapore has bought up to S$500 million of graphics processing units, which are crucial for developing AI apps, even though they have no use for it at the moment, he adds. “They [Singapore] are hoarding it. Now, in Pakistan, where there are challenges, is the government making such AI investments?”

A widening gap

Mr Kong elaborated on the impact of the widening AI gap, which could be especially significant for countries that have not yet prioritised AI investments. AI has the potential to boost economic growth and productivity substantially. By automating processes and enhancing efficiency in manufacturing, healthcare, and services, AI can drive innovation and competitiveness.

Pakistan faces a Catch-22 situation in terms of an ill-equipped workforce. Countries with robust AI strategies are creating educational and professional development programs to train specialists in AI, says Mr Kong. The absence of such initiatives in Pakistan means it is not only missing the opportunity to advance its own technological capabilities but also facing a brain drain, further depleting the country’s potential to catch up.

It is crucial for the government to consider these implications seriously and to begin integrating AI strategies into its national development plans. This would involve not only investments in technology but also in building the infrastructure and educational systems necessary to support such advancements, he adds.

Avoiding ‘copy-paste’

However, adopting ‘copy-paste’ AI technologies that aren’t adapted to Pakistan’s unique needs poses various risks and can be problematic in several ways, he cautions.

Imported AI solutions may not address local languages, infrastructure constraints, or cultural nuances, leading to inefficiencies and biases. For example, AI technologies developed for other regions may not effectively serve Pakistan’s diverse linguistic and cultural landscape, excluding certain population groups from benefiting from AI advancements.

The other potential problem is the difference in cultures between the West and the East. Implementing AI systems that are not designed with local laws and societal norms in mind poses significant risks associated with data privacy and security.

Such challenges extend to the agriculture sector as well. If Pakistan were to import an AI-based agricultural monitoring system designed for a different climate and crop type, it might provide inaccurate predictions for the country’s agricultural environment, which could result in misguided government interventions and economic losses.

To mitigate these risks, Pakistan should either develop its own AI solutions or fine-tune imported solutions to meet its specific needs, Mr Kong suggests. Investing in local research, establishing partnerships, and creating a national AI strategy will help ensure that the technology serves according to local relevance while empowering domestic capacity.

In an era dominated by technological advances, AI stands out as a transformative force reshaping industries and societies. As India rapidly emerges as a major player, Pakistan finds itself at a critical juncture. “Without a national framework and strategy for AI, Pakistan will miss out on opportunities as well as means for keeping people safe,” says Mr Khan.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2024

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