Dr Shamim Ahmed Deowan, chairman of the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering of Dhaka University says automation will raise productivity and create new jobs. He assures robots will not drive humans away from the job market, rather they will collaborate with humans to improve production accuracy. In a conversation with The Business Standard's Deputy Editor Titu Datta Gupta, Dr Shamim said that IT undergrad students of universities could be engaged as volunteers in the nationwide Covid-19 vaccination drive to ensure efficient management of this mega event.
Do you think a better IT infrastructure could have helped having a better education management during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Of course. If we could have developed a better IT infrastructure we definitely would have managed education better during the Covid-19 pandemic. Online classes are the only option that worked in the education system during the pandemic. It operates through some internet-based communication platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, etc. The system requires internet connectivity and devices like PC, laptop or at least smartphone, where we have a huge shortage. There are roughly 36 million pupils studying from pre-primary to university levels in our country. Studies suggest only 37% of students have access to such devices, meaning that the majority of them are deprived of the benefit expected from online classes. Even those who are lucky to have access to the Internet, service is not up to the mark for online class. If we could have ensured a wider Internet access, this gap could be reduced. This (shortage) will have a negative impact on our education of all levels and may cause dropout particularly in primary level.
On other hand, Tthere are other obstacles as well. Many Ppeople have lost their jobs, their incomes dropped. Most low income people moved out of the urban areas to their villages. It was not easy for them to connect children with the Internet from remote areas.
Why are we lagging behind in IT skills?
We could not bring the whole country under Internet coverage. If you do not have connectivity, how will you develop IT skills? In many areas, 3G and 4G services are available. Is it affordable? The pandemic has either stopped or cut people's income. Many people spent their savings to just survive. They struggled. So you cannot expect people to spend money for IT skills in this tough time when survival becomes the first question.
The government distributes students' books free of cost. Couldn't the government provide free Internet, or at a low cost for students attending online classes?
That could be done. Then what about the devices? When getting enough food is the first priority for families, then buying a smartphone or laptop for children is a distant second option. These are the things that hold back development of skills in information technology.
How can technology help the vaccination management?
Vaccination management is about reaching the maximum number of people in a minimum time. This is a huge nationwide task. Ensuring an efficient vaccination management will be difficult with inadequate technologies and poor logistics across the country. Nevertheless we should hope for the best. Vaccination is starting. We have just received some vaccine doses. How can technology help make the management efficient? For example, this vaccine has to be kept in controlled temperature. This temperature or storage condition can be monitored by sensors connected to a centrally-controlled system. Developed countries are putting advanced technologies to this end. We also need to use these technologies to the best of our ability. Some artificial intelligence-based technologies can be applied to keep track of storage and transportation of vaccines to make sure that certain pre-requisite conditions i.e. cold-chain is maintained throughout the process. For vaccination, some systems should be rolled out for registration, keeping records of receivers, detailed charts or maps of areas. Text messages need to be sent to people alerting them about the date, place and specific time of taking the jab so that people do not have to wait in line for the whole day. People need to be alerted to the schedules for the next dose through text messages with a countdown timer like "You have 10 days left" "….9 days left."
It is all about data science, an AI-based system, and machine learning. I think it could be managed efficiently--from storage, transportation, record keeping to administering doses to people.
Do we have the necessary skills?
I think there are some startups in these fields. Some IT-based tech centres are there. I heard from that the ICT state minister mention aboutthat there are 35 such IT centres that are capablewhich could be capable of developing such systems to aid an efficient vaccination drive. If they are trained up, the systems will work smoothly. The ICT ministry has a role to playcan play an important role so that the vaccination can be properly managed.
The government has developed an app—Surokkha—for vaccination drive.
I just heard about it from the ICT senior secretary NM Ziaul Alam from the media. In fact this is not impossiblean amazing step to harness the fruits of Digitalized Bangladesh. We have many IT students in universities including Dhaka University. They can do this. They can be engaged in the vaccination management system as well.
How can we keep our cyber resources secured?
We need to enhance our IT expertise and train people. Threats to cyber security is a big issue now worldwide. Many people are working from home. Companies are holding meetings online. The online meeting platforms are unprotected, easy to be hacked. Any breach can cause incalculable loss to a company. I am not an expert in cyber security. But I think we have people in this field who can be trained up to safeguard our cyber systems. In 1998, we had only 50,000 people in IT-related services. Now the number has grown up to about 10 lakh in both high and low ends. One lakh of them could be trained up as experts in cyber security. We need to develop a security system of our own, engaging our own people so that the accident anything like the hacking to Bangladesh Bank hack is not repeated.
Workers are being replaced by automation. Will robots make humans irrelevant everywhere? What new skills do we need for future employment?
Automation is replacing jobs, at the same time automation is creating scopes for new jobs. Robots are a part of automation. It is not going to turn humans irrelevant. Rather this technology is creating an environment of human-machine collaboration, which will eventually enhance productivity and improve accuracy. Take Tesla for example. They make driverless electric cars. You may say that drivers will not be required any more. Let us think differently. This automation will make a driver free. He or she can have time to learn the technique or be trained up to operate more cars like that operate five cars at a time. Only one thing is required here—learning the new skill. It is true for all other manufacturing industries. Automation will raise productivity 5 to 10 times. It will enhance accuracy. So, finished products will be of superior quality and in good demand for abroad. We will export improved quality products and earn more. Foreign investors will be encouraged to invest here. Thus more jobs will be created in turn. People who will lose jobs can learn new skills and join new works.
It is what is now being called re-skilling and up-skilling.
Exactly. We can export quality products and earn good prices. At the same time we can send skilled manpower abroad who can earn more remittance. From this angle, we can say automation is helpful and not a threat. We need to invest more in education. Compared to neighbouring countries, our education budget is much lower. For future development, we need to invest in new technologies and research. Advanced technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence have gained a foothold in our country hardly for five years now. Previously we had to depend on foreign countries for these technologies. Now we are developing human resources in these areas. Our government needs to invest more to prepare our people for advanced technologies to achieve higher economic growth and meet SDGs.
Cooperation from the private sector is also crucial here. Industries can be partner with the government and universities to develop skills they need. The government can offer tax breaks and other incentives for companies to develop new skills. Say, if a company has 100 skilled people, it will get a tax reduction. Then companies will be encouraged to develop skilled manpower and recruit them. Companies can enter into cost-sharing deals with universities to train manpower with skills needed for specific industries. Universities will definitely welcome such initiatives. This tripartite approach can help reduce the gap between what industries need and universities produce.