Bangladesh ranks 112th when it comes to taking advantage of digitisation and connectivity to frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, says a report, warning that frontier technologies will widen the existing inequalities between the rich and the poor further in future.
The country is only ahead of Pakistan and Afghanistan in South Asia, said the report titled "Technology and Innovation Report 2021" published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) on Thursday.
With a score of 0.26 on a scale of 0 to 1, Bangladesh fell under the lower-middle group.
To prepare the report, Unctad used five building blocks – ICT deployment, skills, research and development activity, industry activity, and access to finance. The index was calculated for 158 countries.
Out of the five blocks, Bangladesh only performed well in research and development activities, standing 58th. The country's positions in other blocks are 133rd in ICT development, 130th in skills, 121st in industry activity, and 80th in access to finance.
The report provides a "country readiness index" that assesses the progress of countries in using frontier technologies, considering their national capacities related to physical investment, human capital and technological effort.
Dr Shamim Ahmed Deowan, chairman of the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering at Dhaka University, regretted that Banglkadeshi industries in frontier technology are less enthusiastic about research and innovation. And whatever research works are being done at the university level remain largely unnoticed in the international arena due to a lack of initiative to expose those efficiently, he said, giving his views on Bangladesh's low score in this area.
"International agencies, while assessing a country's strength, check websites of universities and research institutes, or journals in the related field. Though not much, we do research, but we cannot make those known to the world," said Dr Shamim, who spent 13 years in Germany for higher studies and research before joining Dhaka University.
All the research works he had accomplished in Germany were funded by industries, but here universities are shying away from research activities. "At Dhaka University, I have been trying for five years to collect funds from IT industries for research, but did not get any," he said.
Frontier technology is advancing every day and without research and innovation, Bangladesh's technology for the fourth industrial revolution would risk being out of business, he warned, stressing the need for close cooperation among the industry, government and universities to stay turned to global advancement and visible in the global arena.
According to the index, the best-prepared countries are the United States, followed by Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Singapore, the Netherlands and South Korea.
The top overall performers have well-balanced scores across all building blocks of the index and are typically associated with high innovation and gross domestic product (GDP).
Although the highest-ranked countries are the richest ones, Unctad found some exceptions, like India and the Philippines as outperformers.
They performed better than their per capita GDPs.
In the South Asian region, India ranked 43rd, followed by Sri Lanka at 86th and Nepal at 109th with an overall score of 0.62, 0.38, 0.26, respectively.
Pakistan ranked 123rd, whose strength points were research and development and industry activity. With a total score of 0.05, Afghanistan placed almost at the bottom of the index, 152nd.
The report expressed concerns that frontier technologies will further widen inequalities or create new ones, either by limiting access to more privileged groups and affluent countries or through built-in biases or unintended consequences.
For instance, jobs are disappearing as more economic activity is automated, and that social media is exacerbating divisions, anxiety and doubt.
Frontier technologies developing rapidly
The market of frontier technologies, which boost productivity and improve livelihoods, is developing fast.
The Unctad report covered 11 such technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, gene editing, nanotechnology and solar photovoltaic.
In 2018, such frontier technologies represented a $350 billion market, which by 2025 could grow to over $3.2 trillion.
According to the report, the market expansion explains how developing countries can catch up and forge ahead in using, adopting and adapting these technologies.
Unctad said countries, especially the least developed and those in sub-Saharan Africa, are unprepared to equitably use, adopt and adapt to the ongoing technological revolution.
The report said this could have severe implications for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It urged all developing nations to prepare for a period of tremendous and rapid technological change that will profoundly affect markets and societies.
"Frontier technologies are redefining our world, especially our post-pandemic future," said Shamika N Sirimanne, director of Unctad's division on technology and logistics.
Sirimanne said despite some negative realities associated with these technologies, such as their potential to worsen inequality, widen the digital divide and disrupt socio-political cohesion, they could be transformative in achieving the SDGs.
How can developing countries catch up?
To catch up and forge ahead, Unctad urged developing countries to adopt frontier technologies while continuing the diversification of their production bases by mastering the existing technologies.
These countries need to strengthen their innovation systems, as most of them are weak and prone to systemic failures and structural deficiencies, the report says.
"A whole-of-government approach is needed to absorb these technologies, as opposed to working in silos," said Sirimanne.
Developing countries should also align science, technology and innovation policies with industrial policies, Sirimanne noted. "New technologies can re-invigorate traditional production sectors and speed up industrialisation and economic structural transformation," she added.
The report also urged policymakers to help people acquire the necessary digital skills and competencies to adopt and adapt frontier technologies into their countries' existing production bases.