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OP-ED: The next revolution is coming up

  • Published at 10:16 pm August 6th, 2020
Technology 4IR

Bangladesh cannot afford to miss out on this one

Bloomberg reports that the end of American trade privileges for Hong Kong will have a significant effect on the global chip industry. According to the industrial research firm TrendForce, “the removal of Hong Kong’s special status would ‘drastically change’ how the global semiconductor industry operates.”

An economist at TS Lombard predicts that “broader US sanctions on Hong Kong and China will shift the semiconductor warehousing business out of Hong Kong to a different Asian trans-shipment hub.” Sales offices may shift to India, Vietnam, or Cambodia, among other potential nations, according to the chairman of the Hong Kong Electronics & Technologies Association.

Is this an opportunity for Digital Bangladesh? Semiconductors form the base of a modern hi-tech industrial economy. The first wave of Asian tiger economies like Taiwan and South Korea devoted much attention to develop chip manufacturing. Semiconductor fabrication plants are as vital as oil refineries.

Given the strategic importance of this sector, should the government of Bangladesh promote the creation of a dedicated semiconductor foundry? 

Digital Bangladesh is an important vision outlined by the prime minister’s ICT advisor. It is necessary to give much greater substance to this vision. Consider how Lee Kuan Yew promoted the adoption of the latest technologies in Singapore after the city-state’s independence. 

Remember what Rajiv Gandhi said about India’s future, that “India missed the industrial revolution, it cannot afford to miss the computer revolution.” Gandhi’s policies laid the foundation for India’s IT boom.

The hi-tech dreams of the United Arab Emirates has led that country to launch the Hope orbiter mission to Mars with the help of NASA. 

In the same vein, while Bangladesh missed much of the industrial revolutions of the past, it cannot afford to lose out on the fourth Industrial Revolution.  

The country has the prerequisites for Industry 4.0. It has burgeoning sectors in mobile banking, ridesharing, food delivery apps, online marketplaces, and smartphone applications. The government’s Access 2 Information program (a2i) is leading to greater digitalization of government services. 

Bangladesh won the 2020 UN Public Services Award for “developing a transparent and accountable public service” through its e-mutation initiative, which digitalizes land records. E-mutation is a highly significant reform to land law in Bangladesh.

According to the World Economic Forum, Industry 4.0 has “possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge”. These possibilities will be “multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing”. 

Smart sensors are spurring the Internet of Things (IoT) to manage urban infrastructure, factories, and wearable devices. Most traffic lights are currently out of order in Dhaka. But imagine if Dhaka was transformed into a smart city where IoT sensors facilitated traffic and brought down congestion. 

In Singapore, 3D printing is being used to grow food, allowing for customized nutrition and real-time monitoring. Can such technology be applied to improve agriculture in Bangladesh?

There has been talk of producing electric cars in Bangladesh. The world is also now witnessing the emergence of the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) which are self-driving vehicles. The US has adopted legal definitions of the Autonomous Vehicle. Companies are testing out the self-driving truck. Automated trains are already operating in parts of the world, particularly in rapid transit systems. 

The incoming era will pose new questions for law and civil liberties. Privacy and data security will be of central concern for citizens and governments. The European Union has adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as its continental standard for digital privacy and data security.

Protecting intellectual property rights is vital in the digital sphere. A recent report by the RAND Corporation focused on countering online abuse, including doxing, swatting, and sexual harassment. 

The era also poses questions for competition in the free market. America is currently in the midst of assessing the market share of its Big Four tech giants Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google. The CEOs of these four giants were called to a congressional anti-trust hearing. 

On the other end, authoritarian powers like China and Russia are seeking to restrict freedom of expression and information on the internet, and promote intrusive surveillance technology. Such restrictions stifle innovation and creativity, which is not good for an economy in the long run.

The Great Firewall of China bans most global online platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. Instead, local platforms like Weibo and WeChat dominate the Chinese market of one billion or so users.   

In Bangladesh, digital regulation has morphed into a question of undermining civil liberties, instead of focusing on the protection of privacy and data or countering online harassment. The widely criticized Digital Security Act has reversed the gains of Bangladesh’s multi-party democracy by stifling freedom of expression on vague grounds of hurting religious sentiment and the image of the nation.

The vision of Digital Bangladesh has to promote a free and innovative society. It has to be in keeping with the diverse social and political forces prevalent in the world’s eighth most populous country. It also needs to lay the groundwork for hi-tech manufacturing and embracing the fourth industrial revolution. 

Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.