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OP- ED: Vision of post-Covid-19 Bangladesh and artificial intelligence

  • Published at 03:07 pm July 7th, 2020

Winston Churchill said it rightly -- 'The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.'

The global economy is now under threat due to the disruption to internal and international movement caused by the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19 pandemic. 

Many people have already become jobless owing to the pandemic. Many businesses have been hit hard as well. Apart from educational institutions, garment industries, banks, privately owned institutions, and the agriculture industry, there is a hint of economic recession in almost all sectors. But we should not lose our morale, as we know where there are problems, there are possibilities too. Winston Churchill said it rightly -- "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

Putting our trust in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, we do believe "the cloud will move away" soon. However, the role of modern technology, internet of things (IOT), and artificial intelligence is a must to help the country achieve economic prosperity after the post-coronavirus situation for overcoming the economic downturn. During the outbreak of the pandemic, we were forced to think about two things -- food and treatment. As people are facing recession in almost every sector now, it is important for us to focus on how to deal with the post-Covid-19 economic downturn based on the development of sectors like agriculture, health, and manufacturing modern machinery or parts. 

Bangladesh is an agricultural country and a significant portion of its total income comes from the sector, which contributes 14.10% to GDP (gross domestic product). According to the World Bank report, Bangladesh has a cultivable land of 20,157,000 acres. About 80% of the people of the country are dependent on agriculture. And so, it will be possible to ensure economic growth in the country by developing the field of agriculture. In this case, using artificial intelligence can bring unprecedented success and such major examples are China, Japan, USA, and many other developed countries. Observing their agricultural system it can be understood how much they have been able to increase the productivity of agriculture at a relatively low cost through the use of technology.

First of all, let us know how the developed countries have been able to make agricultural work easier and more productive by making robots and various devices using artificial intelligence.

China is currently using drones that carry pots of pesticides to spray it on croplands. The drone is operated by a farmer using a remote control. The process increases productivity on the one hand, the work of spraying pesticide is being done relatively quickly on the other hand. In China, using a drone, pesticides can be sprayed on 6.7 hectares of land in a day, whereas three farmers can spray pesticides not more than 1.33 hectares over the same period. The use of drones can make easy the process of spraying pesticides and reduce the cost as well. Besides, these drones have special sensitivities, which make them able to easily identify insect-infested crops and plants, and thus apply pesticides accordingly.

Apart from pesticides, in the developed countries, digging in the croplands, seed planting, and harvesting are done by using machines and there are various types of tractors and cars, which are specially made to perform different tasks. Using those, it is possible to cut tons of crops by completely separating it from the plants and wrap those in a special wrapper. On the other hand, when the crop is grown in the traditional way, it takes a long time to harvest the crops, store it, and then separate those from the plants. Relatively, the process requires more labour force while it takes less manpower to grow crops with these machines. Driving a tractor, a farmer can perform the work of sowing or harvesting smoothly. With these devices it is possible to complete the work in a very short time.

At present, internet of things (IOT) is playing an important role to increase productivity in croplands at a low cost, which has changed the traditional method of cultivation. Smart farming and smart agriculture is a hi-tech system based on modern technology that produces clean and healthy food for people, saving time and capital. The system refers to the use of modern ICT (information and communication technology) and IOT technology in agriculture. The IOT applications in agriculture include tracking of farm vehicles, monitoring of livestock and warehouse, and many more. In many developed countries, wireless IOT application is being used for monitoring livestock which helps to identify sick animals so that they can be separated from others. In this way, the spread of the disease can be prevented. This reduces labour cost helping pastoralists identify the location of their cattle. In addition, the use of IOT applications in determining quality of plant and soil, moderate irrigation and fertilizer, meteorological reporting and others help bumper yield in agriculture, saving time and labour. In the IOT-based smart farming, farmers can monitor their lands from anywhere. In comparison with the conventional method, the IOT-based smart farming is highly effective.

Meanwhile, vertical farming has gained a lot of popularity in different countries of the world. The method makes it possible to grow crops on a small land in a controlled environment. Currently, the amount of cultivable land in Bangladesh is decreasing and particularly in urban areas, cultivation work seems to be very difficult. In such circumstances, even within the four walls, it is possible to grow nutritious crops in a controlled environment through a suitable combination of artificial heat, moderate carbon dioxide, water, and various materials.

In China, robots are used to test whether the environment of greenhouses or indoor farms are suitable for farming or not and necessary steps are taken based on the test reports. It is also possible to grow good quality crops and vegetables without any soil and by dipping the roots of the plants in a mixture of nutrients. The process of the cultivation is called hydroponics. Various crops are grown in specially sensitive trays, which are spread in rows from soil to roof. Any crop can be cultivated in any season in such a controlled environment, so that people can consume a lot of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. There are many farms built in the shape of big buildings and even older buildings are turned into farms. 

By cultivating in this way, it is possible to achieve a huge success in the agricultural sector in our country. The level of production will increase many times and the poor will be able to consume nutritious food at a low cost. Additional agricultural products can also be exported to other countries. Besides, it is possible to provide employment to many people, which will be able to move the wheel of the economy upwards.

Now, let's take a look at processed foods. In our country, we see bumper production of many crops at various times. In this case, for example, potatoes rot during the potato season while at the end of the season people have to purchase those at a higher price. It cannot be exported as well. 

And so it is possible to manufacture various food items made of fruits and vegetables through artificial intelligence and sophisticated equipment by controlling quality in a particular process to meet the needs of the local people and export them abroad. As a result, it is possible to consume and store all kinds of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. We can earn a lot of foreign currency by making and exporting quality tomato sauce, various fruit juices, pickles, etc using modern technology.

Many countries produce canned food. They process fish and meat, preserve those in metal containers, and supply to consumers. These canned foods can be stored for many days and are especially needed in disaster-prone areas, where there is a great need for dry food. Bangladesh experiences various natural calamities every year and cyclone Amphan is its latest example. Considering the fact that, if such nutritious canned food is produced and marketed, it will be possible to meet the domestic demand as well as earn foreign exchange.

We understand very well what improvements need to be made in the field of medical science during this Covid-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, there was a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for which doctors were unable to provide treatment to patients. Also, lack of test kits at the time led to only a handful of people being able to get tested for the virus. As a result, it was difficult to identify Covid-19 positive patients and the situation was impossible to control.

Later, Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK) authorities invented a testing kit, although it took some time for them to make it. Then came the inability to quickly invent a vaccine. Not only our country, the whole world is trying to find a vaccine for Covid-19, but no vaccine has reached people yet. 

People are dying due to an inadequate number of Intensive Care Units (ICUs).

The solution to all these things is to bring about a radical change in medical science through the research and management of up-to-date medical science through the artificial intelligence (AI) that exists in modern technology.

If the new generation of the country is given the necessary research and training opportunities, it will be possible to make sophisticated equipment in the country, which will play a big role in the development of the medical field.

It costs crores of taka every year to import these equipment. However, using the talents of the country, it is possible to make these sophisticated machines at a relatively low cost. With this, it is possible to make the necessary antidotes for various diseases and to export them to take the country's economy forward on the path of prosperity.

This catastrophic time in this coronavirus pandemic proves how much the country's medical sector needs to improve and prosper.

The light engineering sector is another important sector that can play an important role in enriching the economy of Bangladesh. After agriculture, light engineering can be another potential sector to move our economy forward.

Light engineering has brought a new dimension to the economy of Bangladesh. Like bicycles, motorcycles, and automobiles, light engineering products were declared as “Product of the Year” 2020 at the Dhaka International Trade Fair by Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. This sector has contributed 2.2% to the GDP in a short period of time and is widely used in garments and textiles in Bangladesh.

Eco-friendly disinfectant (bio-grade) polythene making machines had to be imported from countries like China, Taiwan, and Japan which cost Tk70 lakh to Tk1 crore. But the same machine is now being made in the country for only Tk22 lakh.

According to the Export Promotion Bureau, in the 2015-16 fiscal year, we earned US $510.06 million by exporting engineering products. Not only that, through light engineering, it is possible to reduce the import cost by about 50% only by manufacturing and repairing parts for industrial, agricultural, and repair work.

At present, it is possible to meet the demand for about 48% to 52% of the required parts in various fields. 

So if we improve in this case, it will be possible to make and repair many modern types of equipment in our country. As a result, there will be no need to import these instruments or parts from abroad thus, the expenditure in the import sector will be reduced.

At the same time, it will be possible to earn more foreign currency by making various instruments or parts and exporting them.

There is a huge potential to earn foreign exchange by exporting such machines to our neighbouring countries like India, Nepal, and Bhutan. In this case, the government, various universities, and light engineering manufacturing companies have to come forward together.

Prominent people think that light engineering can play a huge role in our agricultural country because, for modern mechanization of agriculture, we mostly depend on foreign machinery.

However, with the help of Bangladeshi agriculturists and officials of all these production oriented organizations, if the land based parts of Bangladesh can be made in our country. However, just as it is possible to rapidly modernize the country's agriculture on the one hand, on the other hand, modern agricultural equipment can be delivered to the farmers at low cost.

However, important quarters of the government are pledging to work in this sector with importance, so that after meeting the domestic demand for modern machinery used in agriculture, it can be exported.

There are already 40,000 light engineering manufacturing entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, where about 1 million people are working. If the number of light engineering companies increases, the employment of people will increase too and so as the technology sector of the country will expand.

Besides, if there are various training systems, people will be able to build their own organization. As a result, people will be able to create new instruments and parts, which will play a role in achieving excellence in various sectors.

Below are some suggestions on how to use AI in agriculture, medicine and light engineering, and economic development:

●    To improve, modernize and expand the quality of IT / ICT education in the country.

●    Sending students and teachers abroad for study and training in higher education. To arrange lessons and training with foreign skilled teachers if necessary.

●    To place more emphasis on technical education.

●    Ensuring a research education system that is effective for students and solving local problems and creating sensors, applications and software for smart agriculture.

●    Establishing cooperative relations with universities and industrial organizations.

●    To provide suitable training to the employees on the use of modern technology in the field of employment and to appoint experienced and qualified people in special fields.

●    Discovering modern medical instruments with special emphasis on biomedical engineering and changing instrument designs as needed

●    To provide research opportunities with engineering universities for the betterment of the light engineering sector.

●    Emphasis on discovering, inventing, and repairing various instruments in the country for use in different sectors

●    Arranging research for the use of modern technology for food processing and liaising industrial establishments and high-tech parks with specialized universities in zones / regions.

Covid-19 has ravaged the world like an invisible storm. Needless to say, the next world economic crisis will be the most severe.

In this Covid-19 crisis, when the world's major economies are worried about how to keep the wheel of their economy in motion, there is an immense potential for Bangladesh on the other hand.

We are hopeful that the trend of economic progress of the last decade will continue in Bangladesh under the leadership of the honourable prime minister.

British newspaper “The Economist” has also given such hopeful news for Bangladesh at this time of global stagnant economic crisis. According to the newspaper, the coronavirus epidemic situation also ranks Bangladesh ninth in the list of 66 countries with strong emerging economies and is even ahead of China.

In order to reduce the negative impact of Covid-19 pandemic on the economy of Bangladesh, emphasis should be laid on the innovation, manufacture, and repair of agricultural, medical, and modern machinery and equipment in Bangladesh.

The use of modern technology in agriculture and the processing of food can pave the way for meeting domestic demand and earning foreign exchange.

What is needed now is proper planning and implementation. It is recommended that the government and private organizations work together for this. Universities and teachers also have an important role to play in this.

To establish a “Sonar Bangla” which the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dreamt about, his daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is working on to make it a reality. She has given Vision 2021, 2030, 2041 and Delta Plan to establish a prosperous Bangladesh.

Sajeeb Wazed Joy, a worthy grandson of Bangabandhu and the ICT adviser to the prime minister, is also working relentlessly to implement the vision.

On the birth centenary of Bangabandhu, let us be firmly convinced to establish Bangladesh as the happy, prosperous, and humane and advanced “Sonar Bangla” of Bangabandhu's dream by 2041.

The author is a professor, information technologist, member of University Grants Commission of Bangladesh (UGC), and a director of Bangladesh Communication Satellite Company Limited (BCSCL)

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