By Fardin Hasin for Alal O Dulal
Recently, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) branch of one of the leading engineering universities in Bangladesh organised a seminar on cyber-physical systems. There was only one speaker — a CSE graduate from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology with excellent academic record, who is also an assistant professor in a research lab in a reputed American university.
He spoke of how advancements in telecommunications have allowed us to transmit and interpret information quickly and clearly, have reduced time-consuming barriers and errors stemming from hitherto human interactions. To illustrate his point however, he boasted how Generals in the United States can precisely control drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He further referred to the cyber hacking carried out against Iran, which eventually succeeded in damaging their nuclear sector.
He is a learned man – knows a lot about how computer systems can control real time mechanical applications, and did not seem to be personally biased towards nations with technological superiority. Yet when he talked about automated drone attacks, he had no discomfort, nor had he expressed sympathy for intended fatalities, confined himself to appreciation for technological sophistication.
True, drones display what talent and hard work can achieve with adequate funding. In fact, it is their application which is deadly not the science behind them. But the engineers and scientists involved in the research and development of drones knew what they were trying to achieve. Yet, either they preferred to merely advance science or chose to ignore lethal consequences for fellow human beings.
Responsibility which science avoids are often left prey to geopolitics, or are treated as irrelevant moral considerations for philosophers and intellectuals to be turned to metaphysical concepts that science cannot and perhaps does not want to deal with. Even worse, while scientists themselves are rarely violent, leaders in scientific community may consider inflicting such violence inevitable in their quest of gathering knowledge.
They are carrying out such deadly research and innovations based on an accepted ideology and wisdom that drive modern science. Which is not new. The ancient Baconian philosophy that ‘Knowledge Is Power’ and ‘Nature reveals its secret under torture’. Scientific knowledge gives us powerful control and allows us to dominate others which often makes us feel better.
Even though there are many scientists and technology experts dedicating their lives solving problems, making modern living comfortable and more productive, politics and bureaucracy undermine them ignoring their expert opinions. For example, consider the advice given but overlooked in case of ‘Quick Rental Power Plants’ in Bangladesh. Experts advised that this venture would not be profitable and despite temporary success, will not benefit our power system in the end. Although to say that they were right, one might be violating government policy, to say that they were wrong would be ill-informed.
The solutions by experts are sometimes faulty too. The idea of filling up water bodies to make land mass suitable for habitation originated in the 80s. Now we have a serious flood problem – not just in the villages but also in cities. A day long rain transforms Dhaka into a waterlogged city of buildings. Dams made to protect these cities do not work as anticipated.
Technology alone cannot be a saviour of developing countries. Specially, if we try to achieve the technological development of developed countries without considering different situations where such achievements have been possible. Developed countries have good governance and strong infrastructure, adequate bureaucracy, which enabled them to undergo technological development. They had set out for knowledge fully aware that they were after power.
On the other hand we have been delusional to believe that technology will let us progress even if it is controlled by dictators, managed by inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy and implemented amid terribly weak infrastructures. We thought technology would allow us to get rid of chaos and injustice, that it would help to address issues, leaving us with sustainable development.
To us technology has been a mantra raising our living and moral standards. We have failed to see technology as a necessity, and adapt it in that form. Instead, we treated technology as our way to rise as a nation not just militarily or structurally but spiritually. Our goal had not been to solve our local problems, instead, to be part of a global solution that was not really global at all. Rather, limited to the western hemisphere.
Despite our country producing top scientists, engineers and technologists we do not produce sufficient electricity, our cities are unplanned, our roads and rails are inadequate and damaged, and our industries are underdeveloped. That is, leaving out bullying on mass media disguised as activism, and government using mobile phones to spy on people and terrorists using it for their violent activities.
But none of this gives us an excuse to go back to the past. We have to survive in the present. Technology should be a tool to help us in our efforts to advance our living. However, seeking peace through philosophical and spiritual means solely is unlikely to work. We are in desperate need of appropriate technology, but not least the ability to develop the maturity to use it wisely.
Fardin Hasin, is an engineering undergraduate student at IUT Dhaka, Bangladesh.