We are living in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Today, AI is prevalent and ubiquitous in every walk of life, such as in our means of transportation, our consumer electronics, and our healthcare products. However, this disruption did not come out of the blue; instead, it was predicted a long ago by management consultancies like McKinsey and global accounting networks like Deloitte. According to a conservative estimate of these firms, the global market of AI was around 42.8 billion $ back in 2018-2019. Incidentally, around this time, the Government of Pakistan also started realizing the potential of this domain. Though it was a little late, it’s always better to be late than never. However, it was Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman, who accelerated the research and development activities in this field in Pakistan after assuming charge of PM’s task forces on the knowledge economy and science & technology. One of the manifestations of his vision in this regard is the development of the Sino-Pak Center for Artificial Intelligence (SPCAI). The SPCAI is a state-of-the-art industrial research facility, which recently became operational at Pak-Austria Fachhochschule – Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (PAF-IAST), Haripur.

The SPCAI is a unique project in many aspects. It realizes the trilateral partnership between Pakistan, China, and Austria. Apart from its competent faculty, the SPCAI drives its main strength from academic and industrial liaisons with top-notch Chinese (e.g., Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology and the Guangdong University of Technology) and Austrian (e.g., Johannes Kepler University Linz and Software Competence Center Hagenberg) varsities, and research and technological organizations. All these institutes are world-renowned in AI, e.g., Prof. Sepp Hochreiter – the inventor of LSTM (one of the most well-known deep learning architecture) – is from Johannes Kepler University Linz. Another distinctive feature of the SPCAI is its proximity to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Special Economic Zones (SEZ) such as Hattar SEZ, Rashakai SEZ Nowshera, and ICT Model Industrial Zone, Islamabad. This proximity will enable industries to be a part of the value chain, thus directly benefiting from the innovative solutions developed at the SPCAI.

The mission of the SPCAI is threefold: promotion of application-oriented AI-based industrial research, strengthening the region as a research site and skilling people.

Application-oriented industrial research: The competent and internationally trained staff of the SPCAI supports local industry and their products both proactively, i.e., developing innovative ideas for them, and reactively, i.e., further refining and improving the existing initiatives. This engagement enables the seamless transfer of scientific know-how to industry. Furthermore, it fosters the dissemination of the latest technologies via high-quality solutions. This widens the horizon of partner industries, opens future avenues for them, and further cement their existing market positions.

Strengthening the region as a research site: The SPCAI believes in the continuous expansion of methodological competence and application of knowledge in socially relevant vital issues. In strategic research, the SPCAI systematically studies specific thematic areas according to international scientific standards and creates the theoretical and methodological foundation for subsequent application-oriented projects. As an initiative of PAF-IAST, it contributes significantly to national and international networking with universities, research organizations, and industry. Furthermore, its associated technology park makes a significant contribution to the development of the Haripur region – an essential stop on the northern CPEC route and location of the Havelian dry port.

Skilling people: Further pushing the overall aim of PAF-IAST, i.e., “Skilling Pakistan,” the SPCAI provides a first-class environment for the training of its staff in enhancing their problem-solving skills, which includes enhancement of their cognitive abilities, enabling them to think critically, and encouraging them to tackle problems innovatively.

As aforementioned, although improving the competence of local industry through AI-based solutions is one of the primary objectives of the SPCAI, it has an equal footing on innovative research and national capacity building. This is to compete at the global level to increase the share of Pakistan in the AI market, which is likely to reach approximately US $ 190.61 billion by 2025. The idea is to establish the SPCAI as a center of excellence with an international reputation, capable of conducting both fundamental and application-oriented research in AI, thus realizing the vision of PM’s taskforces on the knowledge economy and science & technology.


The writer is the managing director of SPCAI and a faculty member at Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria. He has several years of working experience in both academia and industry in various European countries. He received Ph.D. from the University of Lorraine, France. He can be reached at atif.mashkoor@{spcai.paf-iast.edu.pk|jku.at} or https://twitter.com/atif_mashkoor.

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