Another history in the making | Atif Mashkoor

In his article “Another scam in the making,” published by Dawn on 5th February 2022, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy criticized the idea of PUEET (Pak University of Engineering & Emerging Technologies) to be established in the Prime Minister (PM) house in Islamabad and referred to it as a scam. While most of the article is based on slur against the prominent Pakistani scientist Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman, many other claims made in the piece are also unfounded and against reality.

First and foremost, I have the utmost respect for Dr. Hoodbhoy as a thinker, scientist, and patriot fellow Pakistani. However, I’d like to humbly correct certain statements in his article, specifically regarding Pak-Austria Fachhochschule: Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (PAF-IAST), Haripur. Dr. Hoodbhoy first wrote, “a visit to the polytechnic’s website shows no foreign faculty have come from Austria or elsewhere.” Then, he added, “It’s just a plain, average place.”

First, let’s get the facts straight. I am a foreign faculty member at PAF-IAST. I am also a faculty member at Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria (https://www.jku.at/en/lit-secure-and-correct-systems-lab/about-us/team/). Therefore, his statement about the foreign faculty of the university is factually incorrect. Anyway, it would have been appropriate from an ethical point of view had Dr. Hoodbhoy contacted the university in this regard before writing about it.

Second, I’d like to mention why PAF-IAST is a different university and not “yet another plain and average place.” In PAF-IAST, we are promoting “skill-based” education. We are not training our students merely for the sake of a degree. Yes, at the end of their study, they do get degrees, but these degrees are just side effects of their skill-based education, designed to train them as professionals with a ready-to-market skill set. From the first semester, these students are engaged in industrial internships (several at the nearby Hattar industrial estate), grooming them for local market needs. Our master’s degree students are involved even in projects with Austrian industries. Although not a new concept, it is a proven winning recipe for successful education in central European/German-speaking countries like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (collectively known as the DACH countries). Incidentally, this is the region from where the idea of Fachhochschule – University of Applied Sciences – stems.

Another distinctive feature of PAF-IAST is its associated centers of excellence in artificial intelligence (AI), mineral resource engineering, nanotechnology, transportation, and food technologies. Consider, for example, only it’s center of excellence in AI, which is known as the Sino-Pak Center for AI (SPCAI). It is an application-oriented research facility for promoting AI in Pakistan, collaborating with Austrian and Chinese universities and industry. It became operational in October 2020 and currently focusing on smart cities, robotics, agriculture, disaster management, biomedicine, intelligent systems, etc. In collaboration with Chinese and Austrian universities, SPCAI is building the national AI research and development (R&D) capacity through innovative research and master programs. In addition, SPCAI is solving local challenge problems using AI in cooperation with its industrial partners. The center is currently working on multiple research projects/startup ideas in the areas such as agriculture, energy, and healthcare. As a result, it has gained international recognition and reputation in just a year.

In September 2021, SPCAI, PAF-IAST, hosted Pakistan’s first National AI Forum (NAIF) in Haripur. NAIF was attended by hundreds of delegates from industry, academia, R&D establishments, and the public. In addition, several top scientists from academia and industry from Austria and China participated in NAIF as distinguished speakers. Furthermore, the associated Lab2Market event attracted 235 project entries from 66 universities across Pakistan, where students showcased their AI-based innovative projects. Generally, these projects are done and dusted once the students graduate. However, PAF-IAST is enabling them to turn these projects into products/startups by providing mentorship, seed funding, and a technology park and business incubation center to nurture those ideas further. NAIF also offered a platform to publicly discuss the National AI Policy of Pakistan by the Ministry of Information Technology & Telecom – a curious case in Pakistan’s history when the regulator took the live feedback of stakeholders before rolling out a policy.

In March 2022, SPCAI, PAF-IAST, is hosting an international event in Islamabad to discuss the scope and applications of AI in the health, energy, and agriculture sectors in the Muslim world in cooperation with COMSTECH and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Several researchers, academics, dignitaries, and delegates from OIC countries are expected to attend this event. Additionally, SPCAI, PAF-IAST, hosts two international workshops on AI technologies in Vienna, Austria, this summer. Again, several hundred international top scientists are expected to attend.

The point of the whole discussion is that Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman and his team are trying their level best under the leadership of the honorable PM Imran Khan to create a world-class research and teaching environment in Pakistan. This could be a stepping stone towards a knowledge-driven economy whose main pillars are IT, AI, and other futuristic technologies. P@SHA – an independent industry body – has already forecasted that these industries could add up to 59.7 billion$ annual revenue by 2030 in Pakistan’s economy. Be it PAF-IAST, PUEET, or the University of Applied Engineering and Emerging Technologies (UAEET), Sialkot; all are unconventional, unorthodox, ambitious, and high-risk/high-gain projects. However, the success of PAF-IAST gives us reasonable confidence that Pakistan is moving in the right direction. Of course, like anywhere else, there is always room for further improvement.

The standard of Pakistani education did not fall overnight; neither will it be reestablished any time soon. All we need is patience, perseverance, support, and a leap of faith.

Note: We contacted Dawn, urging them to publish our response. This is their journalistic responsibility to allow us to clarify our position. But unfortunately, we did not hear from them at all.

The writer is a foreign faculty at PAF-IAST, and a faculty member at Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria. He has several years of working experience in academia and industry in various European countries. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Lorraine, France. He can be reached at https://twitter.com/atif_mashkoor.

2 Comments on “Another history in the making | Atif Mashkoor

  1. This article is fact-less rebetal. I have attended the NAIF and they don’t have any prominent speakers (Dr atta group members like DPL and Dr. Shoab etc).

    Foreign faculty means foreign faculty not only an individual who has bias opinion (only because of his appointment in SPCAI)

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