Marriage of Man and Machine

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THE HORIZON BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE   kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

It was only last week that Dr. Alex Otti rebuked on this page those who focus on the “juicy” ministries rather than the responsibility and competence of the ministers to hold their respective offices.

Otti wants the business of economic management to be taken more seriously in terms of sound policy conception and efficient implementation.

The columnist’s advocacy is timely because attention is currently being paid to the celebrity status of some ministers (because of their assigned “juicy” ministries) at the expense of the needed public debates about policies.
At least, public intellectuals should be more interested in the capacity of a minister for policy design and articulation and not just how the “juicy” contracts for random projects flow from his or her ministry.

Now, Minister of Science and Technology Ogbonnaya Onu would hardly pass for a celebrity minister in the present socio-political climate. Do you know of anyone who regards his portfolio as “juicy”? The public interest in what Onu does or fails to do is scanty compared to the focus on the holders of the “juicy” portfolios. Come to think of it, you hardly hear of heavy contracts being awarded in his ministry. There was hardly any indication that the ministry was one of the much sought after as ministers awaited the announcement of their portfolios a few months ago.

For over three decades now, Dr. Onu has demonstrated a passion in the public space for articulating policies on science and technology for the purpose of development. It was, therefore, very fitting that President Muhammadu Buhari assigned the soft-spoken Onu the science and technology portfolio in the first term and again in his second term.

Onu is always enunciating the strategic importance of his ministry for the future. And he is eminently right. Long after the ministry of petroleum must have become less important, the performance of the ministry of science and technology would be the bedrock of development. What happens in Onu’s ministry has tremendous implications for health, education, industry, trade, infrastructure etc. The success of Onu’s ministry and agencies under his supervision should, therefore, boost the developments of other sectors.

For many years now, however, only a lip service has been largely paid to the mantra of “scientific and technological development” in terms investments and prioritisation.

Hence, those who think for government for the purpose of economic management should not ignore this reality. In framing the philosophy of Nigeria’s development, the emergent issues in the realm of science and technology should be considered as central in the evaluation of things. Beyond tokenism, how will Nigeria be a leader in the advancement of science and technology? How well is the ministry of science and technology positioned to play a crucial role in this respect? Is the country making progress in creating the socio-economic conditions for it to take a leap in the science and tech sector? These are the inevitable posers as a country gears up for the future wealth creation as well as distributive justice.

A presidential candidate in the last election, Kingsley Moghalu, once suggested on this page that “economic thoughts” should be embraced more liberally in planning for the future. Moghalu is right in suggesting that even non-professional economists might have something to add to the economic thinking needed for development given the dynamics of the world around us. In other words, the development challenges before Nigeria require the thoughts of other strategists of development in addition to those of economists. The point at issue is that planning for Nigeria’s development should be taken at a deeper level of economic thinking than the World Bank and IMF- approved medium and short-term propositions currently on display.

If Moghalu’s suggestion is taken, politicians and political parties would go beyond just mentioning “innovation” in their manifesto so as to show that they also care about science and technology. Beyond that, the policy issues associated with the ministry of science and technology ought to be matters of public discussions. In other words, the minister of science and technology ought to be one of the most reported ministers as he is being interrogated on issues while he articulates policies.

The products of the new technology are consumed in Nigeria almost at the same time consumers embrace them in technologically advanced countries. However, while the ethical, business and legal issues arising from the embrace of such technologies are being discussed elsewhere, not much interest is shown in this clime about such consequences. Take one obvious example. A huge number of electronic products (especially in mobile telephony) are consumed in Nigeria with all the immense ecological implications. However, a responsible disposal of electronic waste is not yet a matter of national priority.

The matter will, of course, only begin to receive attention when health hazards and disasters wreaked by such lackadaisical approach become conspicuous enough to generate a public outcry. Another obvious example is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Meanwhile, such issues are deemed to be “abstract” and “distant” in some otherwise informed quarters where monitoring and analysing the budgetary implications of crude oil prices are considered to be more urgent. Elsewhere, policy makers and the general public are already making hay when the sun shines. They are not waiting for disasters to happen before discussing emergent human and philosophical issues arising from consuming the products of technology.

Globally, the trend has been that while most of the activities in the science and technological sector are stimulated by private entrepreneurs, dealing with the regulatory issues of ethics, law and planning remains strictly the business of governments. This is why a ministry of science and technology is pivotal in any discussion of development.

For instance, a month ago, the British scientific academy, the Royal Society, urged the UK government in an important report to investigate the “ethics and applications of brain, body and machine-merging technology.” In other words, the government should be interested not only in the obvious promise of the new technology, but it should also be wary of its possible perils and how to avert the shortcomings.

The new technology in question called the “neural interfaces” holds a lot of promise for advances in medicine and, of course, general human interactions. It is projected that the devices could help in new ways of treating obesity, dementia, mental health as well as paralysis. Other possible benefits include care for patients of depression, epilepsy, and enhancing the use prosthetic limbs. The benefits of the devices are very attractive.

The devices “blur the line between the mind and machine” as it involves an integration of “humans and microchips.” And when you bring about “the marriage of machine and mind,” as the London Financial Times aptly puts it, you are bound to be confronted with ethical questions of the impact on humanity. These include independence, privacy, socio-political rights as well the privacy of the individual.

An entrepreneur, Elon Musk, is already investing $100m in a company that is experimenting with “brain implants.”

As one expert puts the matter bluntly, the “big question is not whether we will merge with machines but under what conditions.” So, the point is not avoiding the penetration of technology into the realm of humanity, but how to control the consumption of the products of technology. After all, as they say, technology is for the good of man. Already, an application of the technology has helped hundreds of people with hard hearing.

Naturally, the new technology has generated philosophical and social anxiety. Some thinkers are concerned about the legal framework for the application of neural implants. Others are worried about what happens to personal integrity when a machine remotely controlled elsewhere is implanted in one’s brains. There is even the fear that it may have an evolutionary implication such that you may no longer know where the operation of the human mind stops and that of the machine begins.

The data collected from the human brain could also be turned into another expensive commodity by tech giants in what a writer calls “neural capitalism.” So, the business angle to the issue is fundamental. The risk of the domination of a technology that could be so invasive to the lives of people by only a few players is also being examined. There are, of course, concerns about the unwarranted examination of the mind by law-enforcement agents.

The moral of the foregoing is that the dynamics of science and technology should compel a nation to strengthen its institutions for policies and regulations so that the benefits of the advances in in the sector could be positively harnessed for overall development.
As the report of the Royal Society has expectedly spurred a public debate in the UK, Nigeria could borrow a leaf by stimulating a greater public interest in the issues arising from science and technology policies.

The ministries responsible for science and technology at the federal and state levels have a role to play in this regard. As a matter of responsibility, the public should also show a greater interest in the activities of the ministries and agencies saddled with the tasks of advancing the cause of science and technology at the state and federal levels.

Lakanu, A Remarkable Career
In the legitimate criticism of the of the Nigeria Police some points are often lost.
One is that the conditions under which the policemen and women work are not such that could enhance excellent performance. The conditions constitute a limiting factor. A visit to the places of work and abode of the poorly equipped men and women entrusted with civil security would be enough to prove this point.

On a positive note, however, is the point that despite the unacceptable conditions in which the police force is expected to operate, among its rank are exceptionally decent and competent men and women.
After all, when members of the Nigeria Police Force take part in foreign operations, they return home with laurels.

In 48 hours from now, a very good product of the Nigeria Police, Deputy Inspector-General of Police Taiwo Lakanu, will retire from the force at the peak of a remarkable career. On Friday, he will have attained the statutory retirement age of 60. Urbane and professional, Lakanu has projected an excellent image of the police by his conduct as he discharged his duties in the various postings.
This Lagosian is a gentleman.
He has been one of the good advertisements of the much-assailed organisation.
It hoped that his juniors in the service would have a role model in him in the course of their careers.