Embracing AI in Pakistan’s Public Sector Challenges Initiatives, and Future Prospects:

By Muhammad Siddique Ali Pirzada*

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over the past thirty years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has attracted significant global attention due to its broad range of capabilities. In the field of public administration, AI has the potential to profoundly alter and improve government operations, fostering better collaboration between the public and private sectors and promoting transparency efforts. Compared to traditional approaches, modern IT solutions like AI have repeatedly proven more effective, driving improvements in government efficiency and digital service delivery worldwide.

Governments are increasingly recognizing the transformative potential of AI, with many investing heavily in enhancing their technical infrastructure. For instance, the European Union’s “Digital Europe Program” has earmarked €7.5 billion for the period between 2021 and 2027 to bolster digital capabilities. Similarly, numerous other nations are significantly increasing their expenditure on developing and upgrading technological services. The market size is expected to show an annual growth of 28.46%. Furthermore, Global AI spending is projected to reach $826 billion by 2030.

How is Pakistan integrating AI into its public institutions in accordance with the  “National AI Draft Policy” and the “Digital Pakistan Policy 2018”? Although Pakistan has initiated the incorporation of AI across various sectors, the overall progress in technological advancement remains sluggish, and the government’s commitment to adopting new technologies appears inadequate. For Pakistan to excel in digital governance, it must fully embrace modern technologies to propel its government into the future.

AI’s Role in Public Administration:

The integration of AI into governance has its roots in the 1950s, with early innovations such as the ELIZA program, which mimicked human behavior. AI includes a range of technologies that smartly process data and it is divided into weak AI (focused on specific tasks) and strong AI (with human-like intelligence). In government applications, AI aids in planning, research, optimization, machine learning, image recognition, and cybersecurity. It also enhances the functionality of the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and virtual assistants.

Public sector organizations around the world acknowledge the potential of AI to improve efficiency, policymaking, and public engagement. AI provides solutions in various areas, such as citizen-government interactions, taxation, law enforcement, and healthcare, thereby enhancing service quality. In Pakistan, for example, although practical expertise is limited, the healthcare sector has adopted AI due to its beneficial impact on service quality, such as improving diagnostic accuracy, predicting disease outbreaks, and enhancing patient management systems.  AI is also being integrated into higher education and research institutions in Pakistan, driven by initiatives from the Higher Education Commission (HEC), such as the establishment of AI research centers, funding for AI-related projects, and the incorporation of AI courses into university curricula.  Despite the ongoing adoption of AI, challenges persist, including economic constraints, long implementation periods, and a lack of technology-trained professionals.

AI’s beneficial impact on the economic and financial sectors is becoming more evident, as Pakistan’s economic systems utilize AI, particularly Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs), to improve predictive accuracy in various sectors. For instance, ANNs are used in financial markets to forecast stock prices and market trends, enabling more informed investment decisions. In agriculture, AI models predict crop yields and optimize resource allocation, improving efficiency and productivity. Additionally, in the banking sector, ANNs help in credit scoring and fraud detection, enhancing risk management and security.  AI algorithms have notably outperformed traditional meteorological forecasting methods. Additionally, AI is being used for regulatory purposes in human resource operations within public sector organizations in Pakistan. For example, AI has been deployed in the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) for managing employee performance and attendance. Similarly, the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) utilizes AI to enhance recruitment processes and streamline administrative tasks, ensuring better compliance and efficiency.  However, challenges remain in fully integrating AI across different departments.

AI Infrastructure in Pakistan: A Gateway to Progress

Pakistan’s government is proactively gearing up for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as evidenced by its endorsement of digitalization initiatives such as the National AI Draft Policy. This strategic blueprint delineates a course for fostering public-private collaborations within the IT domain, facilitating the alignment of educational programs with evolving technological trends. Comprehensive e-governance schemes are underway in Pakistan to modernize IT infrastructure and advance services like e-government, e-health, e-education, and e-commerce. These initiatives embody a policy to integrate AI by valuing a Hybrid Intelligence ecosystem, which combines human expertise with AI capabilities to enhance decision-making and service delivery.

Within Pakistan, this Hybrid Intelligence approach is evident in various sectors. For instance, in e-government, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants, such as those implemented by the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), handle routine queries from citizens, providing quick and efficient responses. Human agents then focus on resolving more complex issues, ensuring transparent and effective communication between the government and the public.

In e-health, AI algorithms assist Pakistani doctors by analyzing medical images and patient data to provide diagnostic suggestions. Initiatives like the Shifa International Hospital’s AI-driven diagnostic tools help in early detection of diseases, allowing medical professionals to make informed treatment decisions and improve patient care.

Moreover, in e-education, AI-driven platforms, such as those promoted by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), personalize learning experiences by adapting to individual student needs and providing real-time feedback. This approach helps educators focus on mentoring and addressing unique challenges faced by students, particularly in remote areas, thereby enhancing educational outcomes.

Additionally, AI supports e-commerce in Pakistan by helping businesses predict consumer behavior, manage inventories, and optimize supply chains. Platforms like Daraz use AI to analyze shopping patterns and preferences, assisting retailers in devising effective marketing strategies and improving customer service.

Overall, the Hybrid Intelligence approach ensures that AI enhances human capabilities without replacing them, fostering trust and engagement in public sector initiatives and promoting transparent and responsive governance in Pakistan. 

In response to the National AI Draft Policy agenda, the Pakistani government has undertaken several initiatives spanning the past twenty years to address the nation’s growing technological requirements. These endeavors encompass the establishment of specialized IT zones, the inception of the Special Technology Zones Authority (STZA), and the creation of software technology parks. Furthermore, there is a concerted effort to enhance digital proficiencies across diverse sectors, notably in healthcare, education, and agriculture. This strategic approach underscores a commitment to leveraging technology as a catalyst for comprehensive socio-economic development.

Moreover, Pakistan has established AI institutions like the Sino-Pak Center for Artificial Intelligence (SPCAI)and the Secretariat of the National Center of Artificial Intelligence (NCAI) to provide solutions across various domains, including smart cities, precision agriculture, deep learning, and disaster resilience. Concurrently, the Higher Education Commission has granted accreditation to universities for integrating AI into their academic programs, thereby fostering human capital development in both governmental and commercial spheres. This concerted effort reflects Pakistan’s commitment to harnessing AI technologies for multifaceted societal advancement.

Untangling Complexity: Understanding AI Adoption Challenges in Pakistan

Despite making strides in AI integration, Pakistan encounters numerous hurdles in its adoption of AI technologies. According to the Government AI Readiness Index, Pakistan’s ranking stands at 92nd, significantly lagging behind nations such as the United States (1st), China (17th), and India (32nd). Shortcomings in accessibility, mobile compatibility, and content accessibility on public sector websites in Pakistan have failed to meet global benchmarks. These challenges underscore the need for concerted efforts to enhance AI readiness and infrastructure to align with international standards and effectively harness the transformative potential of artificial intelligence.

Research shows that the challenges to AI implementation in the public sector are complex and multifaceted. These obstacles include ethical and political issues, socio-cultural factors, and the level of technical expertise available. National Cyber Security Policy 2021 and data privacy concerns are particularly important, as breaches could compromise the entire AI infrastructure. Overcoming these challenges requires a holistic approach that incorporates ethical considerations, navigates political dynamics, and prioritizes data integrity and privacy protection.

In public sector organizations, bureaucratic structures, fear of AI integration, resistance to technological change, and concerns about automated decision-making present further obstacles. These challenges are evident in various sectors of Pakistan’s public administration, including the legal field. Pakistan lags behind countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and India in using AI for legal modernization and speeding up case adjudication. This gap highlights the need for proactive measures to overcome institutional inertia and create a supportive environment for AI adoption in the public sector.

Policy Implementation in Pakistan: Closing the Gap

Despite ambitious legislative efforts like the National AI Draft Policy and the Digital Pakistan Policy aimed at digitalization, there is a noticeable lack of a concrete strategy for implementing AI in public institutions. These documents emphasize digital progress but provide little guidance on the practical application of AI within government bodies. As a result, the specific challenges faced by these organizations are not sufficiently recognized or addressed. This underscores the need for a more focused approach to integrating AI into public sector operations, ensuring that their issues are fully addressed within the broader context of digital transformation.

Financial constraints present a major challenge, as implementing AI typically requires significant costs and substantial resources. Additionally, the lack of practical expertise and hands-on experience in Pakistan hinders effective use of AI technologies. Institutions need customized AI solutions tailored to their specific needs, but these are still in early development stages. This highlights the need for targeted investments in both financial and human capital resources to overcome these challenges and enable the smooth integration of AI across various sectors of Pakistan’s economy and public administration.

In Pakistan, many public entities hesitate to adopt AI due to concerns about data security and privacy. For example, in healthcare, fears of unauthorized access to patient data hinder AI implementation despite its potential benefits for diagnostics. Similarly, in banking, worries about financial data security impede the use of AI for customer service and fraud detection. Additionally, government agencies are cautious about AI in citizen services due to concerns about data sovereignty and accountability. Addressing these concerns through robust cybersecurity measures and transparency frameworks is essential for promoting responsible AI adoption.  Moreover, impediments to technology adoption encompass bureaucratic hierarchies, reliance on paper-based workflows, and an inherent resistance to technological advancements. Pakistan further grapples with deficiencies in organizational-level directives, inadequately skilled personnel, regulatory constraints, and an underdeveloped IT framework. Addressing these multifaceted challenges demands a holistic approach that prioritizes comprehensive policy formulation, capacity building, regulatory reforms, and infrastructural enhancements to foster a conducive environment for AI integration within the public sector.

Pakistan’s endeavor to AI into its governance framework underscores a broader global recognition of AI’s transformative potential. However, to comprehensively refine Pakistan’s National AI Draft Policy, it’s essential to juxtapose it with the robust AI policies of leading nations, namely the United States, and the United Kingdom, with a specific focus on the public sector. In the United States, AI policy is characterized by its multifaceted approach, encompassing research and development, workforce enhancement, ethics, and international collaboration. For instance, initiatives such as the National AI Research Institutes and the American AI Initiative highlight the US government’s commitment to prioritizing cutting-edge research and fostering partnerships among government agencies, academia, and industry stakeholders. These collaborations drive significant advancements in AI technologies, particularly in areas relevant to public sector applications such as healthcare, transportation, and national security.

Similarly, the United Kingdom’s AI strategy places a strong emphasis on ethics, diversity, and inclusivity in AI development and deployment, with initiatives like the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation serving as pivotal mechanisms for addressing ethical concerns. Moreover, substantial investments in AI education and training programs ensure the cultivation of a skilled workforce equipped to drive innovation in the public sector. These efforts underscore the UK’s commitment to harnessing AI for societal benefit while prioritizing ethical considerations and equitable access.

A comparative analysis of these policies unveils critical areas where Pakistan’s draft policy can be enhanced to align with global standards. Firstly, Pakistan must articulate a clear roadmap for AI integration in the public sector, delineating quantifiable targets, regulatory frameworks, and resource allocation strategies. Infrastructure development is paramount, particularly in underserved regions, to ensure equitable access to AI-driven services and solutions across governmental entities. Addressing the shortage of AI expertise demands significant investment in education and training programs tailored specifically for the public sector workforce. Moreover, fostering strategic public-private partnerships can catalyze innovation and investment, augmenting the efficacy of AI deployment in governmental operations. The integration of ethical considerations, such as bias mitigation and privacy protection, must be a cornerstone of Pakistan’s AI policy framework, drawing insights from international best practices and tailored for the public sector’s unique needs.

Furthermore, the formulation of a comprehensive national AI strategy, aligning with broader digital transformation objectives, is crucial to engaging stakeholders from diverse sectors effectively. Capacity-building initiatives, encompassing curriculum development and training workshops tailored for public sector professionals, are indispensable for cultivating a proficient AI workforce within governmental entities. Simultaneously, establishing a robust regulatory framework to navigate ethical, legal, and societal implications is imperative to ensure responsible AI deployment across public sector agencies. International collaboration presents an opportunity for Pakistan to leverage global expertise and resources, fostering knowledge exchange and strategic partnerships to bolster its AI capabilities effectively.

Driving Progress: AI Integration in Pakistan’s Public Sector

Overcoming these hurdles presents an opportunity for AI to significantly augment the operational efficiency and efficacy of Pakistan’s public sector entities. Embracing AI technologies enables these institutions to elevate their performance across domains such as policy formulation, governance, and the delivery of public services. This underscores the transformative potential of AI in revolutionizing the functioning of governmental bodies, leading to more streamlined processes, informed decision-making, and enhanced service delivery to citizens.

Obstacles to AI adoption persist. Overcoming these challenges necessitates coordinated efforts and comprehensive strategies. Collaboration among the government, educational institutions, and the private sector is imperative to invest in the training and development of AI professionals. Robust cybersecurity measures and stringent data privacy protocols are indispensable for fostering confidence in AI systems. Simplifying bureaucratic procedures and fostering a culture of technological acceptance can accelerate the integration of AI. Furthermore, public sector entities must prioritize the formulation of AI policies tailored to their specific requirements and allocate sufficient funds for AI initiatives. Engaging in partnerships and knowledge-sharing with international counterparts can facilitate the exchange of expertise and adoption of best practices in AI implementation.

In conclusion, Pakistan can overcome challenges in implementing AI in its public sector and utilize it effectively for governance and socioeconomic advancement by integrating insights from global AI policies and adopting strategic recommendations. Addressing current obstacles to leveraging AI’s transformative potential for enhancing public services, governance, and digital infrastructure. Embracing this digital transformation will bolster Pakistan’s standing in the global tech landscape, fostering innovation and efficiency. As the digital era advances, Pakistan must be ready to capitalize on opportunities, ensuring that technological progress drives societal well-being and prosperity.

* Muhammad Siddique Ali Pirzada is a Research Assistant(Intern) with The Millennium Project’s South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) in Washington, D.C. 

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