For the past decade or so, the automotive industry has been in turmoil due to rapid technology innovation, strategic realignment and a digitally driven supply chain ecosystem ushering us into a future of mechanized efficiency. In recent years, Bangladesh has started to pave its way in the fields of technology and automation with the help of technical specialists, both local as well as from around the world. NRBs are now more actively involved in the process of revolutionizing the automotive scene in Bangladesh than ever before. In a conversation with Dr. Tawhid Khan, a qualified technical specialist with over a decade of experience in the automotive embedded system integration. During his visit after ten years, ICE Business Times discussed the fourth industrial revolution, the cultural impact on human-machine interface design, and his contributions to the digital development of his homeland.
What was the triggering factor, other than the enhanced traffic and urban planning, that has ushered change in Bangladesh?
I have to say one thing; people are becoming much more active. They slowly realize that change is required. So I would say the people’s attitudes towards their right have changed and eventually they are becoming a lot more assertive. It’s also nice to see that people are eager to learn. And with today’s conversation with the Peace, Happiness & Prosperity (PHP) Group, it is apparent that they have a lot of challenges and they appreciate people like myself coming from outside and sharing our experience to help them, so that is very pleasing from that perspective. The other factor is also the awareness of global changes, much of which can be credited to social media.
What was the determinant reasons that made you initiate the journey that is different from many Bangladeshis?
While I was working with Tata Group as their functional lead, I observed that NRIs were getting involved in various development projects in their native land, and they’re quite proud of it. This encouraged me to start thinking about doing the same in Bangladesh. I know a bunch of talented Bangladeshis who have been achieving tremendous feats all across the world, but the initiative to connect the dots were and too much extent still is missing. After discussing it with my father in law, Dr Wali Tasar Uddin MBE, who was heavily involved in British Bangladesh Bilateral business, I came to realize that NRBs are not finding the platform because there are two levels, stigma from our side where we think that in Bangladesh people don’t know what they are talking about, and the people from Bangladesh thinking that the NRBs are always going to undermine the locals anyway, so it becomes a system with no results.There must be a middle ground where we can break the ice. So that led me to believe that I have to do something and from my perspective, I am a problem solver. I don’t work on theoretical issues. So from that perspective, I realized that the critical problem is that there is no real platform where actual NRBs and the technical experts from Bangladesh can have meaningful dialogue and conversation.
Secondly, Bangladesh is growing. The question remains: Is that growth sustainable? Bangladesh is, at the moment, heavily reliant on human resources but as we all know, the world is moving towards automation. We may end up in a similar scenario like India or Vietnam where they rely heavily on outsourcing, but now that outsourcing is drying up, they’re chasing the golden goose. For us, that could be a disaster.
Finally, when I started talking to my friends here as well as the PHP Group, there was always a general appreciation for people like myself. Knowledge is power. There is a fourth pillar that has slowly started to grow which is remittance of knowledge and skill. Those are the key to growth, and I think that’s where I come in.
You mentioned that you are a problem solver and you are interested in human-machine interface. Why is culture so important to you? Is there a particular incident that instigated you to link culture with human-machine interface design?
This is an aspect that I am passionate about. All along, I’ve worked in an environment where humans interacted with machines. Operating a vehicle and using computers and mobile phones are some examples. One thing I’ve noticed is that we are not equals. My attitude on a professional level is what I call surface culture. Deep culture and surface culture are not the same. And surely the way we interact with machines cannot be the same either. I started to instigate these things with Tata when I was there. I have looked into the consumers in India, China, the USA, and the UK and it’s clear that the attitude towards technology there and the way we use technology here in Bangladesh is vastly different. The way we write emails to each other and greet each other or tackle a problem is very different. I believe that you cannot isolate culture from day-to-day life which you cannot separate from the product design and hence the technology.
Tell us about your work and the kind of work dynamic that you have with consumer electronics organizations such as Dyson.
Well, there is a bit of phenomenon going on in the automotive industry. Every company is looking for the next silver bullet that will ensure a profit. The product ideas are drying up, as such, all organizations trying to diversify their product portfolios. Computing power is everywhere and in every product, whether it’s your cell phone, your refrigerator or your car. The next big thing in the technology juncture is automotive. There are three levels of work happening in the automotive industry. Firstly, cars are becoming increasingly high-tech, which means the future will be autonomous because the car can operate on its own. That requires a significant piece of computing technology to be put in the car.
Another thing is that I believe we are living in a sort of fusion bomb. It could explode at any given moment due to CO2, which cannot be sustained anymore. Cars are the most significant contributors of CO2, so the process of switching to zero carbon is a big thing. Finally, homologation is very important. The regional differences in car crashes are also changing, and as a result, these three things are opening up a research opportunity for a lot of consumer electronics. As a result, many newer companies who traditionally aren’t car companies, are venturing into it because of product diversification. Cars and all other new technology are running on computing power. As a result, in the next 4-5 years, there is a massive bubble where a lot of consumer electronics companies will be making cars. It’s a golden opportunity for traditional automotive engineers like me. My vision is straightforward. I want to see a world where we can breathe and live happily. If we carry on using diesel and petrol cars, we will run out of oxygen soon. I would like to bring that to Bangladesh, as we could be among the first casualties of this global CO2 catastrophe. We must make the people aware of this, but it has to be done by us, for us. That is my first vision for us, to come up with a form of technology that will not just generate money but also help the environment and create a good life for us. As we can’t move about without cars, we must find a way to make them beneficial. Autonomous cars will decrease our rate of traffic accidents and improve our living standards, but it is also going to generate revenue for the company in a different direction. I want to bring that kind of thinking and change into my homeland, that is my dream.
Do you think we should think of ways to resolve the traffic problem?
There are two separate issues to think about. One is the transportation problem, and the other is the traffic problem. When you think of Uber and why a Bangladeshi didn’t come up with it in the first place, even though taxi service has existed for years. When I was younger, I have seen people sharing rickshaws. This scenario existed, but we never made use of it because we were not assertive; this is what I call a cultural element. The ride-sharing element existed within us for many years, but we never thought about it analytically. Regarding Pathao, we waited for a foreign company to show us whatever it required and then copied it. I’m not saying Pathao has done anything terrible. They did the right thing. But it is just a drop in the ocean for a bigger problem. We must identify those scenarios that are unique. You cannot solve a problem with NRBs or rich people; they have their cars. We know that 60% of the population cannot afford a car. With this in consideration, wouldn’t it be nice to come up with an innovative solution that allows car sharing? We must conduct proper market studies to understand that customer.
I do believe that enough money has been invested, which was not well spent because of two reasons. One was because the data being collected was not reliable. If you do not ask the right questions, you cannot solve the problem. The problem doesn’t lie with rich people driving fancy cars; the problem lies within the buses I see without any traffic lights or indicators. They are not road worthy. Vehicle technology is a complex activity, so we must ask them if they have the adequate knowledge to be operating this? How can we integrate transport and traffic solutions? We must conduct a reliable field study and ensure the involvement of real people.
There is a gap in the industrial, academic linkage in our education system. For example, a large number of students are studying business-related subjects, and yet the universities barely have any ties to the industry/corporate world. What’s your take on that?
We have to ask ourselves a two question: What is essential to Bangladesh? Is it education or is it learning?
They are not the same thing. For example, regarding fishing, you must catch a fish to learn how to do it right. You don’t need a textbook to determine that; whereas you learn about Isaac Newton by reading his theories. One is process oriented, and the other is practical oriented. To me, learning is more important than academics. We are focusing a lot more on hard skill. If you think about it, the element of the curriculum has changed. Applied Physics is no longer necessary to us. What’s important is things like mobile internet and cybersecurity. However, all of this needs to be backed up by what I call soft skills. If I am a subject matter expert, but I cannot articulate my points to you, what good am I to you? So there must be an emphasis on soft skills as well from both sides. To move forward, academic people need to realize that theory is one thing but the practical industry may have a completely different requirement. Today we discussed with PHP, and we thought it would be nice if we could design a vehicle that could help our road traffic accident issues. For that, we need product design, liability, and craftsmanship. That’s something maybe academic people can solve. If the industry doesn’t come forward, the academy will not know. Both of them need to go forward. There’s no point in having training if your interpersonal skills is a problem.
What has brought you to Bangladesh this time?
To be honest, it was an invite from a friend of mine. I am from Sylhet Cadet College, and I wanted to meet my teachers as I owe a great deal to them. I was never interested in studying in Bangladesh, and I’m not sure why. One of my tutors, Biman Roy Chowdhury who was the Principal of Mirzapur Cadet College, used a statistical approach and he played around with cards, and I found that very fascinating as my dad loved playing with cards. I was fascinated by the idea of having fun and learning at the same time. I took that statistical model, and here I am today, a machine learning expert who has a lot of statistical regression.
In your life, you must identify what you like the most because you cannot like everything. So follow your instincts. This is why I owe a great deal to Biman Roy Sir for identifying things that I enjoyed that I have taken forward in life. I was talking to my friends back in the USA, and I told them that we must come and visit our tutors because who knows what will happen in the future. We organized a get-together, and we invited some of our teachers. That is the main reason why I came here. I also wanted to visit my dad’s graveyard in Sylhet, and then I spoke to my father in law, Dr. Wali Tasar Uddin MBE. I told him I wanted to visit Bangladesh but that I didn’t want just to enjoy myself. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do something productive while I was here? So he started to contact people, and one of them was Sabur Khan from Daffodil University and luckily this worked out.
Are there any particular sectors you would like to contribute to?
I am a technical man. Technology is now incorporated into everything, whether it’s finance, transportation, or business. There is an enterprise solution that I’m proposing to a few people which have three pillars. One is skill development, which will allow us to look at what the industry needs and identify the skills gap and train them. The second pillar is to look into the collaborative research areas like smart city research. I want to aim high. I want to target the collaborative industrial needs that can solve real-time problems like road traffic accidents. The third pillar is automation in place of the low tech manual labor that require outsourcing. For example, PHP is doing a complete knockdown for proton vehicle in this country. That is fantastic news, but ten years down the line, you cannot rely on proton providing these specifications. We can take their architecture and design our product around it, and that requires computer-aided designers, estimators, aerodynamic engineers, supply chain managers, homologation understanding and much more. Finally, when I started talking to my friends here as well as the industrial conglomerate such as PHP and Daffodil group, there was always a general appreciation for people like myself.
With the rise of artificial intelligence and the industrial revolution, where do you see the automotive industry heading towards from a global perspective?
Artificial intelligence is crucial for Bangladesh. If you look at every aspect of your life, we will have automation. It is inevitable. For example, when a lawyer is writing a contract, a robot can write the same thing 10,000 times faster and more accurately. Another thing is that writing software will become a part of our lives very soon, just like how we write letters now. Most of the software writers around the world right now aren’t professionals. Software writing and artificial intelligence will be a part of our daily lives. It is not about automation and technology; it’s merely your day to day life. Matters such as terrorism, bureaucracy, and corruption will be stopped by AI. You cannot bribe a robot. If we do not wake up now to embrace those changes, we will have to repent in future.