By Mohamed Belkhayat
By Mohamed Belkhayat
Washington D.C. – In 2015, I was invited to visit GE global research center near Albany, New York; a center which boasts almost three thousand Ph. D. researchers. As a supplier of one-third of all electric energy generation equipment in the entire world, it was an honor for me to visit this truly amazing company and its research center.
In fact, I felt like a kid in a candy store. After the meeting, our host took us for a short tour of their hall of fame. The walls were adorned with a large number of inventors, including Nobel Laureates for inventions ranging from light bulb filaments to health imaging equipment.
But what struck me most was Edison’s desk and his picture behind it. Edison, of course, was the inventor of the first successful light bulb, and he had over 1000 patents to his name. His face in the picture was captivatingly childlike and almost at odds with his grey hair. His gaze was almost hypnotic. You get the immediate sense that his intense curiosity about how the world works never left him even in later years. How did Edison acquire his curiosity? A quick look at his biography reveals simple facts that explain a lot. Edison’s mother was an excellent school teacher and she nurtured his imagination. She also let him set up a chemistry lab in the basement. Coupled with his curiosity was his business acumen, which allowed him to be one of the founders of GE and make such a huge impact on the world we live in today.
What does young Edison’s chemistry lab have to do with Morocco’s strategy for R&D? The answer is simple; curiosity in young children. Curiosity is like a plant that grows given the right soil and water. Every child is born with an innate curiosity and if not given the proper attention it evaporates with age. No matter how many billions in investments, how many experts you bring from within or from without, and how many research centers you build, if the soil is not ready, if the young generation’s scientific curiosity is not there, a true R&D ecosystem will be very difficult, if not impossible, to exist and to make any significant impact.
R&D begins with a good science teacher!
As I write this, there are tens if not hundreds of high schools in Morocco, especially the small private ones, which do not have any labs whatsoever! How does one expect to have researchers? The ministry of education should not give permission to high schools to operate without good science teachers or science labs. The ministry should also train good science teachers, and encourage or even subsidize science labs in private schools. Finally, businesses owe corporate social responsibility to the locals, especially in the form of schools and colleges. Businesses, especially large companies, should not be allowed to open unless they make a commitment to the local education system.
I believe humanity is experiencing the fourth revolution of learning, which is marked by the internet. The third revolution was associated with the printing press, the second with paper, and the first with an oral tradition and rudimentary writing. One can argue that the history of the Muslim civilization rose with its mass development of writing paper and fell with their lack of quick adoption of the printing press. On this, many books have been written. But since we are living the fourth revolution let me continue with this topic.
There are literally millions of free books and courses online now. To begin with, here is the international library of children’s books, and here is the world digital library which covers 193 countries and history from 8000 BC to 2000 AD. Google books also offers millions of books online and so does Amazon. In the late 1990s, I had to take a class at MIT on energy efficiency. I had to take the plane from Washington D.C. to Boston.
My company had to pay for an expensive hotel-stay and meals, in addition to the course fees. Nowadays, similar courses could be pursued from the comfort of one’s home or even from one’s school in Morocco. So online learning should be integrated in the science curricula, but possibly by selecting the best content online that can be afforded first. There are a lot of free YouTube classes but some are better than others, so the student or teacher has to be judicious in their selections. Books and classes are not the only thing you can access online, you can access real physical experiments as well.
While visiting the Princeton Plasma Physics lab in Princeton New Jersey with my son in 2016, I learned of an amazing plasma experiment that you can control from your home! You can control the pressure in the plasma, the voltage, and magnet strength. If all of this is not enough to impress you, try the National Institute of Health’s data base in Bethesda Maryland online where genomic sequence data is available to download and analyze from the comfort of your research center in Morocco! Still not enough? Try Elite Dangerous, an electronic game that boasts around 150,000 star systems to build our galaxy from real-world astronomical data, and you can visit these worlds in your starship. The game actually includes 400 billion stars for the galaxy. We are truly living the fourth revolution of learning.
The philosopher’s stone and AI
In the world of research and development, Artificial Intelligence (AI) promises to be a modern-day philosopher’s stone. The search for this mythical stone, which the alchemist and first scientist Jabir ibn Hayyan looked for, claims the property of turning base metals into noble ones such as gold. It was a similar search for gold that led to the discovery of Phosphorus, Morocco’s white gold. This element literally keeps all life going through the production of ATP, the energy currency of every living cell on the planet.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has already turned data into gold, bested Chess and Go games masters, made significant contributions in agriculture, transportation, medicine, and law. The US and China have made AI one of their top national priorities. Google has already announced that it is an AI company first. The other top software companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Baidu are following in the same footsteps.
The next step is a master algorithm that can learn on its own not only to identify pictures, translate one language into another, transfer speech into text, drive our cars, fight our wars, clean our houses and maybe even cook for us. Google has already developed your digital twin, which is called google duplex, which can take care of your doctor’s appointment, your travel arrangements, and even sound like you on the phone! These algorithms do exist but in separate forms. Deep mind at google promises an algorithm that can potentially learn as people do and maybe much more.
AI is a wake-up call to all nations that are serious about R&D and their future development. AI will touch every single sphere of society; the revolution is on and those who choose to ignore its call will be doomed to suffer the same consequences suffered when the printing press was ignored.
So how does Morocco engage and inspire its research community to shift into high gear? Well as always, it is about leadership. Morocco needs to have a serious commitment to R&D and consider the top priorities as they relate to the local needs and as they relate to the rest of the world. The leaders in Science, Engineering, Technology and Math (STEM) need to inspire not only their colleagues at universities and international conferences, but also the next generation at the local high schools. Researchers should be encouraged to visit the local high schools and give talks about their work and inspire the next generation.
In 2008, I was invited to give a talk about renewable energy at Alakhawayn University in Ifrane and the local community students were invited. At the end of the talk I lit up a bright LED lamp with small AA batteries that I carried with me into the hall. The look on the students’ faces was priceless. This was before LEDs were in Morocco. I also took with me a small wind generator and a small water powered car that I had installed outside the conference hall and they attracted a lot of attention.
I had my chance to prove to the young students that through the use of a fuel cell and solar power or wind power one can indeed have a car run on water only! Inspiring the young students at the local high schools is where it begins, challenging them with science projects every year in robotics, electric cars, renewable energy solutions, and even AI.
At the national and public level, I would open the mosque for education in coding and science in general. The best model of the mosque is the original model of Alqarawiyyin in Fes which was not only a Mosque, but also a school where regular people could learn not only spiritual values, but also the sciences and even work skills. There is no reason that the Imam should be learned only in religious affairs. In this day and age if he or she (murshidat) cannot code a few lines they are not truly keeping up with the times!
I would also dedicate a portion of the radio time to science and technology. Here in the US, there is a program that I listen to regularly called Science Friday. The host covers topics ranging from space and the big bang to how to build your own robot. It’s very entertaining and engaging.
There is no reason that a mosque, a structure which costs a lot of money to keep, only opens for the five prayers. In the US, and many other countries, mosques double as learning centers for language, sciences and other topics. Accommodations should be made for both literacy programs and also for learning sciences and particularly coding. “One Hour of Code” was started by Microsoft and millions of young and older students stand to benefit. Morocco could benefit from similar programs.
The ministry of residents abroad has actually organized a number of events to attract talent, competencies, and expertise from abroad for forums and conferences in Morocco. I attended a number of forums including one on “la charte de l’environment” and also one on Moroccan American competencies on renewable energy. Both were in Rabat. But it takes more than a visit to the nursery to grow a tree! In agriculture as in business, it takes at least two to three years of sustained investments to begin to see a return. Some R&D products, especially in medicine, may take up to 15 years.
Another crucial factor is that it is important that the folks coordinating these events or relationships should have a background in STEM and not just administrative skills. Likewise, invitations to professionals must be advanced in enough time to allow scheduling for STEM conferences. Several times I was invited at the last minute to speak at a conference in Morocco, but I could not fit it in my schedule. In other international venues to which I’ve been invited, the invitation came a year in advance.
Despite the many challenges, there were some successful relationships built. Some were through the ministry and some were through individual efforts. But in general, the administrative burdens demanded a lot of resilience. One such relationship is the Solar Decathlon Africa which Morocco was invited to participate in this year.
A successful National Science R&D strategy for morocco should be focused primarily on the development of a competitive work force that is able to meet the challenges of a technological future not only for itself but also for Africa at large. Investing in people and especially in good teachers is the cornerstone of any serious R&D strategy.
In addition to its geo-strategic location, its proximity to Europe, and its historic alliance with the US, Morocco is more than a gateway to Africa. Morocco should position itself as a model for the rest of Africa; a model for research and development and innovation.
According to a 2010 UNESCO report cited by Hassan II Academy (H2A), Morocco is first in the exportation of high tech products compared to other Arab states. It is important to celebrate what is right. One way to keep this lead and to even scale it up is to focus more on engineering and technology research. Morocco still lags in number of engineering diplomas per year. H2A also pointed out in the same report that of all Ph. D. degrees granted every year in Morocco, engineers with Ph. D. degrees were the lowest in numbers in Morocco.
Engineers are the economic engine of an innovative nation. In all spheres of research, engineers are an essential element in bringing new products to the market. One way to increase the number of engineers is to encourage and foster an even closer relationship between industry and universities. While a number of research centers in Morocco such as ESITH, INRH, REMTEX, CELOG, MAScIR have close relationships with industry and government agencies, universities have to increase their collaboration with industry even further.
Besides developing research ecosystems in terms of dedicated centers, universities and industries that provide a model for Africa, it is important to keep the public well informed. For example, media outlets such as TV and radio should have dedicated programs on Science and research using language that is accessible to the general public. It is important to inform and challenge the public with the needs of Morocco in science and research in general. Inventions do not always favor formal education; a lot of inventions have come from inventors who did not have a formal education. The classic case is that of Edison who invented many devices even though he did not have a formal education.
National Science and engineering challenges such as the solar car, the solar house, driverless car, useful robots, with dedicated winning prizes can galvanize the public and research community at large. International conferences and competition events held in well media covered locations are very important.
Morocco should consider the following key hard science and engineering areas/priorities: 1- Renewable Energy and water, 2- Mining, 3-IT, 4-Agriculture, 5-Health, 6-sea-air and space defense. Morocco should attempt to at least double its percent GDP spending on R&D which is currently under 1%. But the funding should be allocated to forming science and technology teachers as well. There are 4 areas of basic and fundamental research sweeping the world now:
Artificial intelligence, this will remain the modern-day philosopher’s stone for a long time to come.
- Quantum computing and encryption technologies and especially block chain technologies which gave rise to bitcoin. This is not something that should be feared but something that should be well understood first. Concurrent currencies create competition for better financial services
- Nano technology, carbon nano-tubes, and other material science
- Health and gene editing, and molecular biology. The recent invention or discovery of Crispr which allows genetic manipulation has far consequences for human evolution and it cannot be ignored.
There should be a concerted effort to host diverse groups of researchers from Europe, the US, Morocco and Africa. The latter is very important. Diversity of thought is key in research both in hosting conferences as well as working together and publishing together. While Europe and the US may have excellent solutions for R&D, African researchers may have entirely different needs.
Mr. Belkhayat is currently a principal scientist with Huntington Ingalls serving as a power and energy subject matter expert. He has been working in the field for over 20 years.
He obtained his Energy Systems Ph D from Purdue University EE department in 1997. He published numerous papers on the stability of integrated DC and AC power systems. He also holds several patents in the field. His research spans a wide range of energy sources, including nuclear, hydrocarbon, wind, solar, and sea waves. He also researched various conversion processes including thermo-photovoltaics, high voltage power electronics, and rotating machinery. Dr. Belkhayat also taught for over five years, energy conversion, controls, and modeling and simulation at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterrey California and at Qatar University.