5G is the Breakthrough Innovation We’ve Been Waiting For
Living in the future is frustrating. Autonomous vehicles are on the streets – except they don’t work well in busy cities. Our homes are full of smart devices – but not smart enough to talk to each other. We have mobile VR – only, have you ever actually been impressed by a VR experience that uses your phone? Everywhere, we see intimations of a whole new age of interconnectedness, but it has long been unclear when it will dawn. An upcoming development in wireless communications, however, could prove to be the inflection point. Its name is deceptively prosaic: 5G.
The shift from 4G to 5G wireless networks might sound like just another iterative improvement of the kind that are a dime a dozen in the tech world – the iPhone 6 becomes the iPhone 7 becomes the iPhone 8. And, sure, you might get a better camera or some neat face-recognition tools along the way, but it’s fundamentally the same product. Yet 5G should be special. Every generation of mobile network so far, including 4G, has been about connecting people. And although 5G will likewise be designed to connect people, it will also be about connecting things.
Its likely initial impact will be the obvious: zippier internet on your phone (5G is anticipated to be ten times faster than 4G). “But speed is not really the transformative, game-changing aspect,” argues Rahim Tafazolli, director of the 5G Innovation Centre at the University Of Surrey. What is transformative is that 5G is being built from the ground up to guarantee a reliable signal with low, predictable latency (that’s the lag between an action and a reaction over the network). These are both qualities that Wi-Fi or 4G have never been able to guarantee. This dependability is what makes 5G as much a network for “things”, which is why it is expected to usher in a new wave of automation. “Robots don’t understand delays,” explains Tafazolli. “If you say ten milliseconds between action and reaction then it has to be ten milliseconds.” Envisage a system of fast-moving autonomous cars: the vehicles will need to be able to communicate reliably with each other and the smallest delay could prove catastrophic – 5G should provide the fabric of connectivity.
In a world that is now largely digitised, the scope for automation is enormous. In industry, for instance, we can imagine factories in which connected machines and objects make manufacturing dramatically more efficient. Not only would robots be able to work quickly without colliding, but factory lines should also be able to rapidly reconfigure themselves to produce different products. The idea of the “smart city” is also heavily dependent on automation. The UN predicts that 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, putting huge pressure on resources. If we want to avoid dystopian traffic jams, we need sensors to monitor traffic flow, forecast problems and dynamically adjust road signals to compensate. To save energy, we need road lights that turn on and off in response to the presence of a car. To avoid infrastructure failure, we need AI maintenance workers that can identify problems at an early stage and intervene – perhaps drones that can change the bulbs in street lamps or robots based inside water pipes that fix small cracks before they become larger. As 5G will be a global standard, it should bring about greater interoperability between all these components, encouraging the system to work holistically – unlike all the incompatible smart devices currently sitting in your home.
While Rahim Tafazolli believes that automation will be 5G’s “killer app”, it could also spur important advances in technologies that require human input. Take healthcare. Right now, a device for remote surgery is commercially available. It’s called the Da Vinci Surgical System and it allows a doctor to sit at a console (usually in the same room) and remotely operate four robotic arms with greater precision, stability and manoeuvrability than human hands. The only drawback is the surgeon sacrifices his sense of touch. 5G could allow for real-time haptic feedback and make it possible to control surgical robots reliably from greater distances. If the specialist you need lives hundreds of miles away, no problem: a robot can make him telepresent at your local hospital.
The hot potato among technologists working on 5G is straightforward: where is it? At the moment, 5G is a marketing term being used to describe the network that they hope to create, but 5G itself does not actually exist. Tafazolli is confident, however, that it’s not far off. “The first version of 5G will be deployed probably at the end of 2019,” he says. Analysts believe that China could be one of the countries where it emerges first. A report published by Jefferies, the investment bank, called 5G “the opportunity of the century for China”. Despite being a wireless system, a 5G network actually depends on a great deal of fibre-optic cable and the Chinese government is implementing a vast central plan to upgrade its fibre. If this allows China to be at the forefront of 5G, it will not only boost its economy but also recast the country as an innovation superpower with clout to rival the US. A leaked White House presentation suggests that the Trump administration is concerned. And, for once, they would be justified.