5G wireless networks: Enabler of the next wave of AI, automation and immersive technology

Unless you’ve been away on Mars, you are unlikely to have missed the launch of 5G wireless networking – the technology that will soon connect all mobile devices, wearables and the smart objects in homes, offices and cities. The arrival of 5G will greatly accelerate developments in this digital era.

Network providers around the globe are launching 5G networks that can connect the handful of available 5G-capable devices. Very few devices are actually connected to these new networks, allowing providers to tout headline grabbing download speeds of 1 Gbps plus. That is up to ten times faster than the “superfast” broadband services households in the UK enjoy when they are with a major provider, which is around 50 to 100 Mbps to the home, and it has to be shared with all the occupants, such as a data-hungry young family or even a group of students.

Although higher data speeds will enable new use cases, including replacing existing wired broadband services, my premise is that data throughput speed is not where the true value of 5G lies.

The true value of 5G technology lies in benefits that are much less touted by the marketing departments and even in parts of the trade press.

Two critical benefits introduced by 5G

  • 5G networks, associated with edge computing, will vastly reduce network-based delays

Through improvements in data transmission technologies, 5G will reduce device-to-cell tower delay to less than 1 millisecond. Coupled with the integration of edge computing, this will allow for truly real-time applications, irrespective of where you are. This is essential for automation that supports quicker-than-human reaction times.

  • 5G networks will guarantee throughput of critical data

5G has the concept of network slicing built into its core. This technology will guarantee “slices” of network capacity to nominated applications, which will guarantee that any data deemed safety critical, as a minimum, will be delivered and returned as per the contractual agreement with the service provider.

These benefits mean 5G will be the enabler for the next wave of technology

5G will act as the foundation and enabling platform for a number of technology revolutions over the next decade and beyond.

  • Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles

Driverless vehicles are rated based on their level of autonomous capability. Level 4 is total autonomy (no driver required) within a small and controlled geographic area (such as a city center or large campus) and Level 5 autonomy allows the vehicle to self-drive anywhere you want to go. It is these levels that will allow you to literally take a back seat for a nap or to finish up that PowerPoint presentation while your car chauffeurs you to work.

For these levels of autonomy, vehicles will need to go beyond simply scanning the environment with their infrared scanners and cameras, as modern cars already do, but also to interacting with it and the sensors and vehicles within it in real time to ensure the maximum level of safety for the vehicles’ occupants. This will be crucial in a hybrid world of driven and self-driven vehicles.

  • Robotics and automation only seen through CGI and science fiction so far

Many of you will have seen the widely shared YouTube videos of the advances made in robotics mobility and dexterity from the likes of Boston Dynamics in the U.S. You will also have seen the advances made in artificial intelligence (AI) from global players in our daily lives. Beyond the obvious risk of creating a robot that suddenly decides we are not its friend, one of the major reasons that a very advanced robot that combines mobility, dexterity and intelligence has not yet been marketed is the lack of ability to engage with both its environment and the data that sits in the cloud, in real time. Machines and plant robots connected to 5G will benefit from much faster end-to-end connectivity, and therefore, changes to their workload or methods in real time will be possible.

Personally, I don’t believe that these developments will lead to robots walking the streets “I, Robot” style in the short or medium term. However, I do expect to see the automation capabilities in industry and operational technology (OT) environments take a revolutionary leap forward – with production lines and logistics seeing the most benefit from the deployment of 5G.

  • Online/streaming gaming services that are as immersive as the leading game consoles

Traditionally online/streaming gaming has been a poor relation to the major consoles due to bandwidth and delay issues between the player and the cloud (where the processing takes place). Gaming is an area where any in-game delay (even when the display screen introduces just a few milliseconds of delay) impacts playability. It is no coincidence that major players such as Google (with Stadia) and Microsoft (with X-Cloud) have waited until now, with 5G networks in their early deployment, to launch their platforms. More offerings will follow from the large gaming houses as they all gear up to exploit the 5G advantage.

These use cases will drive early adopters onto the 5G platforms and simultaneously onto the online gaming platforms – one requires the other to drive early adoption.

  • Extraordinarily rich and smooth virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), irrespective of where you are

It is no coincidence that companies, such as HTC in Korea, have essentially bet their entire futures on virtual reality or that Google has just launched a new version of their augmented reality tool chain, in tandem with the global deployments of 5G.

Similar to online gaming, real-time access to cloud resources over 5G will exponentially uplift how immersive and rich these applications are able to be – while improving the user experience by eradicating the delays currently caused by latency and slow data transmission speeds.

Again, VR and AR vendors are likely to work in conjunction with 5G providers to drive early adoption.

What are the key challenges facing us when making this big leap forward?

A variety of challenges face the global service integrators – and also society itself:

  • The global deployment of 5G. The pace of deployment and coverage will differ by geography over the next three to five years
  • The manufacture and release of 5G-capable devices will be staggered. For instance, Apple does not currently intend to release a 5G-capable device until 4Q 2020 at the earliest. This will impact the commercial opportunities of 5G at the early stages and could also impact the pace of 5G deployment
  • Many of the automation-based use cases that 5G will enable depend on parallel technological developments, for example in cybersecurity
  • As the world becomes increasingly connected, automated and safety critical, extremely robust cybersecurity enablement becomes mandatory. The user of an automated vehicle needs to be 100% confident that no teenage hacker is going to apply the brakes as a prank – or worse, jam on the accelerator
  • There will always be “bumps in the road” when it comes to the development of next-generation automation and AI – the impacts on society, government regulation and more will all have to be carefully considered

In conclusion, I’m excited by the potential that 5G offers as an enabler of the next phase of technology revolution, but you may want to ignore the headline-generating download speeds because they don’t tell the full story of all the transformation and benefits that 5G will bring.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will see both AI and advanced automation embedded into many industries that have so far been very human-effort oriented. As a leading technologist working for a company at the forefront of next-generation connectivity, cloud services, cybersecurity and AI/data analytics, I can see that the pace of change and technology evolution will accelerate as 5G is deployed globally, meaning that my working life will remain interesting if nothing else.

Jason Curtis
Jason Curtis

Jason Curtis is the Head of Business Solutions at Orange Business UK & Ireland. He is a leading technologist, experienced leader, manager and father (as well as taxi, tech fixer and very occasional purveyor of wisdom). Jason is a family man who loves to spend time in the outdoors on weekends and holidays.