Picture this: I start my car remotely to warm up before going on to my driveway. I get in on the driver’s side, and I’m now on my way to the office. There are cars on the road next to me that can effectively drive themselves, park without any human intervention, and even have software updates wirelessly without ever leaving the driveway.
This article is based on the Tech 2030 podcast episode “When It All Comes Together.” Click here to listen
Maybe we don’t have this level of technology available right now. However, today several technologies such as sensors, 360-degree cameras, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), infotainment, wireless connectivity converge in the car to make a comfortable and safe driving experience.
Connected vehicles are just one slice of this pizza, though. Technological convergence, in general, refers to the trend or phenomenon where two or more independent technologies integrate and form a new outcome. Take the smartphone as an example. It has several independent technologies —such as telephone, computer, camera, music player, video, and navigation tool—integrated as a single device. The smartphone has become its own, identifiable category of technology.
So far in Tech 2030, we have been talking about technologies such as 5G, 6G, IoT, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning individually. Now, we will explore what new systems and applications are possible if they are integrated together as a single system in a network or device or platform.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen already some sort of convergence, as we started to see sensor networks transform into the Internet of Things (IoT), from your automated refrigerator and a few additional autonomous systems. But now we’re seeing a different revolution in which connectivity, or whatever you want to call it – 5G, 6G – and new technologies like AI and augmented reality are coming together into one single system,” Dr. Walid Saad, professor and IEEE Fellow in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, explained to 6GWorld’s podcast Tech 2030.
“If you take a simple example of the possibility of doing remote surgery, you would have a doctor in a city trying to do remote surgery in a rural area. It’d require virtual presence of that doctor, it’d require connectivity, sensors. At the same time, you might have other users – like an autonomous vehicle, a drone, or even a satellite sharing that bandwidth with this doctor.”
Prof. Saad opines that 6G will not be a mere exploration of more spectrum at high-frequency bands, but it will rather be a convergence of communications, computing, control, localisation, and sensing, driven by a diverse portfolio of applications and underlying services.
For instance, low latency communications and human-centric services can support Multisensory extended reality, wireless brain-computer interactions, or connected robotics and autonomous systems (CRAS).
“The drivers come from two sides: one, it comes from the technology itself, in the sense that we can now do more than we could do before. And that actually opens the imagination for all the applications [you can create].
“On the other hand, there are the society’s needs, the everyday needs. You need your Amazon package to be delivered within few seconds – that led to the needs for drones, right? That, in turn, leads to more wireless connectivity and so on.
“I can give you a concrete example of what Japan has called society 5.0. We were a hunter gatherer society, then became agrarian, then industrial. And currently we can say we have an information society. The next step in this evolution path is what they call Super Smart Society, in which everything is automated. Humans will leverage autonomy for their societal needs, and then we will direct our own energy towards new applications and new services. I think that’s a great example on where we are going in terms of the impact of such technologies on society,” Professor Saad said.
The Visual Convergence
Truly immersive augmented, mixed, and virtual reality experiences require a joint design integrating not only engineering – such as wireless, computing, storage requirements – but also perceptual requirements stemming from the human body, senses, brain cognition, and gestures.
For example, the human brain may not be able to distinguish between different latency measures within an ultra-reliable and low latency communications regime. However, the visual and haptic perceptions are key for maximizing resource utilization.
“When we’re talking about holography, we should think of two components. One is what we call the visual component and the other is more the perceptual or haptic component,” Saad explained. According to him, the visual aspect is all about data rates and high bandwidths to simulate a stadium or a planet, for example, which requires exploring frequencies untouched by telecommunications so far, namely the terahertz band.
On the other hand, the haptic component addresses the multisensory experience, like sending the touch or smells to a different location – in summary, transmitting senses over the network. In that case, the most relevant aspects to take into consideration are low latency and the reliability of the communication.
“You want to have very low latency and very reliable communication. Unfortunately, high bandwidth or high frequencies, like millimetre waves and terahertz, are inherently unreliable in the sense that they’re very susceptible to the environment, to blockages by obstacles and so on. One of the biggest challenges is on the communication side. And that brings into the picture a lot of networking and AR,” Saad said.
“But I think the bigger challenge is that we should rethink the entire way in which we design those systems. By thinking of them as a single network – I call it an internet of intelligence – it should be able to do more with less. You need to be able to make decisions on the fly and in real time with very little data.”
Building the Network of Intelligence
Let us further explore the paradigm shift needed to develop foundational technologies for next generation of devices, networks, and services. Today, we have several systems using AI/ML. By envisioning a single system that connects multiple systems and building a “network of intelligence” would enable innovative solutions in the next decade, Professor Saad says.
“I think we have to go back to the fundamentals to rethink the way we design holistic networks. Also, this movement should be truly multidisciplinary. We can no longer ignore that. Look at the network not as a communication network, but as a network of intelligence, of converging technologies.”
No single company, research institute or university can solve the complex problems and develop this network of intelligent systems. The key to success is investment in innovation & collaboration between academia, industry, and government as well as policies, and incentives.
“On the one hand, industry should be more open to the blue-sky imaginative research that comes out of academics. On the other hand, academics must drive their work more towards industry expectations,” Saad said.
“This collaboration, which is starting to happen more concretely, especially in the US, should be more encouraged. [Regarding] The government, perhaps the automation aspect should come into play and at the government and regulatory level.”
What about privacy, security and trust as these solutions are based on analytics using data collected from users & systems. Here Dr Saad suggests a different approach.
“The government still needs to have some regulatory input in privacy because of how much society and technology are becoming intertwined. On the security level, industry can perhaps self-regulate, but I want to probably say the cliche thing about security.”
How would the systems, that are the outcome of technology convergence, look like in 2030? What would be the journey of the research and development community for the “network of intelligence” moving forward?
“A little hype is good,” Saad admitted, “because that’s where the great ideas come into play. In terms of autonomous transportation and delivery systems, we’re starting to see things actually materialise. And I think this field is something we should expect, let’s say, around five years or so to see concrete advances.
“On smart transportation, smart cities, XR applications, is reasonable to expect, at least in the short term, they will augment our world with virtual systems. Perhaps it’s something simple. Maybe not multi-sensory, but a simple virtual meeting could be something we can expect to happen.”
About Tech 2030
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6GWorld brings together news, events and ideas related to the next generations of communications; what the world might look like in 2030; and how to get there from here. 6GWorld is a platform for researchers, business and government leaders who are focused on the needs, technologies, policies, and business models for a future beyond 5G.