Necessity and networks: today’s co-parents of invention

In the immortal words of the Greek philosopher Plato, “necessity is the mother of invention”. But today, more than 2,300 years after his death, I think there’s a strong case for arguing that necessity and networks are the co-parents of a great deal of modern invention, particularly with respect to the innovation that’s been sparked by Covid-19 crisis. Let me explain what I mean.

Closed view of a laptop keyboard

Head of Ericsson Research

Head of Ericsson Research

The 2020 pandemic has caused a number of critical needs in a wide range of fields that have led to an explosion in the use of network-based communication and collaboration tools. As a result, innovators around the world are working hard to find ways to boost network performance, while others create new applications and improve existing ones to help us all cope and adjust to the new situation. Some of these new and improved solutions will play a key role in saving lives, while others will help save businesses, support public health and welfare services, and ease the recovery after the crisis.

This massive surge in innovation is raising awareness about all that is already possible using today’s existing network platform and providing us with valuable glimpses of what’s to come in the future of digitalization. The current crisis has made it easier to see beyond the efficiency-related, economic benefits of digitalization and recognize its broader benefits to society and humanity as a whole.

Virtual collaboration as the new normal

For many of us, virtual collaboration has rapidly transformed from being an occasional complement to business trips and physical meetings to being the only way we can see our colleagues, clients and business associates – even our friends and extended family – for the foreseeable future. The requirement of social (physical) distancing in both our professional and personal lives has created an urgent need for a more human touch in virtual collaboration and socializing, not least with regard to our contact with elderly loved ones.

Later, when the crisis has passed and it’s possible to see each other in person and even travel again, the progress we make on improving virtual collaboration during the social-distancing phase is likely to have a long-term impact on our travel habits, with positive knock-on effects in terms reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example.

Caption: Virtual collaboration has become the new normal, with potential long-term benefits.

Caption: Virtual collaboration has become the new normal, with potential long-term benefits.

The path toward the Internet of Senses

It’s only reasonable to expect that the rapidly growing dependence on virtual communication we are experiencing today will lead to higher expectations with regard to quality. In the short term, I believe that this will accelerate the demands for more immersive audio/visual eXtended Reality communication experiences in communication.

In the longer term, when we have an even more capable network platform and more capable devices, quality expectations will contribute to the emergence of the Internet of Senses, transforming our digital video/audio experiences to be fully immersive by making them multi-sensory, including touch and, in the long run, even smell and taste.

The ultimate goal is to create an experience that is “as good as physically being there” even when we are physically located far away from each other. Getting there will require further technological advances in devices and sensors, including haptic devices that can provide a true perception of the properties of real objects. At Ericsson Research, our vision is that advanced technology will enable a full Internet of Senses by 2025 and include the ability to digitally communicate thoughts by 2030.

VR in front of large screen

As good as physically being there? That’s the goal of the Internet of Senses.

Maximizing the use of critical human expertise

In the current situation, critical bottlenecks are arising in certain areas of expertise, particularly in the medical field. As a result, many people are seeing telemedicine in a new light. The ability to diagnose and monitor non-hospitalized patients remotely, instead of through physical visits to hospitals, has the advantage of keeping medical professionals and hospitalized patients safe and enables greater efficiency as more patients can be handled by each doctor/nurse.

Further, telemedicine enables physicians who are in quarantine at home to provide consultations over video and audio. Just think of what multi-sensory communication combining augmented video with spatial audio and haptic/tactile feedback will do for the telemedicine of tomorrow!

Another excellent example of how digitalization is helping us maximize the use of critical human expertise during the pandemic is in the education sector. The ability to use digital collaboration tools over the network has made it possible for many schools and universities around the world to transition from traditional classroom teaching to live-video-enabled distance education with relative ease, in a very short period of time. There are also countless examples of smaller, volunteer-driven projects, such as university students collaborating to offer free online math tutoring to quarantined elementary school students.

The examples of telemedicine and remote teaching that we see today represent the first steps toward the Internet of Skills, where we can maximize the use of human expertise, enabled by the multi-sensory experience of the Internet of Senses.

Tracking and data collection

Communication service providers are in a unique position to help public authorities to track virus spread through mobile positioning data. The Telenor Norway case is one of several initiatives currently underway to collect data to track and avoid spread of the virus.

There are also initiatives to utilize the collective compute power of idle computers and smartphones to assist virologists in complicated and enormously compute-intensive analyses using artificial intelligence. The Vodafone initiative is a great example of this type of innovation.

Meanwhile, Google and Apple are developing APIs to enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. In a second step, the companies aim to develop a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform, building functionality into the underlying operating systems to enable more apps to contribute data.

Wearables and health apps

It’s becoming increasingly clear that wearables and health apps also have a role to play in keeping us safe and healthy during this time of crisis. For example, several new apps have already been developed to enable self-reporting of health status and symptoms. With regard to wearables, a recent article in Wired tells the story of how researchers at Stanford University are using them to detect unusual patterns in heart rate data and sleep cycles that could be early signs of Covid-19 infection before symptoms appear.

The role of wearables and health apps is even more significant when personal and public data can be combined with artificial intelligence (AI) for diagnostics and health monitoring. Gathering data from many sources and training AI models in the cloud could help develop accurate diagnoses and also track and avoid virus spread.

Of course, it is imperative that privacy issues are considered carefully in all of these cases. In the Telenor Norway case, for example, the privacy of individuals is maintained by only counting groups of 20 people or more.

Health care at home

Is healthcare at home part of the future of digitalization?

Unlimited connectivity

Almost all of the innovation that is happening right now is highly dependent on access to a network that is available, reliable and resilient. Thankfully, most service providers have done a great job of handling the sudden redistribution of network load from offices to homes, through network adaptations and in some cases radio and spectrum expansions, as explained by two of my colleagues in a recent blog post on how networks are adapting to the new normal.

With more demanding services and innovations such as the Internet of Senses on the horizon, however, we can expect to see even higher demands on the underlying network. These demands will be fulfilled by a variety of solutions, including coverage enhancement features for rural networks and better reach into indoor environments. We can also expect to see accelerated deployments of more indoor small cells and denser networks overall. More flexible network topologies such as integrated access and backhaul (IAB) will become increasingly common as well.

Overcoming the crisis through innovation and collaboration

There is no denying that we are living through extremely challenging times – the sort of times when necessity is the key driver of any innovation that really matters. Now is not the time to innovate for innovation’s sake. Instead, we can see that innovators of all kinds are focusing their attention on solving the myriad of challenges that have been created or exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s critically important to ensure that they have the ability to cooperate, collaborate and share their ideas in order to achieve the breakthroughs we’re all counting on.

Thankfully, the network platform is ideal not only for innovation, but for collaboration as well. It’s a foundation that has been built on the key values of openness, trust and security. And the best part is that we don’t have to wait for it – it’s already here and available for use. It’s my hope that an even greater number of innovators will use it in the coming weeks and months to collaborate and create the solutions we need to solve the current crisis and ultimately help us build a better, more sustainable society and economy in the long term.

Learn more

Read Michael Björn’s blog post on whether we’ll see brain-controlled technology in 10 years.

Find out how our screen time is shifting.

Read our top 10 tips for working from home.


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