Is the smartphone dead? Will we be able to tell humans and robots apart in 30 years? We spoke to Ericsson’s corporate research director Björn Ekelund to find out what a 5G enabled future will look like.
Q: You’ve been working in ICT for more than 30 years. When you first started out, did you ever imagine we would be where we are today in terms of technology and connectivity?
BE: Early on, I had this feeling that telecommunications and wireless communication was destined to be the fabric of modern society. When I joined Ericsson, we didn’t even have a computer on our desks, but a terminal connected to a larger computer on another floor. However, knowing Moore's law [an observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years] and the resulting software development, even if I cannot say I’m truly surprised, I’m still impressed. It has been a true privilege to be part of an industry that changes the world in such a fundamental way.
Q: When discussing 5G, much of the focus over the last several years has been on the IoT and connected products. But beyond “cooler” devices, will 5G transform society and our day-to-day lives?BE: Yes, absolutely. The Internet has revolutionized the world in many ways. But this fantastic engineering achievement is not such a big change in itself; big change [to society] is enabled by it. I think that will also be true for 5G. At Ericsson research, we work with many different sectors, and we are confident that 5G will bring immense amounts of value in terms of sustainability, efficiency and safety.
Q: Which challenges do you think 5G has the most potential for addressing?
BE: It is difficult to say where the impact would be biggest, there are so many opportunities. One is definitely the workplace. Be it an office or a factory – 5G can bring a lot of value by connecting devices with extremely low power consumption, years of battery life and very small resource usage in the network. It opens up for the possibility to connect anything and everything and thereby bring a lot of value in efficiency and quality.
Another area could be in transportation or logistics—keeping track of things. What is interesting is that this is a challenge that extends across many different sectors, even healthcare. There are many challenges in modern healthcare that have little to do with actual treatment, but more with logistics. An ER ward or even an entire hospital can benefit greatly in terms of efficiency and quality if you can keep better track of expensive equipment or specialised doctors to know where they are in the building, or where there is an unused bed.
Another value that 5G offers is that of extremely secure, high quality connections. With today’s mobile networks it is possible, albeit not optimal, to connect remotely controlled equipment. In mining, for example, remotely controlled vehicles and equipment can be a great improvement for both work safety and general work satisfaction for employees. It can also increase the output of the mine quite drastically since you can operate equipment in the presence of for instance hazardous gases immediately after a blast.
Ericsson is doing a lot of joint research with other industries. We do this for multiple reasons. Firstly, to spread the gospel of 5G and to make sure the 5G technology supports the special needs of the various industry sectors. Secondly to build the 5G ecosystem and to create new business for Ericsson and our customers.
Q: Where else is Ericsson focusing its research with regards to 5G?BE: We invest a lot of time and effort into the 5G technology itself. It’s a major leap in technology compared to 4G, and we are, after all, the largest contributor to the 5G standard. Please keep in mind that 5G is so much more than just a communications technology. 5G is a complete digital infrastructure, with the capability to not only transfer data but also to compute and store it. Consequently, we do a lot of research into the cloud aspect of 5G.
Cybersecurity is another area where we invest a lot, for obvious reasons. With everything connected, cybersecurity is crucial. Artificial intelligence, AI, also has a central position in 5G. Partly because the infrastructure will have the intelligence to optimize itself to distribute resources intelligently, but also because there will be a lot of AI applications running in the network, making use of its “cloud” capabilities.
Q: European Commissioner for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, commented that we need to “up our game” in Europe when it comes to developing 5G technology, and that leading in telecoms is crucial for maintaining Europe’s competitiveness on a global stage. Why is staying ahead in the 5G race so crucial for Europe?BE: An aggressive rollout of 5G is of utmost importance for Europe. We see the US and many Asian countries having advanced plans to roll out 5G and this is very much driven by their governments. They are confident that their countries will be more competitive, successful and sustainable if they are ahead on infrastructure. Just as roads and other infrastructure is important for the success of a nation, digital infrastructure is equally or even more important. My hope is that our politicians will see it the same way and push for more rapid roll out in Europe.
Q: What is your prediction for where we’ll be, technologically, another 30 years from now?BE: Since tech is developing exponentially faster, looking back 20 years and believing that society will be equally different is a big mistake. To realistically forecast the next 20 years we are probably talking a change equivalent to that of 200 years back. We have some major disruptions ahead of us when it comes to digitization of the world. I think 30 years from now everything we own and see will be connected.
Ericsson published a study recently, forecasting the death of the smartphone. That will probably happen. Instead, we will interact with the digital world seamlessly: with glasses, wall displays, voice interfaces and more. I’m not sure that we will think of the digital world as something different from the physical world. I think they will merge overtime and we are going to care less if we talk to a real person or a robot. I am confident things we cannot think today of will happen. This is the new normal…