17 March 2018
The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games give us a first look at the application of 5G. Photo: Reuters
The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games give us a first look at the application of 5G. Photo: Reuters

5G: Kicking off the ‘Megatech’ era

It is impossible to predict for sure what the technologies of 2050 will be. However, with the emergence of 5G, we can say that the era of Megatech has undoubtedly begun.

The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games give us a first look at the application of 5G. Most games are being live-streamed in ultra-HD, a resolution at which snowflakes and ice chips can be seen in perfect detail. Drones are ready to take off at any time, sending back live data in real time. Complete 360° panoramic virtual reality (VR) technology offers viewers an immersive experience of every corner of the arena. They could even ski alongside the athlete from the perspective of the snowboard.

PyeongChang, a remote county in the southeast of Gangwon Province of South Korea, is the world’s first to deploy 5G technology. It shows us the rudiments of many applications in a fully connected world, like self-driving cars, drones, holographic tech, and even smart boxes that automatically detect and drive away wild boars. All of these would have been impossible without 5G.

But this is just a taste of what a truly 5G world will look like. Over the past few decades, information and communication technology (ICT) has been developing in the form of a succession of technology “waves”. From the early mainframes to today’s smart machines and Internet of Things (IoT), access to the network is getting faster and more machines and even living things are connected to networks. As you can imagine, the megatech brought by this new wave of technology is likely to be a new “species” of application that grows out of the “soil” of ultra-high-speed communications.

To put it simply, 5G will deliver speeds dozens of times faster than 4G. What megatech should we expect to see in the future? In fact, the future is already a reality, but is unevenly distributed. We may make educated guesses based on some important trends.

The potential of a fully connected world

To tap the full potential of a fully connected world, we must find proper methods to handle the huge data flows generated by billions of embedded chips. 5G is likely to be the key to achieving this.

Self-driving cars, one typical application in a fully connected world, are quickly becoming a reality. With its high-speed communications and low latency, 5G will make self-driving possible. We can add self-driving functionality to traditional cars to assist drivers. We can also make brand-new self-driving cars as shared resources. Connected cars may reshape traffic patterns, as most people will no longer need their own cars, and parking lots can be used to build residences or parks. Traffic accidents will also be significantly reduced.

People in 2050 may think that cars should be self-driving in the first place. Fully connected devices and artificial intelligence (AI) enable cars to efficiently exchange data and process data, and machines are clearly better at handling complex conditions on the roads. Even now, if you ask pilots to turn off the autopilot and land a plane manually with only helmets and goggles like in the past, they will be hard-pressed to do so.

A data-driven world

Large-scale, innovative, and ubiquitous data applications will make a lot of things easier. More calculations will be done in warehouses hundreds of kilometers away from users. For example, if you make a request to a mobile assistant, it will find the answer in a computer of a data center on the other side of the globe. 5G will provide huge pipes to accommodate the massive flows of data.

The consensus is now that the 21st century will be driven by data. This may originate from Galileo’s statement in 1638. He claimed that all natural phenomena can be expressed in mathematical language. Therefore, by collecting and analyzing the data generated by events in the world, we can better understand and optimize them, and a new era will follow. Advanced ICT, big data, and AI technologies will make this a reality.

For example, how will we diagnose and treat diseases in the future? Perhaps the database will be the smartest doctor in the world. A database can remember every single case. Empowered by gene analytics, the database can find the most effective treatment by analyzing the relationships between treatment and outcomes. Diagnoses, design of new medicines, and robotic surgeries will all rely on big data systems.

Taking another example, how will we be educated in the future? We can use data to keep track of the performance of students and teachers, learn what is the most suitable content to be taught, and tailor the pace of instruction to individual students to make up for the disadvantages of a one-size-fits-all public education.

Convergence of the real world and the virtual world

Since at least 25 years ago, people have been envisioning the arrival of VR, but tech gurus at that time had little to no access to the Internet. Even if they did, they had to wait for a modem to dial up beside a huge computer. But in the decades to come, it might even become passé to access the Internet through your mobile phone or your desktop computer. In a world where everything is intelligent, when everything around us has computing power, children may wonder what a computer is exactly.

A convergence of the real world and the virtual world will be achieved through the immersive experience of VR. It will also come from augmented reality (AR) applied to things like windshields or Google Glass. The dreams of the earliest tech gurus will come true thanks to the arrival of 5G. High-speed networks can provide massive data connections to support VR and AR applications. They can also offer the low latency required by high-speed computing.

For example, to display videos in holographic form like in sci-fi movies, AR needs to understand and be mapped to the physical world, perceive the depth and width, analyze related data, understand and identify changes in the environment and people, and then display the correct results in the correct positions. As devices become lighter, they need to communicate with remote, powerful computers in real time. If today’s data can be transmitted in one pipe, at that time, the depth and breadth of data will be as expansive as the Pacific Ocean.

Looking ahead, we can open up our imagination to expect breakthroughs in more areas, like basic physics, bio-gene technology, new energy, new materials, and even space travel. The future is full of uncertainties, but what is certain is that ICT will be the infrastructure for applications of new technologies. It will be as ubiquitous as the air. It will be the soil from which everything sprouts and flourishes.

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President of Southern-East Asia Region of Huawei.

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