FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION OP-ED
Beyond 5G – effective development of 6G requires proactive global cooperation
One of the widely accepted notions in modern societies is the extent to which rapid advancements in digital technologies outpace governments and human beings alike, constantly bringing about new challenges for them to adapt to shifting changes. These advancements are, of course, the net result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has brought about an explosion in data and its use.
Advancements brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) mean more data, while there are more and newer kinds of machine-learning algorithms. This combination of data, algorithms, computing and communications technology has a chain effect – the quantity of data grows exponentially.
To address this astronomical increase in data, telecommunications platforms have been evolving every 10 years. First there was 1G before 1990, followed by 2G in 1990, 3G in 2000, 4G in 2010 and 5G in 2020. And as we anticipate, 6G is due to be introduced in 2030. A key infrastructure evolution required for these changes is regulatory, including making additional frequency spectrum available and ensuring fair, safe and competitive use of it.
Developing infrastructure requires cooperation among many and diverse stakeholders, including society at large, international standards organisations, governments, telecommunications providers and non-governmental organisations. In this article, we advocate the need for such cooperation regionally and globally. Of course, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (where Goal 17 is Sustainable Partnerships) calls for the same, especially since the goals are themselves interrelated.
On the one axis is the natural “evolution” of technology. On another, which today makes technologies more interesting, is desired confluence or integration. Such integration or interconnection has yet to translate effectively to interoperability, which is when devices or network providers/platforms are changed, connectivity remains intact, and for which there are technical and “non-technical” considerations. It is now widely expected that when travelling from one country to another, you will need to connect to a cellphone network at your destination. For example, when one of the authors arrived at Newark airport from Johannesburg, they needed to connect to the local cellphone network provider in the US.
For this to occur seamlessly the network provider in South Africa must have effective contractual relationships with one or more network providers in the US – the efficacy of technical delivery is premised on this. Several parameters, including global supply chains and geopolitical factors, shape such a relationship, but the cost must not be prohibitive. Sadly, for many frustrated consumers, it is, and they often have no option but to buy a new or localised SIM card.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Gone phishing: The escalation in global cyberattacks is an unintended consequence of 4IR technologies”
On the technology axis, the confluence of technologies is occurring faster than it has to date. In the past we talked about the “internet of things”, but now the conversation has conceptually shifted to the “internet of everything”.
“Everything” has positive and negative connotations – since “deep connectivity” entails several compromises that humanity and regulators must be aware of and which ultimately deliver a safe and secure environment. Further, it must be recognised that this is a dynamic environment, so strong ethical principles are needed up-front.
It would be impossible to design “rules” for every scenario and, in developing technologies and their platforms, ethical awareness must be “built in”. As with machine learning, the learning should lead to augmented ethical awareness. In 2017, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association released a framework for Ethically Aligned Design. One way to achieve this is to ensure that technical teams benefit from diversity, including technical, cultural, disciplinary and demographical.
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However, “everything” also means much more data than before; it is a given that technologies will continue to develop for efficient data exchange between devices. Energy harvesting and other techniques to power the devices will also develop further. Similarly, algorithms will develop in smarter ways. However, the “confluence of technologies” cannot be left to its own devices. The combination of data, algorithms and energy must be deepened with ethics and cybersecurity.
Another dimension is that technological solutions must be inclusive and therefore cost-effective. In the lead-up to 5G and associated infrastructure, with global supply chain and security companies, the European Commission and the European ICT industry at- large initiated the 5G Infrastructure Public-Private Partnership (5G-PPP) programme. In May 2022, the programme moved towards parameters for 6G. There are other similar initiatives in different parts of the world. These are multidisciplinary developments and positive ones. However, more can be achieved through a perspective of global (versus regional) cooperation.
We are reminded of the African proverb, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. We therefore propose the need to convene a neutral platform that will bring together different dimensions and players in the 6G agenda, so that technology development finds pace and peace with societal input and impact. Since this will entail many and complex relations, with 2030 fast approaching, the time for such formulation is now. DM
Professor Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, University of Johannesburg. He is supported by the US Fulbright programme and currently undertaking a research sabbatical at Princeton University. Professor Kaushik Sengupta is a Princeton University-based expert in next-generation integrated circuits and systems.
The authors write in their personal capacity.