Will 5G will change the world? Yes – and no. The new super-fast cellular network standard is important, but basically only a door opener for 6G, says Professor Gerhard Fettweis of Technische Universität Dresden. It will completely change how we live, and how we produce goods.
The new fifth-generation (5G) cellular network is often hyped as the standard that will connect our world. That’s true – but still falls some way short of the mark. We should look at least one step further into the future, towards 6G. Only then can we fully grasp just how revolutionary the current wave of change actually is, and gauge the potential of “tactile Internet” – moving to an understanding how we as citizens, consumers, producers and entrepreneurs can prepare for this change.
Let’s take a brief look back: the 1G cellular standard was analogue voice transmission. 2G, or GSM, made mobile telephony work. Through UMTS, 3G opened the door to the mobile Internet. 4G is the current standard, operated with Long Term Evolution (LTE Advanced). 4G already permits data transfer at suitably brisk rates, making possible the mobile Internet experience.
5G heralds the era of the tactile Internet, with
real-time data transfer. The technology can transmit data at speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second, a hundred times faster than a good 4G connection. But the standout features are the near-zero latency – network responses can be as fast as one millisecond – and low energy consumption. Over time, 5G will embed all this in our daily lives, combining real-time mobile remote control of machines, operations and industrial processes with mobile robotics.
Exoskeletons will simplify everyday life (Image: German Bionic Systems)
With 6G, we can be anywhere in the world, and still experience and give the same tactile and audio-visual cues as if we were physically present. In this world, there will be self-driving vehicles on our city streets, not just a few automated cars on the highway.
Drones will deliver parcels, clean the outside of buildings and complete maintenance flights along high-voltage lines and high-speed rail tracks. Surgeons will perform operations from hundreds of miles away in a virtual environment. To make all this happen, we need ultra-high-speed data transfer and extremely low latency, enabling changes to the state of objects and workflows to be processed and sent back to control systems in real time. Everything hinges on these lightning-fast feedback loops, made possible by back-end infrastructure that is both fast and smart.
Fast-forward to 2035: a world in which we as 85-year-olds no longer need a rollator, but instead rent an
exoskeleton for ten euros per hour from one of the by then numerous providers when we take a trip or go hiking with the grandkids. With robotic aids like this, we’ll be as mobile and active as we were at 30. In fact, we’d probably have to mind our own strength: we wouldn’t want to accidently kick in a door with our new Herculean powers. Still, the exoskeleton’s smart sensor technology and motor control would no doubt keep this from happening, because they’ll be self-learning systems. This is exactly the point of tactile Internet: everything happens in real time. The exoskeleton’s location, position, and power exertion would be reliably analysed, monitored and adjusted by big data-supported software.
Exoskeletons also offer promising opportunities for rehab. With the exoskeleton providing continuous and highly sensitive feedback on the patient’s abilities and requirements, we would be able to work more effectively than ever with self-learning training plans and procedures. Our present-day fitness apps would look ancient in comparison: like an antiquated dial-plate landline phone next to a modern smartphone.
In the 5G and 6G world, the entire present-day value chain will be disrupted.
Let’s look at industrial production. 5G finally ushers in the era of individualization. Everything points towards the much-touted batch size of 1, with each item a one-off. Tomorrow’s manufacturers will work to order, even with the smallest order volumes. Products as such will be personalized – for everyone, and not, like today, only for a select, monied class that can afford individualized finishing.
This paradigm shift, which will penetrate every level of a manufacturing company, could hardly be more radical. We’re not just talking about sensor-driven, smart, highly automated production in factories. This is only one part of the mosaic. In the 5G world, and even more so in 6G, there will be total disruption along the entire value chain in business, from development to sales. Understanding and accepting this, and finding an appropriate response, is difficult for many organizations.
Real time is a necessity for tactile internet
Today, we still lack the simple, clear language to articulate the full extent of the disruption ahead. Three aspects in particular seem important to me. Firstly, businesses need to ensure right at the start of development and design that the data generated in these processes can be used directly in production. When I use a CAD tool today to design aluminium sheeting, I have to translate the information manually into control commands for the factory-floor robots who will be punching or welding the sheet. These roundabout routes must be consigned to history. Otherwise, radical manufacturing-to-order processes will remain financially out of reach.
Robots in factory buildings rely on tactile Internet (Image: iStock.com/BahadirTanriover)
Secondly, the logistics chain to the point of production must be monitored and controlled in real time. The right screw must genuinely be available in the right place at the right time. And real-time, in this case, does not mean just-in-time. In two minutes, not two hours. That is the benchmark. The system must reliably self-update at this frequency. And thirdly, the mobile robotics that we use in this world must respond to commands near-instantly – that means within ten milliseconds – and execute desired changes. Imagine, for example, standing in a boutique in a virtual environment where your new evening dress or suit is perfectly simulated. Every change you want – colour, fabric, the fall of the folds – has to be simulated in full detail instantly. And it should also be possible to funnel this data seamlessly into production. An enterprise that can orchestrate these three aspects can truly be said to have arrived in the
Industry 4.0 era.
We need multiple redundant systems, all of which secure and support each other.
Not to be misunderstood: I am not saying that an industrial company can or must act in this way overnight. We are talking about a gradual change that is understandably particularly difficult for large, established enterprises. However, I think it is imperative to develop a vision. Where do we want to go? Who will we be in ten or 20 years’ time? How must we adapt our structures and processes to achieve this? Some companies have already understood, and are already testing – albeit in closed environments, such as pilot factories or
campus networks – Industry 4.0 applications.
One last thought on the technical side of the tactile Internet. To make this real, we will need processors and operating systems that do not yet exist: innovative, highly integrated, ultra-reliable software and hardware with maximum immunity to hackers. Because in the future world of the tactile Internet, a control failure could cause hundreds of drones to fall from the sky. We need resilient networks that are equipped to fend off any and all disruption. Multiple redundant systems, all of which secure and support each other. This will be a challenge – but not impossible to resolve, because the researchers have long since begun the journey.
Lead image: iStock.com/bjdlzx