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Technology to synchronize realities – 5G scholar

Staying connected has become more important than ever now that we’re driven apart. How can 5G technology help us navigate the unchartered waters of the post-pandemic world? We asked Mischa Dohler, Professor in Wireless Communications at King’s College London.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Misсha Dohler, Professor in Wireless Communications at King's College London, great to have you with us.

Mischa Dohler: Pleasure to be here. 

SS: Alright. So 2G, 3G, 4G – I don't remember any of them creating such a sensation as 5G networks. And they say that 5G is truly a game-changing step up in the quality of connection. Why is it so? Because we've had upgrades to speed and upgrades to reliability before. Why now? Why such a fuss?

MD: Yes, it’s a good question you're raising and then it's really curious to see if consumers will react really to the speed improvement of 5G. Because, you know, as we go on with a generation, from 2G to 5G, every time we improve the download speed and the upload speed by a factor of 10, sometimes 100, which is really great. But would consumers care that they can download now, you know, a Netflix movie, whatever, in three seconds, rather than 10 seconds, I'm not so sure. So you know, the bandwidth is really good in 5G. But I think what is really the exciting feature about 5G is the very low latency, so it's the time, you know, between you typing a website and pressing Enter and then getting the response back. Now, whilst for humans it may not be so important, for websites and all this, but for anything, which requires, let's say, video engagement, or where machines need to talk to each other, this low latency is a real game-changer and I think will power a lot of totally prior unseen applications.

SS: Well, you said that 5G will give us the so-called tactile internet being able to transmit touch, which is obviously fantastic news for people like me, because I'm Georgian, and I like to hug and touch and kiss – and I was deprived of all of these things during the pandemic. But tell me, how exactly is it going to work? 

MD: So the tactile internet, in fact, refers really to a very low latency network. So I've been pioneering another internet, which is called the Internet of Skills, which allows you to transmit skills through the internet. So currently, we can only transmit video or audio or text files. Now imagine a future where actually I can do something through the internet, wouldn't that be great? And that includes also touch. And transmitting touch, you know, we do that with haptic gloves. So there's quite a bit of evidence in the internet on this, how I use that. And we apply that, for instance, in robotic surgery as one of the applications where a surgeon would do the robotic surgery remotely and would use a haptic glove to feel what he or she is actually doing the operation on. So we see a lot of potentials there, but you need other equipment apart from a very powerful 5G network. 

SS: But how long till we all have tactile internet in our homes? 

MD: So that depends really on each country. So first of all, of course, the regulation needs to be favourable, the spectrum needs to be released. So 5G will not work without, you know, the right spectrum in place. Then the investment needs to be in place because the 4G equipment needs to be upgraded to 5G. And then the consumer appetite and the industry appetite needs to be ready. So we see, you know, different phases. In Asia, for instance, we see the regulatory framework very favourable, investment favourable, and consumers generally taking it up very quickly, so there probably by 2023 we will have a fairly consistent rollout of 5G technology. In the UK, it's a little bit later. So you know, by 2025, probably, we'll have a very consistent rollout. Now, for, let's say, other parts in the world, we'll need to see. It really depends on this relationship between the three factors.

SS: Well, I understand you're more focused on the technical side of things, but being able to not just see your vis-a-vis, but also touch them, despite being thousands of miles apart, how will this transform human communication? I guess what I'm asking is, how will the virtual version of face-to-face or hand-in-hand actually compete with the real-life experience and real people? 

MD: That's a great question. And I personally believe there will be a massive shift really, and I have experienced that myself. So I gave the world's first 5G concert, where I was playing the piano at the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, and my daughter, she was singing in London, the Guild Hall, and we were separate by 1000 kilometres. And yet 5G brought us together within a few milliseconds and it felt as if she was with me. And that is really what will be the game-changer that low latency will create this sensation of immediacy, we’ll essentially synchronise realities, we will go beyond augmented reality or virtual reality, we will go in the world of synchronised reality. And we as humans were geared for millions of years to build up an emotional bond, when the communication happens within 10 milliseconds, and Skype and Zoom and all that have destroyed that because it takes about 160 milliseconds just for us two to talk. Now, if we're not together in the same room, you know, this emotional bond between us is very different. And 5G will bring this back. So I think there will be a massive shift, you know, towards digital tools, remote working, changing demographics, and all that will be powered within the first steps by 5G. 

SS: So right now communication over the internet is basically looking at the screen seeing your image. With the speeds offered by 5G, will the 2D paradigm change? I mean, what I'm asking is that, are we going to get Star Trek hologram calls or like, you know, virtual reality stream through Skype? 

MD: Yeah, augmented reality with the holographic combination is really very close. In fact, you know, the very first smartphones are being released, smartphones like these, where you hold them like that, where you use another phone, essentially as an intermediate screen, and you see holographic images. Now, if you think of that, in the future, we could use applications which I have on my phone, for instance, called Clone, I do a holographic scan of my face. And that is then being projected into the future Zoom type of capability. So we could literally have a fully holographic 3D, fully immersive meeting happening without being physically together. And that's a future which is coming very quickly. 

SS: You also said that the 5G speeds and the new networks’ ability to send touch over the internet will transform the education altogether. What do you mean exactly? 

MD: So education is clearly the learning path to learning new skills. And so far, we have great learning platforms, but they're all video- or audio-based or text-based. And if you want to have something more practical, hands-on, for instance, the surgeons at King's or the dentists at King’s need to come to King's College in London to learn how to do the surgery, how to do the drilling of the teeth. Now the future with the Internet of Skills and using this low-latency 5G capability allows us now suddenly to offer learning platforms where you can learn these haptic skills, you know, the touch and the muscle movement through the internet. And that will allow us to skill up at scale, you know, any type of profession you can think of, where you need a more practical slot to that and in addition, you can suddenly run examinations, which are not any more subjective to what the examiner sees, but actually subjective in terms of how the surgeon student moves the hand, how he or she does the sewing. So we can suddenly not only power the learning process, but also the examination process in the future. 

SS: Well, you mentioned remote surgeries – how reliable is 5G in that respect?  

MD: Аctually, we started talking about this, specifically me with Prokar Dasgupta who was a pioneer of robotic surgery and he happens to be at King’s – so we started the whole field. And you know, initially, I got a lot of reservations also from the press of that but God was very quick, as I say, because it's now becoming mainstream and operational in China, it's being started to be used. Now we have designed 5G to be very reliable. So we’re talking in terms of reliability and how many nines behind percentages you have, it is very reliable. But still, we need to build mechanisms to make sure that if there's a packet outage that you know, the robotic arm doesn't move in a weird way. So this is being done from a robotics point of view. But we also need to make sure that security is very reliable because you don't want anybody to hack into a live robotic surgery and then cause havoc. So we have quite a bit of work still to be done to really make sure that these systems are reliable and secure. 

SS: What else can be sort of telecised with 5G? I mean, you talk a lot about playing live music over the internet with no lag, so that's a bonus. What else? I mean, could we also – 

MD: We talk about music, we talk about medicine, and I'm also looking a lot into the arts. So I work with a lot of artists and I'm a composer myself and a performing pianist. So the question is, could we democratise the way how we essentially perform the arts, how we teach the arts, you know, could I teach anybody in the world how to play the piano or somebody teaches me how to paint. So these type of capabilities will be very important. But specifically, I think COVID brought it back with A-star artists in that they need to rethink on how to offer these immersive kind of experiences in a way, which is different to people who couldn't going to the stadium and listening to them. 

SS: Could you, for instance, I don't know, remotely control a construction site? 

MD: I envisage that for the future to be exactly like that. So you would have a fairly cheap robotic outlet with possibly an exoskeleton, which is then being controlled essentially remotely from any other pod in the world. And we have demonstrated a very exciting use case, which wasn't with construction per se but very similar, and that was with a drone. So we had a 5G drone, and the majority of 5G drones have 5G connection just to the drone, but we did something else. We connected the control of the drone to the United States for a 5G slice, as we call it. It went all the way back from Verizon to EEBT, and then only control the drone. So what we wanted to show is that this future Internet of Skills using 5G technology allowed us to control a very critical process flying a very big industrial drone from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world. So, therefore, these type of applications will hopefully become mainstream, maybe in 5-10 years’ time. 

SS: So basically, like in 10 years’ time, you can orchestrate a whole war, right? I mean, have like a telewarfare, planes and tanks and attack helicopters and such? 

MD: Yeah, we hope this will not happen. So you know that, – 

SS: But you know it will, because it never happens without that part. Any progress that we achieve always is stained with that part.  

MD: Yeah, probably you're right. So I have to reason with you. So technology has, you know, always been to some degree used for the worst part of humanity. Sadly. A lot of that will actually depend on our capabilities also to do artificial intelligence. So it's not only 5G and robotics, there needs to be a lot of AI involved. Currently at global scale there’s a lot of discussions around, you know, panels, observatory panels, ethics, regulation and requirements on AI. So I think, you know, our ability as humanity to stop this to be used within wars and conflicts, I think, really resides at these panels and I hope they will be fruitful over the next years to come. 

SS: Since we started talking about the downfalls of our technological breakthroughs, let's talk a bit about the darker side of the internet and what will happen to that part once we have 5G. I mean, do you feel like we're going have more sophisticated spying surveillance systems on the Internet? We're fighting right now, right? We all know that we've lost our privacy, what's gonna happen with 5G? 

MD: Yeah, it's a good question. And I think, you know, the consumers in general should be concerned about this, and they have all the right to be informed. Now, as you will know, maybe you don't know that, but the ability for legal access to the infrastructure has already been there as of 2G. So if you as a government, as a judge, or as a police or any other investigator have a legal warrant to access the data in a 3G, 4G or 5G system, this was always possible. In fact, this is even standardised, right? So there is no secret there. Now in terms of illegal access, okay, so basically, the ability to hack into this, whether this is a government state or a malicious actor, or just some kids doing hacking, in 5G, because it is a fully softwarised system, in principle, this could become a little easier. But at the same time, what we have done is we have also improved the security of the 5G infrastructure, so, therefore, we're doing the best we can to protect that infrastructure from that type of malicious access. 

SS: I also wonder what kind of mobile tech advancements will be spurred by the new speeds of 5G, like, how will 5G change a mobile phone? Because when we had 3G or 4G networks, the mobile phone makers rose up to new possibilities, and there was no point in making a smartphone with a huge screen before because you couldn't really stream anything through slow internet. What about now? How do you think it's going to transform? 

MD: It's a great, great question you're asking, and that actually reminds me of the sentence which Hans Vestberg, the former chief executive of Ericsson, the current chief executive of Verizon, said, ‘we started designing 3G when the internet wasn't around and we started designing 4G when the smartphone wasn't around’. So equally, you know, what's now – 5G, 6G – why are we doing that? And you're right, and I think, you know, the 5G capabilities bring it back to an earlier part of the conversation, allow us a lot of this holographic and, you know, there's augmented reality transmission. And therefore we need to adapt the phones and there are a lot of prototyping going on. And I wouldn't be surprised if iPhone, whatever, 14, 15, 16 will have the capability for me to have a holographic image of you, essentially, as we speak, so much more natural engagement. And also people work actually on vibration. So this haptic thing, when you shop something, you go over the screen, and you touch it, and it vibrates, and depending on whether that is a piece of wood, or whether that is a cloth you're buying, so you can feel on your smartphone what you actually see on your screen. So this type of revolutions will essentially be enabled and accelerated through that 5G technology. 

SS: Now, with the Starlink project, within a few decades, Elon Musk is planning to send 42,000 satellites to space that would be able to bring free high-speed, low-latency internet to even the most remote areas on Earth. Do you see Starlink as a competitor to 5G? 

MD: No, Starlink is a great complementary technology. So particularly we struggle from a telecom point of view, to give business cases which allow us to roll out this technology with the same intensity in rural and suburban areas, as we do that in the urban areas. Therefore, to have a capability, which allows us to really a globally, ensure coverage, no matter where you are, whether you're in the outback in Australia, or you're in Siberia, or you're in the rain forest, you still maintain a phone connection, I think that is very, very attractive, and really underpins that global footprint of our wireless technology. 

SS: Nearly half of the world's population right now doesn't have access to the internet whatsoever, let alone 5G or 3G. And according to UNESCO, more than 800 million students kept out of the classrooms due to the pandemic and they have no computers, and more than 700 million don't even have the internet at home. And since 5G can't solve this problem, will it only widen the gap between those who access the new high speeds and those without any access to it? 

MD: Potentially, that could be the case if the governments around the world don't intervene, you know, from a regulatory point of view. Quite a few governments, including in the United Kingdom, have put out as a requirement for the 5G license to ensure that there's sufficient footprint in the rural areas, which cover essentially these underprivileged coverage areas. Now, that's one part of it. 5G also is not only about higher speed. So interestingly, some of the frequencies we are using are the very low frequencies where TV used to be and as you know, for TV, we just needed one big antenna tower in the city, and it would cover essentially quite a wide area. So, therefore, we would get, you know, not the super duper 10 gigabits per second 5G speeds everywhere, but we would have at least a decent coverage to connect schools, to connect people who want to learn from platforms, you know, like Udemy, or Coursera. So I think 5G gives us that opportunity, but it has to be made right, the economic case has to be there. And hopefully, you know, the likes of Elon Musk will then also cover the remaining part of these underprivileged areas. 

SS: So here's the thing. With the 5G not even rolled out yet there's already talk of 6G. What's that going to be like? And also the way you describe 5G, it just sounds so ultimate. What could possibly be improved with the new generation? 

MD: As academics, of course, we’re always looking ahead. In fact, you know, we worked on 5G as of 2012. So it was eight years in making and naturally we started working on 6G about nine months ago. And the good thing is, you know, we have a trend in telecoms, which is fairly steady. So as we go from 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, you know, we always improved something by one or two orders of magnitude, and 6G will be no different. So I know how it looks like, I know what type of data rate it offers, what type of feature it offers. The thing we don't know yet is why do we do that? And how are we going to do it? So we currently work out roughly how we're going to do it. And in a while, we're going to start thinking of why we're doing it. And one thing I could imagine is that some of that network capacity or capability in 6G will be used more for machines, for artificial intelligence to maintain essentially its self-synthesising structures. But that is a hypothesis, which we need to validate in a few years’ time. 

SS: So will there always be a ton of data waiting to be moved around quickly and thus constantly requiring a new generation tech for connectivity? Or will there be like at some point some kind of a ‘G’, like 7G or 23 G, I don't know, after which we will say, ‘Okay, we got the internet working now, no need for a new network’? 

MD: You speak to the right person. In fact, I was the first one to advocate that, you know, that ‘generation salad’, as I called that, will stop at some point. And I had hoped it would stop with 5G but clearly we're going on. And the reason I thought it would stop with 5G is because we have completely softwarised the infrastructure. In fact, if you think about it, telecoms is probably the only big ecosystem in place, which still moves in these big generations every 10 years. If you think of the internet, you don't have a 5G internet or a 10G internet, because everything is in software. So innovation happens much quicker and happens in features and therefore, we hope to translate that feature evolution into the telco world. And 5G may not be yet the generation to do it but I think 6G can do it, and 7G, I think, will be more self-synthesis network, 8G will consolidate it. So I think 8G will be really our last G we will be talking about. Maybe, you know, in 30 years’ time we can come back to this discussion. We'll see how it goes. 

SS: Okay, so even before the pandemic, there have been a lot of conspiracy theories about health risks 5G may be causing. But once the pandemic struck, I mean, their number has increased manyfold and dozens of 5G towers were burnt in the UK, and elsewhere around the world. Scientists have many times stated that 5G cannot cause COVID and other health conditions as well. But false rumours about it continue to spread. Why is it? Why is there this black cloud of bad rumours around 5G? We’ve never seen that before. 

MD: Well, you know interestingly we had that with every generation. So you know, we had it with 3G, we had it with 4G, we have it with 5G. But there's a difference now to the 4G and 3G era. We have a social media world, which is, you know, not only exponentially connecting everybody, but people have really become addicted to this very kind of conspiracy clickbait material. And you need to contrast that to the fairly boring engineering videos which are out there saying, you know, nothing can happen. And you understand why this goes viral. And I maintained for a long time already, we as engineering community, we need to do better to explain to society why the technologies are safe. Вefore we fired out 5G, this was like years in making, almost a decade in making, and there's a whole body responsible for doing nothing else but checking whether the frequencies can do any harm. The body is in a very nonsexy language called ICNIRP, it’s International Committee for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. But if you go to the website, it explains it really well, why any of these frequencies we use in 5G cannot cause any harm. It's a very rigorous methodology. And in terms of COVID, interestingly, you know, people confuse correlation with causality. So one is when two things happen at the same time, and the other is what causes what. So will you find areas where you have both 5G and COVID deaths? Yes, there are a lot of those. But, you know, will you have 5G cause that? The answer is no, because there are countries like Iran where there's no 5G rolled out at all, we had a lot of casualties. And lots of areas in the UK or anywhere else in the world where there's no 5G deployed, and yet, we had quite a few causalities there. So, therefore, always make sure you don't confuse correlation with causality because really, one does not cause the other. 

SS: Can public outrage stall research? I mean, can people's erratic behaviour and conspiracy theories have an impact on our research into the connectivity? 

MD: Okay, that's a difficult question for me to answer. It's a very hypothetical question. So I think we continue doing the research we need to do to advance technology, to advance society. But I think what will change and I'm actually personally pushing for that is to make sure that we get the message right. So when 6G comes along, that well before 6G is released, we have enough really interesting material made available, which explains to society why this is a safe technology, why that is a good technology and why we think it will really be important to society. So I think that part of the exercise will change as a result of this very viral kind of outbreak we have seen with 5G. 

SS: Mischa, thank you so much for this really interesting insight into the world of connectivity and the breakthroughs that we’re in for in the nearest future and I hope for all the best in your future endeavors and your research into the high tech. Thanks a lot. 

MD: Thank you. Cheers.