Five 2018 Predictions — on GDPR, Robot Cars, AI, 5G and Blockchain

Predictions are like buses, none for ages and then several come along at once. Also like buses, they are slower than you would like and only take you part of the way. Also like buses, they are brightly coloured and full of chatter that you would rather not have in your morning commute. They are sometimes cold, and may have the remains of somebody else’s take-out happy meal in the corner of the seat. Also like buses, they are an analogy that should not be taken too far, less they lose the point. Like buses.

With this in mind, here’s my technology predictions for 2018. I’ve been very lucky to work across a number of verticals over the past couple of years, including public and private transport, retail, finance, government and healthcare — while I can’t name check every project, I’m nonetheless grateful for the experience and knowledge this has brought, which I feed into the below. I’d also like to thank my podcaster co-host Simon Townsend for allowing me to test many of these ideas.

Finally, one prediction I can’t make is whether this list will cause any feedback or debate — nonetheless, I would welcome any comments you might have, and I will endeavour to address them.

1. GDPR will be a costly, inadequate mess

Don’t get me wrong, GDPR is a really good idea. As a lawyer said to me a couple of weeks ago, it is a combination of the the UK data protection act, plus the best practices that have evolved around it, now put into law at a European level with a large fine associated. The regulations are also likely to become the basis for other countries — if you are going to trade with Europe, you might as well set it as the baseline, goes the thinking. All well and good so far.

Meanwhile, it’s an incredible, expensive (and necessary, if you’re a consumer that cares about your data rights) mountain to climb for any organisation that processes or stores your data. The deadline for compliance is May 25th, which is about as likely to be hit as I am going to finally get myself the 6-pack I wanted when I was 25.

No doubt GDPR will one day be achieved, but the fact is that it is already out of date. Notions of data aggregation and potentially toxic combinations (for example, combining credit and social records to show whether or not someone is eligible for insurance) are not just likely, but unavoidable: ‘compliant’ organisations will still be in no better place to protect the interests of their customers than currently.

The challenges, risks and sheer inadequacy of GDPR can be summed up by a single tweet sent by otherwise unknown traveller — “If anyone has a boyfriend called Ben on the Bournemouth – Manchester train right now, he’s just told his friends he’s cheating on you. Dump his ass x.” Whoever sender “@emilyshepss” or indeed, “Ben” might be, the consequences to the privacy of either cannot be handled by any data legislation currently in force.

2. Artificial Intelligence will create silos of smartness

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a logical consequence of how we apply algorithms to data. It’s as inevitable as maths, as the ability our own brains have to evaluate and draw conclusions. It’s also subject to a great deal of hype and speculation, much of which tends to follow that old, flawed futurist assumption: that a current trend maps a linear course leading to an inevitable conclusion. But the future is not linear. Technological matters are subject to the laws of unintended consequences and of unexpected complexity: that is, the future does not follow a linear path, and every time we create something new, it causes new situations which are beyond its ability to deal with.

So, yes, what we call AI will change (and already is changing) the world. Moore’s, and associated laws are making previously impossible computations now possible, and indeed, they will become the expectation. Machine learning systems are fundamental to the idea of self-driving cars, for example; meanwhile voice, image recognition and so on are having their day. However these are still a long way from any notion of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

So, yes, absolutely look at how algorithms can deliver real-time analysis, self-learning rules and so on. But look beyond the AI label, at what a product or service can actually do. You can read Gigaom’s research report on where AI can make a difference to the enterprise, here.

In most cases, there will be a question of scope: a system that can save you money on heating by ‘learning’ the nature of your home or data centre, has got to be a good thing for example. Over time we shall see these create new types of complexity, as we look to integrate individual silos of smartness (and their massive data sets) — my prediction is that such integration work will keep us busy for the next year or so, even as learning systems continue to evolve.

3. 5G will become just another expectation

Strip away the techno-babble around 5G and we have a very fast wireless networking protocol designed to handle many more devices than currently — it does this, in principle, by operating at higher frequencies, across shorter distances than current mobile masts (so we’ll need more of them, albeit in smaller boxes). Nobody quite knows how the global roll-out of 5G will take place — questions like who should pay for it will pervade, even though things are clearer than they were. And so on and so on.

But when all’s said and done, it will set the baseline for whatever people use it for, i.e. everything they possibly can. Think 4K video calls, in fact 4K everything, and it’s already not hard to see how anything less than 5G will come as a disappointment. Meanwhile every device under the sun will be looking to connect to every other, exchanging as much data as it possibly can. The technology world is a strange one, with massive expectations being imposed on each layer of the stack without any real sense of needing to take responsibility.

We’ve seen it before. The inefficient software practices of 1990’s Microsoft drove the need for processor upgrades and led Intel to a healthy profit, illustrating the vested interests of the industry to make the networking and hardware platforms faster and better. We all gain as a result, if ‘gain’ can be measured in terms of being able to see your gran in high definition on a wall screen from the other side of the world. But after the hype, 5G will become just another standard release, a way marker on the road to techno-utopia.

On the upside, it may lead to a simpler networking infrastructure. More of a hope than a prediction would be the general adoption of some kind of mesh integration between Wifi and 5G, taking away the handoff pain for both people, and devices, that move around. There will always be a place for multiple standards (such as the energy-efficient Zigbee for IoT) but 5G’s physical architecture, coupled with software standards like NFV, may offer a better starting point than the current, proprietary-mast-based model.

4. Attitudes to autonomous vehicles will normalize

The good news is, car manufacturers saw this coming. They are already planning for that inevitable moment, when public perception goes from, “Who’d want robot cars?” to “Why would I want to own a car?” It’s a familiar phenomenon, an almost 1984-level of doublethink where people go from one mindset to another seemingly overnight, without noticing and in some cases, seemingly disparaging the characters they once were.  We saw it with personal computers, with mobile phones, with flat screen TVs — in the latter case, the the world went from “nah, thats never going to happen” to recycling sites being inundated with perfectly usable screens (and a wave of people getting huge cast-off tellies).

And so, we will see over the next year or so, self-driving vehicles hit our roads. What drives this phenomenon is simple: we know, deep down, that robot cars are safer — not because they are inevitably, inherently safe, but because human drivers are inevitably, inherently dangerous. And autonomous vehicles will get safer still. And are able to pick us up at 3 in the morning and take us home.

The consequences will be fascinating to watch. First that attention will increasingly turn to brands — after all, if you are going to go for a drive, you might as well do so in comfort, right? We can also expect to see a far more varied range of wheeled transport (and otherwise — what’s wrong with the notion of flying unicorn deliveries?) — indeed, with hybrid forms, the very notion of roads is called into question.

There will be data, privacy, security and safety ramifications that need to be dealt with — consider the current ethical debate between leaving young people without taxis late at night, versus the possible consequences of sharing a robot Uber with a potential molester. And I must recall a very interesting conversation with my son, about who would get third or fourth dibs at the autonomous vehicle ferrying drunken revellers (who are not always the cleanliest of souls) to their beds.

Above all, business models will move from physical to virtual, from products to services. The industry knows this, variously calling vehicles ‘tin boxes on wheels’ while investing in car sharing, delivery and other service-based models. Of course (as Apple and others have shown), good engineering continues to command a premium even in the service-based economy: competition will come from Tesla as much as Uber, or whatever replaces its self-sabotaging approach to world domination.

Such changes will take time but in the short term, we can fully expect a mindset shift from the general populace.

5. When Bitcoins collapse, blockchains will pervade

The concept that “money doesn’t actually exist” can be difficult to get across, particularly as it makes such a difference to the lives of, well, everybody. Money can buy health, comfort and a good meal; it can also deliver representations of wealth, from high street bling to mediterranean gin palaces. Of course money exists, I’m holding some in my hand, says anyone who wants to argue against the point.

Yet, still, it doesn’t. It is a mathematical construct originally construed to simplify the exchange of value, to offer persistence to an otherwise transitory notion. From a situation where you’d have to prove whether you gave the chap some fish before he’d give you that wood he offered, you can just take the cash and buy wood wherever you choose. It’s not an accident of speech that pound notes still say, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand…”

While original currencies may have been teeth or shells (happy days if you happened to live near a beach), they moved to metals in order to bring some stability in a rather dodgy market. Forgery remains an enormous problem in part because we maintain a belief that money exists, even though it doesn’t. That dodgy-looking coin still spends, once it is part of the system.

And so to the inexorable rise of Bitcoin, which has emerged from nowhere to become a global currency — in much the same way as the dodgy coin, it is accepted simply because people agree to use it in a transaction. Bitcoin has a chequered reputation, probably unfairly given that our traditional dollars and cents are just as likely to be used for gun-running or drug dealing as any virtual dosh. It’s also a bubble that looks highly likely to burst, and soon — no doubt some pundits will take that as a proof point of the demise of cryptocurrency.

Their certainty may be premature. Not only will Bitcoin itself pervade (albeit at a lower valuation), but the genie is already out of the bottle as banks and others experiment with the economic models made possible by “distributed ledger” architectures such as The Blockchain, i.e. the one supporting Bitcoin. Such models are a work in progress: the idea that a single such ledger can manage all the transactions in the world (financial and otherwise) is clearly flawed.

But blockchains, in general, hold a key as they deal with that single most important reason why currency existed in the first place — to prove a promise. This principle holds in areas way beyond money, or indeed, value exchange — food and pharmaceutical, art and music can all benefit from knowing what was agreed or planned, and how it took place. Architectures will evolve (for example with sidechains) but the blockchain principle can apply wherever the risk of fraud could also exist, which is just about everywhere.

6. The world will keep on turning

There we have it. I could have added other things — for example, there’s a high chance that we will see another major security breach and/or leak; augmented reality will have a stab at the mainstream; and so on. I’d also love to see a return to data and facts on the world’s political stage, rather than the current tub-thumping and playing fast and loose with the truth. I’m keen to see breakthroughs in healthcare from IoT, I also expect some major use of technology that hadn’t been considered arrive, enter the mainstream and become the norm — if I knew what it was, I’d be a very rich man. Even if money doesn’t exist.

Truth is, and despite the daily dose of disappointment that comes with reading the news, these are exciting times to be alive. 2018 promises to be a year as full of innovation as previous years, with all the blessings and curses that it brings. As Isaac Asimov once wrote, “An atom-blaster is a good weapon, but it can point both ways.”

On that, and with all it brings, it only remains to wish the best of the season, and of 2018 to you and yours. All the best!

 
Photo credit: Birmingham Mail

Full duplex may be the next breakthrough in mobile networking

Stanford startup Kumu Networks didn’t receive much notice at Mobile World Congress this week as the giants of the mobile industry revealed their plans for 2015, but it did get the attention of two rather important mobile carriers. At their separate booths, Telefónica and SK Telecom were showing off a Kumu-built radio transmission system called full duplex, which both carriers said could eventually become one of the key technologies of any future 5G standard.

When the mobile companies pull out the 5G card, they’re usually trying to signal that something is a really big deal, and in the case of Kumu, they could very well be right. What full duplex does is solve a fundamental problem in wireless communications that limits a network’s full capacity potential: the inability to transmit and receive signals on a radio channel at the same time. The problem is known as self-interference, but the concept is not quite as complex as it sounds.

Shouting

Imagine two people are having a conversation, which itself is one of the simplest two-way — or duplex — communication channels. If both people are talking at the same time, neither one can understand what the other is saying. The words one person speaks get drowned out by the other’s voice before it ever reaches his ears. The same principle holds for wireless transmissions. When a radio is transmitting its signals bleed over into its own receiver interfering with the signals it’s trying to listen for.

For that reason wireless networks have always been built in something called half-duplex mode, which basically prevents them from ever transmitting and receiving in the same channel at the same time. It’s why most mobile networks in the world today use different sets of frequencies for downlink and uplink transmissions (For instance in many U.S. LTE systems, our devices receive data from the tower in a 2100 MHz channel, but they send information back at 1700 MHz). And it’s why a Wi-Fi router flip-flops between transmitting and receiving when it talks to your laptop or smartphone. Half-duplex has served the wireless industry well, but using it means you’re only using half of the total capacity of your airwaves at any given time.

Kumu Networks is based in Santa Clara but its roots are in Stanford where its founders started their full duplex research.

Kumu Networks is based in Santa Clara but its roots are in Stanford where its founders started their full duplex research.

 

As my colleague Signe Brewster wrote in Gigaom’s first look at the Stanford startup in 2013, Kumu claims to have developed the mathematical breakthrough necessary to solve the problem of self-interference at a practical level. And now it’s claiming to have produced a commercially viable full-duplex radio system that can transmit and receive simultaneously without turning its connection to mush. According to Kumu VP of product development Joel Brand, the company accomplished this by becoming a very smart listener.

Essentially Kumu is constantly scanning the radio environment, gauging the exact state of the airwaves at any given time, Brand said. Using internally developed algorithms, Kumu can “hear” how the transmission the radio is pumping out is changing the signal environment a the receiver. It can then compensate for those changes as signals heading the opposite direction arrive. It’s like echo cancellation applied to radio waves instead of sound.

Full Duplex demo

Kumu supplied some photos of the full duplex rig it demoed at Mobile World Congress, and I’ll be the first to admit it doesn’t look very impressive. But at MWC I asked Vish Nandlall, CTO of Australian multinational mobile carrier [company]Telstra[/company], about the technology, and he said it was the real deal. Full duplex isn’t some crazy new concept Kumu just made up one day, he said. Full duplex is used today in regular phone lines, and its application to wireless has been kicking around scientific papers and academic research labs for some time. But what Kumu did was come up with a viable technology that could be applied to real world networks, Nandlall said.

The impact could be quite significant. If you remove the self-interference barrier, carriers could use all of their spectrum for both uplink and downlink at the same time, which would double the capacity or double the number of connections any network could support. Wi-Fi networks would no longer have to alternate between sending data and receiving it, thus dramatically improving their download and upload speeds. It might not solve the so-called spectrum crunch, but it would go a long way to making wireless networks a lot more efficient.

Right now Kumu is pitching the technology to carriers as a backhaul system, so they could use their 4G spectrum to concurrently communicate with phones and the core network. But Brand says in the future full duplex can easily be applied to the access network connecting our devices. In fact, Kumu’s MWC demos were using off-the-shelf radio smartphone chips from [company]Qualcomm[/company], just with the duplexer ripped out. That kind of change would require a redesign of both our networks and our devices, which isn’t going to happen overnight. That’s why Kumu and its carrier partners [company]Telefónica[/company] and [company]SK Telecom[/company] are looking ahead to 5G.

MWC-2015-ticker

5G could be used for real-time holographic video, says UK’s Ofcom

5G is very much a future thing and, despite how much various mobile industry players want to push their own ideas, it’s currently very ill-defined. Nonetheless, the regulators of the airwaves need to think ahead, and the U.K.’s Ofcom is doing just that.

On Friday Ofcom launched a consultation on the use of spectrum above 6GHz for 5G services after 2020. These are pretty high frequencies as mobile communications go, but they’re in the zone that many see as the base for what they want 5G to be – high-bandwidth (maybe 10-50 gigabits per second), low latency, not great at operating over long distances, but maybe usable for delivering mobile broadband with the right arrays and beam-forming techniques. (Over in the U.S., the FCC is looking to 24GHz and up.)

Seeing as we barely know what 5G is supposed to be just yet, spelling out its use cases is a bit of a rocky job. According to Ofcom:

The spectrum… could support a variety of uses, ranging from financial trading and entertainment to gaming and holographic projections, with the potential to support very high demand users in busy areas, like city centres.

A picture on that page depicts a vision of real-time holographic video communications. Well, this is five years into the future after all, and whatever 5G is, it will likely have a lot of bandwidth to play with.

“5G must deliver a further step change in the capacity of wireless networks, over and above that currently being delivered by 4G,” acting Ofcom CEO Steve Unger said in the statement. “No network has infinite capacity, but we need to move closer to the ideal of there always being sufficient capacity to meet consumers’ needs.”

Right now, the territory north of 6GHz is used for a variety of things, such as satellite broadcasting and weather monitoring. As telecoms regulator, Ofcom will need to make sure everything can coexist nicely. Those who want to share their views with Ofcom about the use of spectrum over 6GHz for 5G purposes should let the regulator know by February 27th.

What the heck is 5G? The mobile world is just as unsure as we are

The world’s biggest mobile industry group, the GSM Association, released a new report on Monday that takes a crack at defining the next big generational shift in mobile networking technologies, which we’ve come to know as 5G. There’s only one problem: there’s more than one definition of 5G out there.

As the GSMA Intelligence paper (pdf) pointed out, there are two competing views of what 5G should be (no definition or standard has officially been set). The first is a narrow definition that focuses on the creation of a new faster, lower-latency network; i.e. finding 5G’s equivalent of the 4G’s LTE.

The second definition, which the GSMA calls the “hyper-connected vision,” is much more broad. It looks far beyond the specs of the radio network to outline a mobile networking world where old and new wireless technologies blend together, networks and devices become greener and cellular coverage is expanded to cover the globe’s population and the internet of things. Oh, and that’s all in addition to the big bandwidth gains and latency drops core to the first 5G definition.

While both approaches have value, they also both have some inherent limitations, according to Dan Warren, technology director for the GSMA. Under a very narrow definition, 5G doesn’t really address the majority of the world’s needs for mobile data and connectivity. Hitting multigigabit speeds and sub-millisecond latency would not only be difficult, but that would really only be useful for a limited set of applications; for instance, virtual and augmented reality or say a communications intermediary between driverless cars.

SimX CEORyan Ribeira checks on a virtual patient. Photo by Signe Brewster

An example of a possible 5G application: SimX CEORyan Ribeira checks on a virtual patient. Photo by Signe Brewster

As you might expect those types of networks would be available in the big cities of developed countries, pretty much the same places where 4G has taken off. “5G would be about giving people who already have the most even more,” Warren said.

While the narrow definition of 5G may not go far enough, the hyper-connected vision may be overreaching. Many of the technologies researchers are weighing including in the 5G definition are already being deployed today, for instance heterogeneous networking and virtualizing elements of the network in a data center. In addition, some of these requirements, like global coverage and low-power networks, aren’t technology goals, they’re economic ones.

Those goals go beyond what a technical definition or networking standard can feasibly address, but accomplishing all of those things with a single technology will be impossible, Warren said. You can have a 5G network that produces enormous speeds at impeccable timing for smartphones, tablets and laptops. Or you can have a 5G network that delivers low bandwidth at sluggish latency to billions of low-power devices spread over vast coverage areas. What you can’t have is both scenarios on the same network, Warren said.

So what’s wrong with having multiple types of 5G, each addressing a different goal? There could be a high-speed 5G network focused on Silicon Valley power users; a low-speed, inexpensive 5G network targeted at rural areas in emerging markets and even a low-latency, low-power 5G network addressing the internet of things.

The problem is the whole reason for creating terminology like the various “G”s is to provide a simple explanation of complex technology to the public at large. If you make the definition of 5G too broad and varied it doesn’t have any meaning at all to the average person, Warren said. The 5G icon popping up on the connection bar on a smartphone in New York City would mean something entirely different than the same 5G icon popping up on a feature phone in rural India.

networking globe

The GSMA isn’t offering a solution to this problem, just its analysis. What’s very clear, though, is that mobile industry has a lot of soul searching to do before it settles on what the goals for our mobile networks should be.

Sadly, I think the mobile industry is less interested in contemplating 5G than it is in politicking and marketing it. We’ve already had numerous vendors unveil their supposed 5G technologies, and governments have gotten in the game as well: The EU has promised to become the global leader in whatever 5G happens to be. Huawei and Russia’s MegaFon have teamed up to promise 5G networks right in time for the 2018 World Cup, despite the fact that neither company can definitely say what 5G actually is.

The history of 3G and 4G is riddled with examples of carriers and infrastructure vendors inflating their technological prowess, and I expect the same will happen with 5G. Basically 5G will be whatever networks these companies have deployed when the timelines they’ve set expire.

FCC starts poking around for future 5G airwaves

5G research is gaining momentum worldwide, and it will require new spectrum. Enter the FCC. Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to start investigating the future cellular technology from a regulatory standpoint.

Google wades into the murky waters of 5G with Alpental buy

Buying a company that specializes in 5G technologies doesn’t mean Google wants to build a 5G mobile network. Alpental is working on 60 GHz wireless networks, which could be used to augment Google’s many broadband projects.