I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” That was not just anyone trying to prove that predicting anything is tough, especially the future. That prescient forecast was made by then IBM President Thomas J Watson in 1943, before the first transistor was invented and when a computer was a giant collection of electronic tubes and bulbs, as large as a house.
Today, most people carry a supercomputer on their person, a computer more powerful than the one NASA used to land people on the moon. Most of us do not think of these devices as computers, but as phones. Most of us, therefore, are likely to underappreciate the significance of the fifth generation of communication technology, now being rolled out as 5G. Most people would consider 5G to be an incremental improvement on 4G, with greater speeds of data transfer. Most people would be wrong.
An economy that leverages 5G would be in the same position of competitive advantage vis-à-vis the rest as the first economy to deploy a rail network to run steam locomotives and trains pulled by those locomotives for moving people and cargo had been, vis-à-vis economies that moved freight on carts pulled by animals.
5G is not just about faster speeds of data transfer. It is different from 4G on two other counts — massively more data throughput and low bounded latency. Latency is the gap between initiating a user action and getting the intended response. The lag depends on the quality of data flow over the network. Having a high average speed is not enough to achieve low latency. Further, it is not enough to have latency that fluctuates between low to high; ideally, it must stay within a short range, that is to say, bounded. 5G offers low bounded latency.
How does this matter? Consider remote surgery. An expert surgeon can guide a robotic arm wielding the right tool to perform surgery on someone in a location far removed, seeing the patient and the robotic arm on a screen, with the image magnified several times as large as in real life, enabling greater clarity and precise intervention. Imagine there are lags and leaps in the data transmission between the site of the surgery and the surgeon. The control of the robotic arm would be far from precise. Nobody wants that in surgery. Low bounded latency is what is required to make this picture a reality — rural health centres with doctors, nurses and surgical equipment in situ drawing on surgical expertise located in a distant city.
But you don’t see 5G services being advertised by the telecom companies (telcos) for any such wonders as remote surgery. They talk about blazingly fast movie downloads and a superior gaming experience. This is because how to make use of 5G’s triple capabilities to create new capabilities — use cases, in the jargon — is not up to telcos; that depends on the ingenuity of other parts of the economy.
As an aside, this serves to illustrate why focus on just STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is not enough to take an economy forward; you need imagination to think up new uses for technological capability, passion to convert imagination into reality and awareness of the impact of any new technological capability on society. The liberal arts and the social sciences are as vital for societal advance as what the ‘cram schools’ of Kota focus on.
Consider machine-to-machine communication. An aircraft engine is no longer maintained as per a pre-fixed schedule. Assorted sensors in different parts of the engine send out signals that machines outside the engine monitor. Variations in the sensor output is interpreted as stress or wear of specific parts.
Take another scenario. China has a shrinking population, a shrinking workforce and rising wages. It already has the largest deployment of industrial robots on its factory floors. They do not tire, need bathroom breaks or demand a raise. Right now, these robots only perform pre-programmed, repetitive tasks.
Imagine robots that can do more, say, work alongside humans, without bumping into them or falling over them and injuring them. Such coworking robots or cobots already exist. Consider robots that, in addition, talk to the machines on the factory floor, analyse the chatter and decide what to do. That would call for constant data traffic among the machines, transmission of the data to an artificial intelligence programme on a distant server (the cloud), data processing on the cloud and re-transmission of the AI output as to what to do back to the robots and the machines. It is for machine-to-machine communication that companies need 5G network.
5G could upend the entire broadcast business. Why send all programming signals to a geostationary satellite to be bounced back to earth? Why not directly transmit the content created to Internet platforms that people access as and when they please?
The combination of high speed, massive data throughput and low bounded latency could be leveraged to produce all kinds of innovations in education, manufacturing, healthcare, entertainment and logistics.
5G is being rolled out across the world. Everywhere, people are working on new ways to leverage its capabilities to make people, machines and artificial intelligence work together. What the Railways could do was predictable. What 5G can is not, except that it would mark a paradigm shift in very many areas, determining what makes for a competitive edge.
5G heralds a new arms race in competitiveness and productivity. We need to make India’s 5G rollout smooth, efficient and affordable. India’s competitiveness in the global economy depends on getting it right.
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