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Humans and technology

AI-powered 6G networks will reshape digital interactions

The convergence of AI and communication technologies will create 6G networks that make hyperconnectivity and immersive experiences an everyday reality for consumers.

In partnership withVivo

Sixth-generation (6G) mobile networks, underpinned by artificial intelligence (AI), are poised to combine communication and computing in a hyperconnected world of digital and physical experiences that will transform daily lives, experts predict.

“In the past, we talked about internet of things, but with 6G, we talk about intelligent or smart internet of things,” says Qin Fei, president of communications research institute at Vivo, a Chinese mobile phone maker that has stepped up R&D efforts into 6G since 2020.

Communication and tech companies are already planning for 6G wireless networks, even though 5G has yet to be fully rolled out globally. With improved data latency, security, reliability, and the ability to process massive volumes of global data in real time, experts like Qin believe 6G is set to transform our leisure and work. Among the new use cases for 6G networks envisioned by Vivo are mixed reality, holographic and multi-sensory communication, interactive 3D virtual digital humans, collaborative robots, and automated driving.

AI boost for next-gen networks

There are expectations for 6G to be deployed by 2030. The UN’s telecoms agency, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has stated it plans to finish the initial 6G standardization process no later than the year 2030.

Optimized by AI technologies, experts expect 6G to have a bigger impact than 5G for two reasons. One, because it will enable the convergence of computing and mobile communications. Two, because it will integrate digital and physical realms and introduce new sensory experiences for users.

Qin says that “6G will provide super communication and ubiquitous information, and converge computing services, thus being the base for an interconnected and converged physical and digital world.” Capgemini agrees—predicting that 6G networks will enable immersive, ubiquitous, and sensory digital experiences on a massive scale. This will make it possible for 6G applications to “sense” their surroundings, and thereby turn the network into “our sixth sense”, according to a report by the consultancy.

All about convergence: AI and communication

As each generation of wireless networks becomes increasingly complex, they rely on other technologies to harness their power and make them easier to run. 6G is expected to be one of the first AI-native networks, where AI is embedded in the networking equipment. This will enable the network to learn and manage itself, be more autonomous, and make it cheaper to run.

“When we are designing the 6G network, we're going to use AI technology in designing the air interface and also in managing the 6G network,” says Qin. Machine learning and AI-based network automation will be crucial to simplify network management and optimization. “The 6G network with AI inside is like a very good student,” he adds. “The 6G network will self-train, self-learn, and it will actually grow as a student to become more and more powerful.”

The 6G disruption

Although 6G standards and specifications are still under development, experts agree that it will be a leapfrog technology, thanks to its higher speed (estimates vary, but 6G could be between 10 times, 50 times, to 100 times faster than 5G) and significantly reduced latency; improved connectivity, security, and reliability; and an ability to integrate digital and physical versions of the world.

“For 5G, it’s mainly a communication technology—that’s its core,” says Qin. “But for 6G, besides enhanced communications technology, it also includes computing, as well as other relevant services.” Another benefit is wider geographical coverage than 5G— 6G will cover the whole planet and connect all kinds of machines, he adds.

Qin says 6G networks will also popularize the use of digital twins—virtual replicas of products or processes used to predict how the physical entities will perform in the real world. This will be possible due to 6G networks’ enhanced connectivity, stronger sensing capability, and capacity to collect massive amounts of data.

According to Qin: “We could have more powerful connectivity and sensing capability, so we could install more sensors in the physical world and collect a massive amount of data about this world. With this data we could build models to rebuild the world in the digital arena.”

Vivo vision

Vivo believes 6G will support dozens or hundreds of new services in a wide range of industries. The company is developing prototype 6G mobile technologies based on three trends—communication plus sensing; communication plus computing; and communication plus AI.

For example, Vivo is developing a prototype that can collect users’ biometric data to monitor their health while they are asleep. According to this technological vision, a person’s bedside phone could become a medical monitoring device. “If there is any health issue or abnormal behavior happening with respiration, then [the phone] could send an alert to the hospital,” says Qin.

Vivo also sees virtual and mixed reality glasses as another potential application for 6G that could revolutionize video streaming by making it a more compelling and immersive experience. Current AR glasses have limited computing power, says Qin. “Therefore, it needs to connect as a kind of edge device to the cloud so it could provide better experiences for the users.”

6G will also support self-driving or autonomous cars. “I believe autonomous driving will be very popular after 2030 and be supported by 6G,” says Qin. “Driverless cars need to really gather all kinds of data, for example, about the ambient environment, about road conditions and even the adjacent cars in order to make informed decisions [such as] whether it should speed up or break. 6G can provide the computing power and network.”

Rollout challenges

Although 5G mobile networks have yet to live up to initial expectations, most experts agree that 6G has the potential to deliver major advances in connectivity and computing power. However, like any complex and powerful new technology, 6G also faces challenges, including network capacity and energy consumption.

Getting to the 6G era requires an increase in network capacity. Finding the right telecommunications spectrum to support its rollout is crucial. It has not been finalized but 6.4 to 15 gigahertz is under consideration for 6G. “We think that the spectrum for 6G should be on the lower spectrum, like 6.4 to 7.1 gigahertz, because the lower band electromagnetic wave physically has much better coverage and penetration characteristics,” says Qin.

Minimizing 6G’s energy consumption and carbon emissions is another major task. 6G networks will have vastly more computing demands than 5G. Suppliers and users will need to cooperate to minimize energy use. According to a report by GSMA, which represents global telecom operators, energy-saving techniques (such as AI-driven sleep states and lithium-ion batteries) may help to make 6G more energy efficient.

Ultimately, 6G will only succeed if it delivers great experiences and services for consumers and businesses, says Qin. “We should avoid overdesign of 6G network, and we should really collaborate with different verticals.” Problems faced by 5G networks—for example, bottlenecks in other technologies needed to support new terminals for 5G, such as material sciences for augmented reality equipment—should be lessons for 6G development, he adds. "We hope that we can avoid these problems. That means we need the whole ecosystem to collaborate, to jointly develop 6G infrastructure, mobile terminals, and applications.”

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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