It is difficult to think of a technology that has shaped the 21st century more than mobile phones; it has changed the way we understand and interact with not only each other but the world on the whole.
The latest iteration in this technology—the fifth generation of mobile standards, 5G—is currently being deployed and to say it is a hot topic would be an understatement. And it raises an important question: What are the factors that will drive the development of the next iteration, 6G? How will it differ from 5G? What things will it be able to do that 5G cannot? What actions and processes will it support?
Whilst it would be possible to ponder these questions and come up with all kinds of weird and wonderful theories, there is one factor that will undoubtedly play a huge role: artificial intelligence (AI). Indeed, many believe that AI will play the core fundamental role as 6G’s enabling technology, responsible for underpinning a brand-new generation of machine intelligence applications.
A concept image of a human hand and robotic hand interacting with a smartphone.
5G is Already a Significant Step Forward
Before looking at 6G, it is important to highlight that 5G already represents a significant advance on the 4G standard. The first lot of 5G networks that have been deployed already offer download speeds in excess of 5-600 megabits per second—and they are only going to get faster. In contrast, 4G operates at up to 28 megabits-per-second, however, users commonly experience download rates much lower than this.
Progression in Speed and Latency Levels
The most significant benefits go beyond download speed, however. 5G hardware (such as base stations), for example, are designed to support up to a million connections. This increase makes a huge difference to communication at large gatherings and facilitates all kinds of new IoT applications.
Then there is also reduced latency. 5G is designed to have a latency of a mere millisecond whereas 4G’s latency can stand at 50 or more milliseconds. Although this isn’t as big of an issue to the casual user, it can make a big difference when it comes to controlling external hardware via an app (drones, for example) or playing online gaming—this is even more of a concern now that AR and VR-based games and mobile applications are growing in popularity.
Graphs predicting the growth of global mobile connectivity in 2020-2030.
How Can 6G Better All That?
While 6G will offer many improvements on the above metrics, including faster speeds which many commentators believe could approach 1 terabyte per second, its true power will lay with the more transformative improvements that it will bring.
There are many thoughts and theories, and one that stands out is that of Razvan-Andrei Stoica and Giuseppe Abreu at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany. They have mapped out 5G’s limitations and used this to describe the factors that they think will drive the development of 6G.
Their conclusion? That artificial intelligence will be the main driver of the next mobile standard by enabling rapidly changing collaborations on a large scale between intelligent agents solving complex challenges. They used the example of coordinating autonomous vehicles in a major city as an example—this is a significant challenge given that major cities like London and New York have millions of vehicles passing through them daily.
Major Challenges for 6G Systems
A major computational challenge is posed because these vehicles will need to create their own networks on the fly, for example as they approach a junction or a traffic light so that they can communicate effectively. These networks will then need to be immediately abandoned once used. At the same time, broader networks will map routes, calculate journey times, and respond to obstacles and developing hazards on the road.
This is only one example of what 6G and AI could make possible. Many distributed challenges that require the real-time collaborative processing of data—such as network optimisation, monitoring financial markets, and healthcare monitoring and optimisation—on a ginormous scale may also be facilitated by 6G. Here, AI agents play an obvious role.
Although we are a long way off even outlining 6G’s core standards, never mind finalising it, AI will undoubtedly play a major role in shaping it—if not the primary one.