Imagining a 5G Future? Assume Hindsight as Inevitable

By: Consuelo Azuaje

Experts forecast minimal, less-than-one-millisecond latency with 5G networks. While the switch from 3G to 4G slashed latency in half, the switch from 4- to 5G is expected to more than decimate latency, dropping it by 95%. Those aren’t just flashy numbers. This unprecedented speed will be put to use by the health and medical industry, connected homes and buildings, secure transport, and asset tracking, and more. To the consumer using a self-driving car, it is the difference between a having a car that—moving at 62 mph—would travel ~1 in (2.8 cm) in the time it took to begin braking, as opposed to 4.6 ft (1.4 m) which is the distance a 4G-connected self-driving car would travel before being able to begin braking.

But, oh, the possibilities: 5G in smart homes and driverless cars, of course, but also in tele-surgery, virtual reality, and an unforeseeable number of new venues. Enter a new Eden, the garden of 5G which—as one journalist so aptly quipped—will “tickle” the senses. The Tactile Internet—development of which began as late as 2012—is an emerging technology which will allow users to both transmit and receive tactile information (a.k.a “haptic interaction”) while still receiving audiovisual feedback.

Realization of the Tactile Internet will demand enormous strides in the field of robotics, as well as (seemingly) impossibly quick data rates, but just as technology has made distance no object to visual and audio communication, the Tactile Internet will conquer distance to allow users to communicate and receive touch, as well. This would grant “double presence” for surgeons whose delicate movements would save otherwise inaccessible patients.

Although, the use of mobile 'phones for data collection and streaming (in addition to voice) has become a norm, the evolutionary destiny of its earilest version—the telephone—was far from obvious when it was first being developed. And there's a good reason for that. I'll explain. Mark Twain once famously declared truth stranger than fiction. The second half of that quote is often forgotten, though. It reads: “but that is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Unconfined by our modern-day possibilities and limitations, tomorrow’s engineers and scientists will be able to imagine bigger and see more than today’s. The future will outstrip us, and that’s okay. It's only natural. They can only see as far as the vantage point (which they inherited from us) allows them to. There's some comfort to be found, though, in the fact that this generation's efforts will push the next to greater heights, and so on.

Take Sir William Preece, the distinguished and exacting Welsh engineer who studied under the legendary physicist and chemist, Michael Faraday, and who also personally advanced the field of telephony, for example. As onlookers into the past, we could say that Preece was better equipped and, more than anyone, should have seen the enormous potential of telephones. But, that wasn’t the case. Preece's contributions to telephony when it was still an emerging field have been largely forgotten by the general public and he is more commonly known for this dismissive soundbite: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” So, moving toward the future, and the future 5G network, let's think bigger than the proverbial-smart fridge crying “buy more milk,” and throw faith and support into today's developers in whose hands the future partially lies.