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Though 5G—a next-generation speed upgrade to wireless networks—is scarcely up and running (and still nonexistent in many places) researchers are already working on what comes next. It lacks an official name, but they’re calling it 6G for the sake of simplicity (and hey, it’s tradition). 6G promises to be up to 100 times faster than 5G—fast enough to download 142 hours of Netflix in a second—but researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how to make such ultra-speedy connections happen.
A new chip, described in a paper in Nature Photonics by a team from Osaka University and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, may give us a glimpse of our 6G future. The team was able to transmit data at a rate of 11 gigabits per second, topping 5G’s theoretical maximum speed of 10 gigabits per second and fast enough to stream 4K high-def video in real time. They believe the technology has room to grow, and with more development, might hit those blistering 6G speeds.
NTU final year PhD student Abhishek Kumar, Assoc Prof Ranjan Singh and postdoc Dr Yihao Yang. Dr Singh is holding the photonic topological insulator chip made from silicon, which can transmit terahertz waves at ultrahigh speeds. Credit: NTU Singapore
But first, some details about 5G and its predecessors so we can differentiate them from 6G.
Electromagnetic waves are characterized by a wavelength and a frequency; the wavelength is the distance a cycle of the wave covers (peak to peak or trough to trough, for example), and the frequency is the number of waves that pass a given point in one second. Cellphones use miniature radios to pick up electromagnetic signals and convert those signals into the sights and sounds on your phone.
4G wireless networks run on millimeter waves on the low- and mid-band spectrum, defined as a frequency of a little less (low-band) and a little more (mid-band) than one gigahertz (or one billion cycles per second). 5G kicked that up several notches by adding even higher frequency millimeter waves of up to 300 gigahertz, or 300 billion cycles per second. Data transmitted at those higher frequencies tends to be information-dense—like video—because they’re much faster.
The 6G chip kicks 5G up several more notches. It can transmit waves at more than three times the frequency of 5G: one terahertz, or a trillion cycles per second. The team says this yields a data rate of 11 gigabits per second. While that’s faster than the fastest 5G will get, it’s only the beginning for 6G. One wireless communications expert even estimates 6G networks could handle rates up to 8,000 gigabits per second; they’ll also have much lower latency and higher bandwidth than 5G.
Terahertz waves fall between infrared waves and microwaves on the electromagnetic spectrum. Generating and transmitting them is difficult and expensive, requiring special lasers, and even then the frequency range is limited. The team used a new material to transmit terahertz waves, called photonic topological insulators (PTIs). PTIs can conduct light waves on their surface and edges rather than having them run through the material, and allow light to be redirected around corners without disturbing its flow.
The chip is made completely of silicon and has rows of triangular holes. The team’s research showed the chip was able to transmit terahertz waves error-free.
Nanyang Technological University associate professor Ranjan Singh, who led the project, said, “Terahertz technology […] can potentially boost intra-chip and inter-chip communication to support artificial intelligence and cloud-based technologies, such as interconnected self-driving cars, which will need to transmit data quickly to other nearby cars and infrastructure to navigate better and also to avoid accidents.”
Besides being used for AI and self-driving cars (and, of course, downloading hundreds of hours of video in seconds), 6G would also make a big difference for data centers, IoT devices, and long-range communications, among other applications.
Given that 5G networks are still in the process of being set up, though, 6G won’t be coming on the scene anytime soon; a recent whitepaper on 6G from Japanese company NTTDoCoMo estimates we’ll see it in 2030, pointing out that wireless connection tech generations have thus far been spaced about 10 years apart; we got 3G in the early 2000s, 4G in 2010, and 5G in 2020.
In the meantime, as 6G continues to develop, we’re still looking forward to the widespread adoption of 5G.
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When you imagine an exoskeleton, chances are it might look a bit like the Guardian XO from Sarcos Robotics. The XO is literally a robot you wear (or maybe, it wears you). The suit’s powered limbs sense your movements and match their position to yours with little latency to give you effortless superstrength and endurance—lifting 200 pounds will feel like 10.
A vision of robots and humankind working together in harmony. Now, isn’t that nice?
Of course, there isn’t anything terribly novel about an exoskeleton. We’ve seen plenty of concepts and demonstrations in the last decade. These include light exoskeletons tailored to industrial settings—some of which are being tested out by the likes of Honda—and healthcare exoskeletons that support the elderly or folks with disabilities.
Full-body powered robotic exoskeletons are a bit rarer, which makes the Sarcos suit pretty cool to look at. But like all things in robotics, practicality matters as much as vision. It’s worth asking: Will anyone buy and use the thing? Is it more than a concept video?
Sarcos thinks so, and they’re excited about it. “If you were to ask the question, what does 30 years and $300 million look like,” Sarcos CEO, Ben Wolff, told IEEE Spectrum, “you’re going to see it downstairs.”
The XO appears to check a few key boxes. For one, it’s user friendly. According to Sarcos, it only takes a few minutes for the uninitiated to strap in and get up to speed. Feeling comfortable doing work with the suit takes a few hours. This is thanks to a high degree of sensor-based automation that allows the robot to seamlessly match its user’s movements.
The XO can also operate for more than a few minutes. It has two hours of battery life, and with spares on hand, it can go all day. The batteries are hot-swappable, meaning you can replace a drained battery with a new one without shutting the system down.
The suit is aimed at manufacturing, where workers are regularly moving heavy stuff around. Additionally, Wolff told CNET, the suit could see military use. But that doesn’t mean Avatar-style combat. The XO, Wolff said, is primarily about logistics (lifting and moving heavy loads) and isn’t designed to be armored, so it won’t likely see the front lines.
The system will set customers back $100,000 a year to rent, which sounds like a lot, but for industrial or military purposes, the six-figure rental may not deter would-be customers if the suit proves itself a useful bit of equipment. (And it’s reasonable to imagine the price coming down as the technology becomes more commonplace and competitors arrive.)
Sarcos got into exoskeletons a couple decades ago and was originally funded by the military (like many robotics endeavors). Videos hit YouTube as long ago as 2008, but after announcing the company was taking orders for the XO earlier this year, Sarcos says they’ll deliver the first alpha units in January, which is a notable milestone.
Broadly, robotics has advanced a lot in recent years. YouTube sensations like Boston Dynamics have regularly earned millions of views (and inevitably, headlines stoking robot fear). They went from tethered treadmill sessions to untethered backflips off boxes. While today’s robots really are vastly superior to their ancestors, they’ve struggled to prove themselves useful. A counterpoint to flashy YouTube videos, the DARPA Robotics Challenge gave birth to another meme altogether. Robots falling over. Often and awkwardly.
This year marks some of the first commercial fruits of a few decades’ research. Boston Dynamics recently started offering its robot dog, Spot, to select customers in 2019. Whether this proves to be a headline-worthy flash in the pan or something sustainable remains to be seen. But between robots with more autonomy and exoskeletons like the XO, the exoskeleton variety will likely be easier to make more practical for various uses.
Whereas autonomous robots require highly advanced automation to navigate uncertain and ever-changing conditions—automation which, at the moment, remains largely elusive (though the likes of Google are pairing the latest AI with robots to tackle the problem)—an exoskeleton mainly requires physical automation. The really hard bits, like navigating and recognizing and interacting with objects, are outsourced to its human operator.
As it turns out, for today’s robots the best AI is still us. We may yet get chipper automatons like Rosy the Robot, but until then, for complicated applications, we’ll strap into our mechs for their strength and endurance, and they’ll wear us for our brains.
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Will getting full bars on your 5G connection mean getting caught out by sudden weather changes?
The question may strike you as hypothetical, nonsensical even, but it is at the core of ongoing disputes between meteorologists and telecommunications companies. Everyone else, including you and I, are caught in the middle, wanting both 5G’s faster connection speeds and precise information about our increasingly unpredictable weather. So why can’t we have both?
Perhaps we can, but because of the way 5G networks function, it may take some special technology—specifically, artificial intelligence.
The Bandwidth Worries
Around the world, the first 5G networks are already being rolled out. The networks use a variety of frequencies to transmit data to and from devices at speeds up to 100 times faster than existing 4G networks.
One of the bandwidths used is between 24.25 and 24.45 gigahertz (GHz). In a recent FCC auction, telecommunications companies paid a combined $2 billion for the 5G usage rights for this spectrum in the US.
However, meteorologists are concerned that transmissions near the lower end of that range can interfere with their ability to accurately measure water vapor in the atmosphere. Wired reported that acting chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Neil Jacobs, told the US House Subcommittee on the Environment that 5G interference could substantially cut the amount of weather data satellites can gather. As a result, forecast accuracy could drop by as much as 30 percent.
Among the consequences could be less time to prepare for hurricanes, and it may become harder to predict storms’ paths. Due to the interconnectedness of weather patterns, measurement issues in one location can affect other areas too. Lack of accurate atmospheric data from the US could, for example, lead to less accurate forecasts for weather patterns over Europe.
The Numbers Game
Water vapor emits a faint signal at 23.8 GHz. Weather satellites measure the signals, and the data is used to gauge atmospheric humidity levels. Meteorologists have expressed concern that 5G signals in the same range can disturb those readings. The issue is that it would be nigh on impossible to tell whether a signal is water vapor or an errant 5G signal.
Furthermore, 5G disturbances in other frequency bands could make forecasting even more difficult. Rain and snow emit frequencies around 36-37 GHz. 50.2-50.4 GHz is used to measure atmospheric temperatures, and 86-92 GHz clouds and ice. All of the above are under consideration for international 5G signals. Some have warned that the wider consequences could set weather forecasts back to the 1980s.
Telecommunications companies and interest organizations have argued back, saying that weather sensors aren’t as susceptible to interference as meteorologists fear. Furthermore, 5G devices and signals will produce much less interference with weather forecasts than organizations like NOAA predict. Since very little scientific research has been carried out to examine the claims of either party, we seem stuck in a ‘wait and see’ situation.
To offset some of the possible effects, the two groups have tried to reach a consensus on a noise buffer between the 5G transmissions and water-vapor signals. It could be likened to limiting the noise from busy roads or loud sound systems to avoid bothering neighboring buildings.
The World Meteorological Organization was looking to establish a -55 decibel watts buffer. In Europe, regulators are locked in on a -42 decibel watts buffer for 5G base stations. For comparison, the US Federal Communications Commission has advocated for a -20 decibel watts buffer, which would, in reality, allow more than 150 times more noise than the European proposal.
How AI Could Help
Much of the conversation about 5G’s possible influence on future weather predictions is centered around mobile phones. However, the phones are far from the only systems that will be receiving and transmitting signals on 5G. Self-driving cars and the Internet of Things are two other technologies that could soon be heavily reliant on faster wireless signals.
Densely populated areas are likely going to be the biggest emitters of 5G signals, leading to a suggestion to only gather water-vapor data over oceans.
Another option is to develop artificial intelligence (AI) approaches to clean or process weather data. AI is playing an increasing role in weather forecasting. For example, in 2016 IBM bought The Weather Company for $2 billion. The goal was to combine the two companies’ models and data in IBM’s Watson to create more accurate forecasts. AI would also be able to predict increases or drops in business revenues due to weather changes. Monsanto has also been investing in AI for forecasting, in this case to provide agriculturally-related weather predictions.
Smartphones may also provide a piece of the weather forecasting puzzle. Studies have shown how data from thousands of smartphones can help to increase the accuracy of storm predictions, as well as the force of storms.
“Weather stations cost a lot of money,” Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Inside Science, adding, “If there are already 20 million smartphones, you might as well take advantage of the observation system that’s already in place.”
Smartphones may not be the solution when it comes to finding new ways of gathering the atmospheric data on water vapor that 5G could disrupt. But it does go to show that some technologies open new doors, while at the same time, others shut them.
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