With greater global connectivity, the case for 6G telecommunications has become more apparent than ever before. The generations of wireless cellular technology (or the Gs) have been incrementing every 10 years: 1G prior to 1990, 2G in 1990, 3G in 2000, 4G in 2010, and 5G in 2020. We expect 6G to roll out in 2030.
When the Gs are plotted over time, the data volume increases exponentially and therefore reinforces the need for newer technological platforms. With pun intended, technologists call this broadening, or broader usage of the frequency spectrum.
In terms of 6G platform development, a variety of technologies are expected to come together and work in a complementary manner. They include the Internet of Everything (IoE), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented intelligence for cybersecurity, edge computing, next-generation satellites, and the metaverse. The power of data, ubiquitous high-speed communications, and computing coming together in a meaningful manner will further transform all that we do, and the way we live and work.
The pace of technological development is now swifter than ever, but societal implications often become afterthoughts.
The 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015 included ones aimed at industry, infrastructure, innovation, energy, education, and partnerships. The SDGs are expected to be accomplished by 2030, coincidently when 6G is anticipated to debut.
In the lead-up to announcing the SDGs, Jeffrey D. Sachs—while he was special advisor to the U.N. secretary-general—proposed in April 2015 an integrated vision for sustainable development. The integrated approach would advance a “holistic vision of systems analysis, where we have to understand how natural, technological, and sociopolitical systems interact,” Sachs said.
For major developments such as 6G, a holistic approach is required.
A recent example that illustrates the point was the rollout of 5G in 2020. It required the installation of cellphone towers or masts. Because community members did not understand the benefits of the installations or were not sufficiently consulted, several of the towers were not renewed. Some even were set on fire. With fast advancements in AI expected thanks to 6G, the fear of technology and what it might or might not do continues to be discussed in many parts of the world.
So, what needs to be done?
- Establish a global forum for 6G policy development. We are reminded of the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In other words, for the holistic approach discussed above, we recommend a partnership of international experts from different disciplinary backgrounds. The United Nations has initiated a strategy on new technologies and provided a road map for cooperation. The strategy provides the thought process that could be adopted for 6G—both internationally and nationally.
- In parallel, workforce training and development need to be furthered and made inclusive of 6G possibilities. A multidisciplinary approach is required to understand and appreciate the societal implications of 6G. Embedding the U.N. SDGs in educational programs could be an effective way of cultivating the appropriate mindset. The University of Johannesburg, for example, has made it compulsory for all students to complete a course on the SDGs and AI. Their training will benefit the public and private sectors.
- Universities are important educational enablers, and other organizations can assist. The IEEE Learning Network is one provider of continuing education.
- Because inclusivity and diversity are key ingredients for innovation, this should be on everyone’s agenda and prioritized. In line with such diversity, forums developed should be inclusive of the private sector. The private sector constitutes disrupters who can change and are changing technology paradigms. Another key consideration is gender and intergenerational diversity. In view of the 2030 time period for 6G, it is essential to have the generations that will be most impacted by the technology in the room.
- Ensure public understanding up front. It is important to consider the pros and cons of technology and acknowledge that there will be unintended consequences. A prominent public debate emerging is the aspect of job creation versus automation. As with previous industrial or technological revolutions, it is expected that jobs will be created, and some will yield smart sustainable solutions.
- We must learn from the past and be adaptive to what the future brings. IEEE has done extensive work on ethically aligned design, which provides sound directions on how societal values can be incorporated, aided by technology, in the way modern technologies are developed.
While recognizing that that is not an exhaustive list of what needs to be done, we call for a holistic approach to technology development for 6G telecommunications.
The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum, The Institute, or IEEE.
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Saurabh Sinha is a professor of microelectronics and deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalization at the University of Johannesburg. As a U.S. Fulbright visiting research scholar, the IEEE Fellow is undertaking a sabbatical at Princeton.