MWC Barcelona 2019: Privacy Concerns and the Rise of AI

To consumer tech analyst Carolina Milanesi, “smart” devices may finally start to live up to their name

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This is a guest post. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the blogger and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

The newly rebranded MWC Barcelona, formerly known as Mobile World Congress, is less than a week away. And based on my email traffic, it promises to be a very busy show. More than 2,400 companies are expected to take part in what is widely considered the event of the year for the mobile and wireless industries.

I’ve attended the event since it was called 3GSM and was held in Cannes. I’ve seen it rebranded to keep up with the pace of network technology, and the speed at which mobile technology has reshaped other industries. This year will be no different, as I expect a few key themes to define the show and the industry’s short-term future.

To perhaps no one’s surprise, 5G will be a big topic in Barcelona. Several phone manufacturers including Huawei, LG, and OnePlus are rumored to introduce new models ready to support 5G networks, which have already begun to roll out around the world.

Meanwhile, operators will tout the high speeds their 5G subscribers will be able to reach but will likely say very little about how they plan to charge for the pleasure. This is not necessarily a lack of transparency on their part, but rather a lack of clarity of what price will produce a return on investment and also serve as an enticing offer for subscribers.

While smartphones may be on everybody else’s mind, I’m much more interested in what 5G will enable beyond phones, especially in the realms of artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and autonomous driving. In my opinion, 5G will deliver only an incremental improvement to human-to-human communication, but it will transform machine-to-human and machine-to-machine communication.

To me, this is the true promise of 5G. Never before were we able to connect with little to no latency and so few pipe constraints. In a way, this is also the challenge of 5G. The list of possible applications is endless when practically any device that could receive or send data can actually be connected. And that makes it more difficult to sell it.

Over the past few years, it has become clear that the world is awash in data—but without intelligence, data is quite useless. So, I expect to hear much more at MWC Barcelona about AI—both in terms of intelligent tools that can make sense of data as well as ways to figure out how that data could be used to improve enterprise processes, consumer services, and the performance of devices. Of course, it’s important to stay skeptical because every new gadget will probably be labeled as “intelligent” or “smart” or any other such term meant to add value without offering much in terms of meaning.

Despite the hype, in the next three years, I do expect to see AI transform businesses, products, and how companies interact with customers. This transformation will not happen overnight.

But for companies in software, robotics, health care, and retail, now is the time to invest. I expect many brands at MWC Barcelona to talk about new platforms and tools, and to announce cross-market or cross-country partnerships to maximize the data sets used to train their models, so that their inference engines deliver the best possible results.

For now, we are still very much in the experimentation phase of AI. Businesses are deploying pilots mostly focused on reducing costs and streamlining processes. I would expect, within three years, to see broader adoption in several verticals with retail, health, finance, and entertainment leading the way.

Consider retail, for instance—today, data is used to train models that help manage inventory based on demand. Soon, we will be able to do that across online and physical stores, dynamically adjusting supply and pricing based on a set of variables. Over time, bots may even serve up real-time, personalized marketing campaigns built on sentiment analysis and natural-language processing.  

After years of attending both MWC and CES, I have started to feel that the Barcelona show is less about technology for technology’s sake and is much more grounded in the realities of business. While we talk about technology at MWC Barcelona, there’s much more focus on investments, partnerships, commercialization, and ROI.

MWC Barcelona exhibitors and attendees come from all corners of the world, but the show’s strong European presence might drive this year’s conversation to one specific topic where the European Union (EU) has been in the driver seat: privacy.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force on 25 May 2018, and was designed to modernize laws that protect personal information. In short, GDPR gives people the right to access the information that companies hold about them, obliges business to better manage this data management, and imposes a new regime of fines.

Many multinational corporations have decided to comply with the GDPR requirements even outside the EU, mostly for convenience. Because of its importance and because of the firm stand that the EU seems to be taking against tech giants like Google and Facebook, I expect privacy to be top of mind for many executives at the show.

Data, like connectivity, will shape the future of many businesses. Keeping data secure and private is already a strong differentiator for companies like Apple and Microsoft. Moving forward, both consumers and businesses are likely to care even more about both.

Many of the trends we will see at MWC Barcelona will take years to come to life in a store, a business, or a city near you. Sometimes technology moves fast, but companies, regulations, and infrastructure do not.

To those who ask me what we will see this year, I say more of the same—but inching closer to reality.

About the Author

Carolina Milanesi is a consumer tech analyst at Creative Strategies, a high-tech research firm based in San Jose, Calif. She has been an analyst for 19 years and previously led consumer device research at Gartner, producing forecasts for smartphones, tablets, and PCs. You can also find her on Twitter.

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