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CHAPTER II - 5G and Distributed Computing

Reed Hundt, Chief Executive Officer of Coalition for Green Capital and Making Every Vote Count, and former FCC Chairman, opened the conference with a quick history of the evolution of computing from the early days of centralized mainframe processing through the introduction of the iPhone to the present. Communications networks are the engine that delivers information to data centers where computing occurs. Computing is where value creation occurs.

Each technological advancement brings more computing power, and each generation of communications technology represents a new evolution in how information is collected and used. Sensors will collect information on all activity, effectively coding the world. 5G will enable the transmission of 1,000 times the current volume of data, on ten times as many devices, with one-tenth the latency to the computing function. This will be “the mother of all inflection points” for computing, noted Hundt.

In the past, the pendulum shifted from distributed processing to the cloud, but now there is a shift in computing back to the edge, which moves processing and intelligence closer to the location where it is needed. Intelligent agents, natural language processing and augmented reality/virtual reality all require full interactivity. This means many AI applications will require real-time processing at the edge to avoid the delay associated with transfer to the cloud.

The market is responding to this need. In 2019, in the U.S. alone, there were roughly 9,100 massive data computing centers, an increase of over 21% from the previous year. These distributed computing systems may potentially track the location of wireless access points and base stations where congestion occurs, but distributed computing may not necessarily be the natural province of today’s telecommunications carriers who provide those access points.

Figure 1. U.S. Internet Traffic Origination: Potential Sites for Distributed Computing
Source: Reed Hundt, Presentation at the 2019 Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy

The variety of information gathering networks is also splintering. Different computing architectures will exist for different verticals: for instance, the architecture necessary for distributed computing in an industrial plant will be different from the architecture that will enable real time visualization and betting in a sporting arena. Policies governing the internet are also diverging with different regulatory approaches taken by the U.S., Europe and China. For example, in China, the centralized government power structure has made clear it intends to use Chinese technology with no Western influence. It will be making its own decisions regarding spectrum, distributed computing and security.

Hundt concluded with thoughts on the implications of this evolution. It is difficult to balance the bright prospects with the more frightening potential. AI potential is disrupting everything: transportation, healthcare, gaming, elections, communications, government, sports, manufacturing and even warfare. Predictions—and decisions—will be made instantaneously, with a computing system available at any location, every moment of the day.

Ultimately, Hundt views this as a type of Armageddon: the final battle between technology and humans. It is not clear that humans will continue to play a major role in many sectors of the economy. With a focus on market-based approaches, the gulf between haves and havenots will likely widen. Thus, it will be critical to also consider the necessary but limited capital and capacity needed to realize the potential of these technologies.

Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, Fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, observed that next generation networks, including 5G, will lead to an expanded universe of interconnected devices—the Internet of Things. The availability and use of a voluminous amount of data could be a game changer for many sectors, including health, education, energy and transportation. Benefits could include remote diagnosis, home treatment monitoring, administrative task assistance, personalized learning, better outcomes for students with special needs, and more. Emerging technologies have the potential to efficiently and quickly solve many current and unforeseen societal problems. Indeed, optimized and ubiquitously available 5G could help underserved communities cross the digital divide.

But the rise of new technologies comes with a cost. The potential for data exploitation and illicit data sharing is troubling. New forms of online bias and discrimination will continue to emerge. There are increased national security vulnerabilities, including the potential for election interference and a rising danger of cyber-breaches.

Dr. Turner-Lee offered the following recommendations:

  • Address growing algorithmic biases through anti-discrimination laws, self-regulation and consumer literacy;
  • Ensure inclusive 5G deployment plans that are widely deployed to enhance business-oriented tools, such as online shopping and payment processing;
  • Adopt a federal privacy standard that, among other things, addresses online bias and discrimination;
  • Change the digital narrative by empowering local solutions, in both urban and rural settings.

She concluded by calling for more interdisciplinary and collaborative efforts among government, industry and academics to develop models to address consumer harms. Turner-Lee underscored that it is important to look at how technology impacts real people.

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