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The not-too-distant human future of social distancing

We are all aware of the famous phrase, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, commonly attributed to either Plato or Einstein as most profoundly insightful statements typically are! There is another variation or extension of this that I rather like: ‘if necessity is the mother of invention, then discontent is the father of progress’ attributed to David Rockefeller. I like this latter version as it suggests that invention alone is triggered by a need, but to deliver the solution to that need at speed, requires a catalytic dissatisfaction.

The current Covid-19 situation is clearly taking an increasing toll on people’s lives. The ‘shelter at home’/work from home, lockdown or lock-in scenarios, and the attendant ‘social distancing’ when we go out, are anathema to us as social creatures and therefore stressful to us all.

And we are turning to remote communications to try to address this dissatisfaction. 

The history of networks is the history of helping humans communicate. Looking back over the last two hundred years, we first ‘networked’ with richly-considered letters transported via a mail network. This network was comprised of horses, wagons, rail and steamships to transport the mail, and people to collect, sort and deliver it. This physical network was replaced by the ‘digital’ network – the telegraph – which allowed near real time communication across large distances, using Morse coding, albeit with human intermediaries as the telegraph operators making the interaction less than ‘intimate’.

And then, of course, in 1876, came the invention of the telephone, and the attendant construction of the first nearly global network of wires that would allow real time and personal voice-based communications. For the first time, the dynamic exchange of ideas and views and news was possible, and the creation of global human community was the result.

Arguably, since then, we have allowed almost complete human mobility and the ability to be untethered from a specific location, using a global network of wireless infrastructure. The construction and perpetual evolution of this infrastructure with the World Wide Web is a remarkable technical and human accomplishment, but the question I often ponder is whether we actually feel more connected to each other, or whether we are now connected to a host of services that, although useful for entertainment or access to information, have the net effect of socially distancing ourselves from each other. 

I think this dichotomy creates the ‘need’ that will drive rapid progress and new inventions. In short, I think that the new reality we are experiencing will result in an awakening to the fundamental value of high-quality human communications systems and platforms that are as good, or better, than being with each other in person.

The foundation of this future is network capacity; the need for network capacity everywhere has never been more obvious as we are now all entirely reliant on digital connectivity.  We have already seen 30-50% increases in peak traffic over our router infrastructure in the past few days – increases that typically only occur on an annual  basis. And this will translate into the need for continuous capacity expansion. Of course, in the current times it is more difficult to deploy new equipment, but in the age of software-defined networks and virtualized network functions, in many cases these upgrades can be implemented in near real time.

But looking beyond simple connectivity and capacity, at the communications services themselves, there is also clearly the need for a high quality experience end-to-end. The base layer must be high quality voice communications, and VoLTE-based mobile and VoIP-based fixed line voice services are playing a critical role in this regard. 

On top of this, it is clear that multi-person video communications are an important piece of the equation to allow us to have both aural and visual human ‘presence’. This need is driving a new wave of innovation and creativity, starting with the emergence of distance-based learning platforms and video tutorials that are filling the gap of direct-touch learning in the time of ‘no touch’. And we are discovering that there are advantages to these new approaches – one can replay the lesson anytime, anywhere, so everyone can learn at their own pace, in their own way. I also see the rise of group digital collaborations with, for example, ad hoc orchestras forming to create musical pieces together across social distance, or friends and family distant-sharing experiences in digital hangouts or meetups. These things were happening before in smaller communities and pockets, but are suddenly becoming mainstream and changing how we interact in the digital era, and for the better. 

So what are we doing in Nokia Bell Labs and across Nokia? Well, of course we are working on the near-term and longer-term innovations in the base connectivity technologies, to go ever faster. We recently demonstrated a new world-record speed – more than 1.5 Terabits/second, or more than 1.5 million video conferencing connections – over a single fiber. Such high speeds will likely be needed much sooner than anyone predicted, as the recent events have shown. In addition, we need to connect everyone even in the most remote of places, and through the research projects we have undertaken with partners like Google Loon, Softbank and other in the HAPS Alliance, we will be able to help bridge digital distances with technologies and architectures that support universal connectivity.

We are also helping ‘on the front lines’ by helping to address the massive data loads in hospitals. We are providing the Nokia Digital Automation Cloud solution to hospitals to create an end-to-end private wireless network solution with simple plug and play connectivity for all critical assets in a hospital network.

And we have also put our AI and analytics gurus to work on the recently announced Covid-19 challenge to help mine the massive amount of data emerging to develop a new understanding of this massive challenge to humanity, in real time.

But this is just the beginning.  We are working on new systems and platforms that will enhance human productivity at work, beyond simple communications. If we look to the future and what is often called the ‘Industrial Internet’, a large part of the new value creation will be around the ability for humans to remotely see, understand, manage, operate, fix and generally interact with all manner of physical systems and machines.  And this reality will also rely on finding new solutions to the communications and connectivity problems we humans are currently experiencing as we are forced to distance ourselves from each other.

We have recently shown how the increase in productivity that results from these new abilities, will actually lead to better lives with higher wages and more leisure time, that respectively increase demand and creativity, which in turn increases productivity in a virtuous cycle.

So, to wrap up, the current crisis is a challenge to humankind – of that there is no doubt. In the long run, I believe it will drive scientific, technological and business breakthroughs that change the way of life for the betterment of humanity. But, in the meantime, let’s all be as responsible as possible by following the social distancing rules, so that the price we pay is not unbearably high. I know I speak for everyone at Nokia when I say that all of our thoughts are with families who are suffering with Covid-19 currently. Rest assured that we are accelerating the innovation engine to propel us past the current crisis to a brighter, more satisfying and fulfilled, not-so-distant future for us all.

Share your thoughts on this topic by joining the Twitter discussion with @nokia and @belllabs using #COVID19, #coronavirus, #TeamNokia, #connectivity, #innovation.

Marcus Weldon

About Marcus Weldon

As Corporate Chief Technology Officer, Marcus Weldon is responsible for coordinating the technical strategy across the company and driving technological and architectural innovations into Nokia’s end-to-end networking systems and software portfolio.  In addition, as President of Nokia Bell Labs, Marcus is responsible for driving the next disruptive innovation and research agenda for the company.

Marcus is considered one of the luminaries in the ICT industry in terms of the clarity, depth and breadth of his vision. He combines his vision with the power of Bell Labs, to create a unique innovation engine whose goal is to ‘invent the future’ of the networking and communications industry.

Tweet me at @MarcusWeldon

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