Here's why 5G is
the bottleneck killer
Bestselling business author and agile working guru Clarke Ching explores why some technologies take off. It’s all about breaking barriers, he says.
One of the key lessons from the Theory of Constraints – my speciality – is that improvements in technology do not translate into real world benefits unless they overcome, diminish or bypass a real-world bottleneck.
Think of the last time you were stuck in a traffic jam, quietly revving your engine, wishing the cars in front of you would speed up, even though, logically, you know their speed and your speed is limited by a bottleneck somewhere up ahead in the traffic system.
Revving your engine doesn’t speed you up.
Nor would buying a faster car.
If the bottleneck limits you to 10mph then that’s as good as it gets – for you and everyone.
In the same way, while we know that 5G will boost internet performance enormously, not everyone buys into the ‘it will change everything’ mantra. Because its success depends on whether it overcomes, diminishes or bypasses a real-world bottleneck
Let’s go bottleneck hunting.
My mum is an intelligent, wry woman, in her late seventies. She lives in the countryside and until a few years ago her internet died whenever her neighbour turned on one of his electric fences. Nowadays she shares a neighbour’s satellite connection, and, she says, her internet is so fast she hardly notices it.
I told her I was writing a paper about 5G, and how excited I was by 5G’s technical and logistical improvements. I wanted to tell her about how cars would chatter with each other as they chug along the highways to work, and stories about surgeons using 5G and robots to operate on patients in far away, poorer countries where the healthcare wasn’t so good, but she’s not so interested in cool things like that.
Instead, I decided to explain how 5G would help her in the real world.
‘Basically’, I said, ‘5G is just like your current internet, but faster – maybe 100 times faster.’
‘Remember how clunky our Skype calls were before you got the fast connection?.Well, the internet will get faster and faster. When 5G comes in you’ll be able to download a movie in 10 seconds, not 10 minutes.'
‘I don’t think I download movies, do I? I just push the button and watch them.’
She was right. I don’t download often, either, unless I’m travelling.
‘True, you stream them’, I said, ’but, you know what? That’s going to get better too: instead of waiting 10 seconds for a movie to start, it’ll play in less than a second.'
'Gosh’, she said. ‘I shall make sure I use those extra nine seconds wisely.'
My eyes wandered around her kitchen, hunting for situations where her life would improve with faster, more reliable, internet. Problem was, unless all of her children and grandchildren came to visit at the same time and watched streamed movies, rather than chatting, it was good enough.
The internet used to be her bottleneck, it wasn’t any more.
Unlocking my bottleneck
I live in sunny Nelson, New Zealand. I occasionally write books, and, thanks to Zoom and my 200+ Mbps fibre broadband connection, I work with people all around the world.
I couldn’t have done this five years ago. High speed internet made this possible. Then coronavirus made it mandatory. In fact, the only time the internet has held me back in recent memory was when I got a new webcam, and its software made my CPU crash. I fixed that by buying a much faster laptop. Speeding up my internet would have made no difference.
Looking at my work, I couldn’t see how 5G would help me. Maybe I have more in common with my mum than I thought.
The hunt wasn’t over yet, though. Serendipity was about to step in and give me a hand.
I’m using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software to ‘write’ these words. I've been trying to use it for years and, until recently, for me, it has sucked. But then, three weeks ago it stopped sucking.
That was the day after I bought the very fast laptop I mentioned. I bought it to fix my Zoom problems, but when I reinstalled Dragon on my new laptop, I was delighted to discover that the dictation was much faster and smoother.
On my old laptop, with its slower CPU, I’d had to choose the setting that told Dragon’s dictation algorithm to prioritise speed over accuracy. It couldn’t do both, and I found the slower, more accurate option impossibly slow and frustrating. On the new laptop, with its much faster CPU, the algorithm could easily do both. My productivity shot up because I didn’t need make nearly as many corrections.
With the CPU bottleneck obliterated, a limitation was removed, and I was able to dictate faster. My word count went up. As a writer, that’s huge.
That got me thinking.
What if Siri and her cousins, worked like you hoped they’d work, not how they actually work?
We’d edit and correct the text as we’re writing it – in real time, without having to switch into keyboard mode. You’d just talk to your device and it’d do what you asked.
“5G will overcome the data-transportation bottleneck”
The current limitation is that accurate dictation uses huge volumes of high-quality voice data and lots of CPU heavy processing. Our current internet connections are slow so we have to send lower-quality data over to the servers, which results in poor accuracy results, lags, and frustration.
For this use case – accurate dictation – 5G will overcome the data-transportation bottleneck. We’ll be able to get the best of both worlds: fast, high-quality real time dictation, and at a low cost.
The accuracy will get better and better, as operating system and app developers enhance their algorithms using big data and AI techniques. It’ll almost become invisible, which is why 5G’s vastly improved latency is so important.
Dictation happens in real-time, so we’ve got to send the voice data quickly and get the text translation back, smoothly, without those frustrating lags we still get on Zoom calls. Think of the surgeon who uses 5G and robots to operate on a patient in a faraway hospital: Data buffering could kill patients, and it will hobble dictation.
Dictation for the masses
Things get even more interesting when we realise that 5G means we will be able to do high-quality dictation on low-spec, low-cost devices. Remember: we’re using 5G to bypass the CPU bottleneck, so we don’t need expensive, high-powered devices to do dictation.
Fast, smooth, accurate dictation done on the modern-day equivalent of the old feature phone. When almost anyone can afford to own a phone that does dictation and 5G infrastructure is widely available, that’s when the world starts to change.
Really? Dictation will change the world? How?
Well, we don’t know for sure – new technical capabilities tend to come to life out there in the wild, when people start using them. But here are a few thoughts.
Shortly before he died, my dad told me he was sorry that he couldn’t read any of my books. He said he would have liked to have read them, but he just couldn’t. He meant that he literally could not read them, because, like a lot of men born when he was, where he was, he never learnt to read or write very well. He wasn’t embarrassed by that – but he was disappointed because it had limited him.
He ran a successful small business but my mum had to send emails on his behalf.
I imagine my dad would have been quite thrilled, had the technology been available, to sit down and write messages to his customers and friends, just by talking to his phone.
How many people are there around the world who would benefit from being able to communicate electronically but can’t because they can’t type, or read, or write all that well?
What if 5G could help fix that?
Perhaps they could write a resume to apply for a job?
Maybe they could blog something that inspires others to do good – and starts a social revolution?
Or they could just write a nice letter to a distant friend.
"I believe we will see a genuine, society-changing shift"
These dictation changes are just around the corner, waiting for 5G to make them possible. Google and Apple have both started baking dictation into the operating systems. – expect to hear a lot more about ‘studio quality’ microphones in the coming years, even on lower cost devices – because you can speed up your internet connections as much as you like, but it won’t help much if the microphones suck.
When all the pieces are in place, the next step will surely be accurate, real-time translation.
Bringing down barriers
This is where I believe we will see a genuine, society-changing shift.
What will it mean for world peace if we can all instantly understand each other – from the soldier facing a hostile enemy to leaders discussing issues? I’m sure you can conjure up pictures of politicians talking to each other via interpreters, as they try to prevent or resolve a crisis. The conversations always look awkward, don’t they? How much easier will it be to build trust, friendships and rapport, when the translation becomes invisible?
It’s not hard to imagine that, one day, not that far in the future, an Icelander, a German, and a Canadian will walk into a bar, and it will not be the start of a joke. They’ll sit down and – even though they don’t share a common language – they will happily chat away, their phones busily picking up their words, sending them off to fast CPUs in ‘the cloud' which convert into text, then translated into the others’ languages, fire them back across the internet where they are spoken into their new friends’ earpieces.
"A renaissance in art and science could blossom"
In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams invented a device that did “instant translation” that he called the babel fish. You popped one in your ear and instantly you could chat with everyone, not matter what language they spoke, provided they also had a babel fish on board.
Who knows how much easier commerce will be when the babel fish software is quietly running on all our devices? It’s easier to trade with folk you can talk to – there are a lot more people to talk to, to start with. And will it make those offshore support calls simpler and smoother?
Will this technology make it easier for workers to move globally, and if so, how will that change the way we think and behave. The deeper immersion in different cultures and societies could bring about radical new ways of thinking, thanks to the enhanced cross-pollination of ideas. A renaissance in art and science could blossom thanks to this instant understanding. Productivity could rocket as global commerce becomes more efficient.
Because this is the yardstick for the success of any technology – will it improve our lives and make things easier? When it comes to 5G, I’m excited to see whether my predictions become a reality, and just how many other bottlenecks this game-changing communications tool will unlock.
About Clarke Ching
Clarke Ching (aka “The Bottleneck Guy”) is a writer and consultant who specialises in the Theory of Constraints. He has advised many businesses on how to improve their productivity and has written several books on the subject, including The Bottleneck Rules and Rolling Rocks Downhill.
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