The telecom industry is completing the global rollout of fifth-generation (5G) networks. Still, it is already looking ahead to the next stage of development, wisely called 6G.
The deployment of 6G networks will take what already feels like unprecedented speeds and capabilities of 5G networks to the next level. Given the demand for robust data transfer at rapid speeds to run artificial intelligence (AI) — and the ability to use AI to optimize communication networks, 6G and AI will converge in many ways.
What are the potential synergies between 6G and AI? How might they shape the future of connectivity and automated technologies?
The Evolution of Connectivity: From 5G to 6G
The commercial rollout of 5G technology started in 2019 in South Korea, China, and the U.S. there were more than 1 billion connections by the end of 2022, according to the GSM Association industry group.
The super-fast speeds, low latency, capacity for simultaneous connections, and increased security that 5G enables are starting to facilitate new smart device and robotics applications across industries — from communications, manufacturing, and transportation to healthcare, education, and entertainment.
But while 5G connections provide the capacity to usher in a new era of communication powered by the Internet of Things (IoT), 6G offers vast potential.
This is because 6G technology is expected to support up to 10 million IoT devices per square kilometer – a tenfold increase from the 1 million limit for 5G — and a massive increase over 4 G’s limit of around 2,000 devices per square kilometer.
While the 5G rollout has been slower than expected – partly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic – businesses are anticipating the potential for 6G to create new opportunities. The specific standards for 6G networks are still being developed. Still, it is expected to use a higher frequency spectrum and offer terabit-per-second speeds, lower latency, and broader connectivity than 5G, enabling advanced sensor capabilities in IoT devices.
The first 6G networks could be deployed in 2028, with services becoming commercially available by 2030.
“This year, we’ve seen very significant progress—the first tangible moves based on the concept,” said Peter Vetter, President of industrial research company Nokia Bell Labs.
The Role of AI in a 6G World
“AI is expected to play a very big role in 6G, both in terms of running the network and the services delivered on the network,” according to Tim O’Farrell, Chair Professor of Wireless Communications at the University of Sheffield.
In terms of new applications, the ultra-low latency of 6G connectivity will enable AI applications to be processed closer to the network edge. This will allow AI algorithms to retrieve and process large volumes of data and provide rapid responses, allowing for real-time decision-making critical for autonomous vehicles, remote surgeries, and augmented and virtual reality experiences.
AI-powered devices such as IoT sensors, smart drones, and robots will be able to communicate more effectively with minimal delay, making them more reliable and efficient in applications from agriculture to healthcare.
“Integrating sensing capabilities and native support for artificial intelligence will turn a mobile network from a mere connectivity infrastructure to a full-fledged application enablement platform. This will provide significant value-add and further accelerate the digital transformation of our economy and society,” according to Andreas Mueller, Project Director of 6G at Bosch.
Technology companies such as Nokia are exploring the concept of “Network as a Sensor”, which will bring together the digital and physical worlds. Sensors will be fully integrated into 6G networks to operate simultaneously with communication services. This will allow people to gather information about their surroundings and interact with objects at a distance.
How AI and 6G May Evolve
- Healthcare: Biological sensors connected to 6G networks will allow professionals to monitor patients in real time. Digital twinning will enable researchers to test new treatments in virtual environments before conducting complete clinical trials, accelerating the development process and reducing costs.
- Manufacturing: Industrial facilities can use connected devices to increase safety and efficiency. Enhanced sensing technologies and IoT devices will create real-time digital twins of facilities in a digital environment, providing greater remote control of machinery.
- Transportation: Real-time data exchange over 6G connections will enable communication between vehicles, infrastructure, pedestrians, and other road users based on data from onboard sensors and other vehicles, which AI algorithms will process to help vehicles and infrastructure adapt to traffic conditions, reduce congestion, and enhance safety.
- Agriculture: Farmers will be able to use environmental sensors to monitor crop systems and weather patterns, helping them to maximize crop yields.
While 6G will enable new applications, AI will also play a fundamental role in managing and optimizing complex 6G connectivity to ensure network performance.
How Can AI Optimize 6G Networks?
AI and machine learning (ML) will be able to enhance 6G networks by creating a dynamic “air interface” that will continually adapt to network conditions to find the most efficient transmission routes for devices to communicate.
“AI can improve the capacity of the mobile radio system by immediately learning the channel and adapting to the channel, and do that 30% better than a state-of-the-art technology,” according to Vetter.
In this way, AI can use neural networks to replace human network design. AI could also optimize the network power consumption by turning components on and off based on real-time operating conditions.
In 5G networks, applications can operate at the base station level to optimize power-intensive components such as power amplifiers when they are not in use. AI can extend this to analyze large amounts of data and quickly solve challenges to optimize city-wide or national networks.
Algorithms could turn off entire base stations during periods of low use and reconfigure cells to respond to demand in real-time and optimize energy use.
Energy efficiency will be an important consideration as 6G drives up data traffic. “Traffic goes up by a factor of 20 to 30 in a decade,” according to Vetter. “At the same time, you don’t want energy consumption to go up by that same order of magnitude.”
However, as with the scale-up of data center capacity, 6G technology will require technological innovation in energy-efficient hardware and algorithms to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
|Convergence of AI and 6G||Description|
|Intelligent Network Management||6G networks will comprise many connected devices and systems. AI will be crucial to managing and optimizing this complexity to ensure seamless network performance. AI-powered network management will allocate resources, predict and limit network congestion, and adapt to user requirements in real-time.|
|Ultra-Low Latency AI||6 G’s ultra-low latency will enable AI algorithms to provide rapid responses for real-time decision-making, which is key for autonomous vehicles, remote surgeries, and augmented and virtual reality.|
|Enhanced Connectivity for AI-Driven Devices||AI-powered devices, such as smart drones, IoT sensors, and robots, will benefit from the advanced connectivity offered by 6G, which will minimize latency-related bottlenecks.|
|AI-Powered Antennas||AI algorithms will enable smart antennas to adapt to changing conditions, optimizing signal strength and quality to enhance overall network performance.|
|AI in Network Security||6 G’s expanded capabilities will require enhanced security measures. AI will help to identify and defend against security threats in real-time to protect users and their data.|
Challenges of Incorporating AI into 6G
While the convergence of AI and 6G offers potential advantages, some concerns must be addressed. Aside from the significant power consumption of AI and 6G networks, privacy and data protection will become increasingly important.
As AI algorithms and models play an increasing role in network management and security, organizations must implement robust security measures and regulations to safeguard user data.
As AI systems become more integrated into 6G networks, ensuring ethical use and decision-making will also become a key challenge, requiring AI governance frameworks and regulations.
The convergence of AI technology and 6G connectivity will help industries and individuals to unlock the full potential of ultra-fast, low-latency networks. AI and ML algorithms will help to optimize 6G communication, while 6G will pave the way for new intelligent, efficient, and responsive AI-powered applications.
The interaction of AI and 6G will also present challenges related to sustainability, privacy, and the ethical use of data that will need to be addressed by organizational awareness and regulatory frameworks.