We need concrete protections from artificial intelligence threatening human rights
Algorithms created to regulate speech online have censored speech ranging from religious content to sexual diversity. AI systems created to monitor illegal activities have been used to track and target human rights defenders. And algorithms have discriminated against Black people when they have been used to detect cancers or assess the flight risk of people accused of crimes. The list goes on.
As researchers studying the intersection between AI and social justice, we’ve been examining solutions developed to tackle AI’s inequities. Our conclusion is that they leave much to be desired.
Ethics and values
Some companies voluntarily adopt ethical frameworks that are difficult to implement and have little concrete effect. The reason is twofold. First, ethics are founded on values, not rights, and ethical values tend to differ across the spectrum. Second, these frameworks cannot be enforced, making it difficult for people to hold corporations accountable for any violations.
Even frameworks that are mandatory — like Canada’s Algorithmic Impact Assessment Tool — act merely as guidelines supporting best practices. Ultimately, self-regulatory approaches do little more than delay the development and implementation of laws to regulate AI’s uses.
And as illustrated with the European Union’s recently proposed AI regulation, even attempts towards developing such laws have drawbacks. This bill assesses the scope of risk associated with various uses of AI and then subjects these technologies to obligations proportional to their proposed threats.
As non-profit digital rights organization Access Now has pointed out, however, this approach doesn’t go far enough in protecting human rights. It permits companies to adopt AI technologies so long as their operational risks are low.
Just because operational risks are minimal doesn’t mean that human rights risks are non-existent. At its core, this approach is anchored in inequality. It stems from an attitude that conceives of fundamental freedoms as negotiable.
So the question remains: why is it that such human rights violations are permitted by law? Although many countries possess charters that protect citizens’ individual liberties, those rights are protected against governmental intrusions alone. Companies developing AI systems aren’t obliged to respect our fundamental freedoms. This fact remains despite technology’s growing presence in ways that have fundamentally changed the nature and quality of our rights. A side event at the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly on New Tech and Human Rights.
Our current reality deprives us from exercising our agency to vindicate the rights infringed through our use of AI systems. As such, “the access to justice dimension that human rights law serves becomes neutralised”: A violation doesn’t necessarily lead to reparations for the victims nor an assurance against future violations, unless mandated by law.
But even laws that are anchored in human rights often lead to similar results. Consider the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which allows users to control their personal data and obliges companies to respect those rights. Although an important step towards more acute data protection in cyberspace, this law hasn’t had its desired effect. The reason is twofold.
First, the solutions favoured don’t always permit users to concretely mobilize their human rights. Second, they don’t empower users with an understanding of the value of safeguarding their personal information. Privacy rights are about much more than just having something to hide.
These approaches all attempt to mediate between both the subjective interests of citizens and those of industry. They try to protect human rights while ensuring that the laws adopted don’t impede technological progress. But this balancing act often results in merely illusory protection, without offering concrete safeguards to citizens’ fundamental freedoms.
To achieve this, the solutions adopted must be adapted to the needs and interests of individuals, rather than assumptions of what those parameters might be. Any solution must also include citizen participation.
Legislative approaches seek only to regulate technology’s negative side effects rather than address their ideological and societal biases. But addressing human rights violations triggered by technology after the fact isn’t enough. Technological solutions must primarily be based on principles of social justice and human dignity rather than technological risks. They must be developed with an eye to human rights in order to ensure adequate protection.
One approach gaining traction is known as “Human Rights By Design.” Here, “companies do not permit abuse or exploitation as part of their business model.” Rather, they “commit to designing tools, technologies, and services to respect human rights by default.”
This approach aims to encourage AI developers to categorically consider human rights at every stage of development. It ensures that algorithms deployed in society will remedy rather than exacerbate societal inequalities. It takes the steps necessary to allow us to shape AI, and not the other way around.
Karine Gentelet, Professeure et titulaire de la Chaire Abeona-ENS-OBVIA en intelligence artificielle et justice sociale, Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) and Sarit K. Mizrahi, Ph.D. in Law Candidate, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa
In the wake of massive IoT, digitalisation is no longer an if, but a how
Cyril Deschanel, Managing Director at Tele2 IoT
IoT is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with the advent of 5G and LPWAN (low-power, wide-area networks) opening the door to massive IoT for businesses. It’s no longer about just trying IoT – we’re well past that. We are now at the stage where we know how to lay the IoT foundation and then successfully build upon it – but the big question continues to be asked: how can I use IoT technology to further improve my business?
Digitalisation of companies combined with technology advances within IoT, such as 5G and LTE-M, means we are entering the age of massive IoT. And while the talk around connecting things and cost control will continue, as IoT continues to mature we are increasingly answering the bigger questions for our customers: what factors will help their IoT solution succeed? What is their strategy? What kind of customer support do they need?. You need to understand what you’re measuring and why, as well as what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to do that.
If we look at use cases around, for example, traditional monitoring and tracking, LTE-M offers cost efficiency, and enables customers to assemble large volumes of data, which in turn can be used for predictive maintenance. Data streams also make it possible to remotely steer, for example, snowploughs, or delivery droids, such as Foodora’s Doora. The potential goes beyond that, though – in the future 5G and IoT technology will enable remote mining and even doctors performing operations remotely.
In light of these examples, let’s look at the bigger picture: IoT deployments can easily transform into a sophisticated spiderweb, with multiple use cases or multiple consumption models. In the 5G era even a hotel might need the highest speed and lowest latency connectivity besides LPWA sensors. Although everything seems to be connected via similar looking SIMs, to be able to orchestrate such different use cases you need a powerful connectivity management platform with advanced automation capabilities. Moreover, you might want to integrate the connectivity management platform into your analytics tools or customer self-service portals in order to provide self service capabilities to the end user of your service or products. This would require a state-of-the-art API set up with the smartest design.
Or perhaps you would like to explore new business models? For example, you might want to transform your capex model surveillance camera solution into a recurring revenue model by adding value. Being able to connect anywhere – even without cable infrastructure – can be attractive to your customers. You might enable an additional revenue stream via connectivity as well. In such servitisation attempts, IoT would certainly be the main player at the heart of the transformation.
IoT is about understanding strategies that work and the tools you need, such as how the right connectivity platform benefits you, the role roaming plays, and how having access to a dedicated internet network operations centred (INOC) can make all the difference – because when you face challenges, having all the pieces of the puzzle in place can mean the difference between a successful resolution or continued problems. This means it is critical to have the right service and support from your provider, because your IoT capabilities rely on your ability to organise and implement with speed and precision.
Having shipped more than eight million SIMs worldwide, we’ve been in the IoT game for nearly a decade, and while other IoT organisations are simply a part of a larger offering, Tele2 IoT has always been and continues to be devoted to one thing and one thing only: IoT. In our organisation, everyone and everything is geared to not just implement IoT, but to laser focus on offering support, knowledge and expertise at any stage of our customer’s IoT journey. Customer support, solution consultants, the right connectivity platform, which roaming package is right for you, how to implement the right level of security – these are all areas where you need a trusted partner and friendly expert who can guide and advise you.
IoT is a fast-growing industry, and we are proudly outperforming that growth year after year. Besides having a dedicated IoT organisation, what makes us the fastest growing IoT vendor in Scandinavia is our ability to generate value through and for our partners. Our horizontal structure enables us to work with the most capable partners in the industry. Together we are addressing all layers of the IoT value chain, and with our combined expertise we are bringing the most suitable end-to-end IoT solutions to our customers.
You can learn more about how Tele2 IoT can enable your business here.
Embracing IoT in UK business
If organisations look beyond initial barriers to IoT adoption, they can unlock a new realm of improved productivity and efficiency
Maintenance issues can quite accurately make or break business operations. For manufacturers, this is the reason why utilising the ever-growing IoT means they are able to accelerate smart manufacturing and rapidly improve their processes. IoT can help augment a number of different business operations, from customer experience to process maintenance. In manufacturing, artificial intelligence and IoT applications can efficiently deal with various operations, from predictive monitoring and preventative maintenance through to optimising equipment performance, quality control in production and even the much talked about human-to-machine interaction. All of this encompasses a reduction in product cycle time and greater efficiency through reduced downtime.
So why is it that adoption of these technologies is slower in the UK?
There is an argument that it is the public sector that is causing the backlash of IoT adoption, due to a requirement to provide a strong return on investment. But in the manufacturing industry, the downtime reduction alone is a clear return.
One good theory is the idea of lack of infrastructure throughout the UK. IoT adoption required brilliant communication systems, fast speed, reliable networks and, in many cases, 5G connectivity with its boasted minimal latency. However, it doesn’t appear that sufficient investment has been made to support these areas.
Throughout the UK, the most significant IoT advances have been made by both the healthcare and military sectors. Through patient monitoring and remote monitoring hospital check-ups, the NHS is becoming a pioneer for this technology.
Another barrier to entry sometimes can be the time lag in visualising the return. Many IoT development projects can sometimes take time and involve workforce upskilling and higher initial costs. On average, IoT projects take around two to five years, and for many organisations this is a tough investment to make. However, this can be down to the lack of expertise and confidence among executives and board members who are the decision-makers for these technologies. Often, it is the person on the shop floor who can really feel the benefit from these technologies, but they are not the decision-maker – causing a lack of connection.
It is essential that the industry is reassured that using IoT will most certainly improve processes, and the speed at which it is developing is now even reducing the security vulnerability factors. Another concern from many businesses surrounds privacy and security constraints.
To ensure more projects deliver the benefits they are looking for, UK organisations need to plan ahead to address current and future challenges. Connectivity must be meticulously considered from the get-go to ensure that issues along the way don’t impede the ultimate rollout.
It is essential that upper management and executives understand the impact of high device volumes from a cost and resource perspective, ensuring greater visibility across security, maintenance and performance monitoring. They must seek to create a more efficient working environment for their workforce through these technologies in order to successfully realise a return on investment.
Of course, along with infrastructure, an investment in IoT security will become increasingly critical and must also be understood to be as reliable as older security systems.
Overall, the UK is continuing to build momentum around the IoT. Yet there is still much to do to progress to faster, wider, large-scale adoption. If organisations are able to understand that maximising the value of IoT-generated data will help future-proof projects, growth can be unparalleled.
To learn what other UK organisations are doing on their journey through IoT technologies, visit gambica.org.uk
by Nikesh Mistry, Sector Head – Industrial Automation, Gambica
HGV driver shortage: remote-controlled lorries could prevent future logistical nightmares
The current HGV driver shortage is the latest chapter in the UK’s supply chain jitters, disrupting wholesale food delivery, cancelling bin collections and leading to the panic buying of fuel. While there is a good chance the country will overcome this temporary problem, the driver shortage is calling into question the long-term viability of logistical transportation on the roads.
One intuitive long-term solution to future HGV driver shortages is to take the driver out of the driver’s seat altogether. Self-driving car technology, which can also be applied to HGVs, promises to bring about substantial change to how we transport people and goods. But, despite advances in automation technology and operational techniques, self-driving vehicles remain distrusted and difficult to build.
One possible solution sits at the very interface of technology with the human: teleoperation, or the replacement of the behind-the-wheel driver with a combination of automation technology and remote-controlled human oversight. We’re involved in work that’s trialling this approach as a more realistic, less distant solution to crises in road logistics in the coming years.
There has long been a desire to create intelligent and autonomous HGV solutions. Over a decade ago, the Safe Road Trains for The Environment project set out to understand the feasibility of road trains, or “platoons”, to address not only HGV emissions and traffic congestion, but also to enhance logistical efficiency and driver comfort.
In this case, the lead vehicle in the platoon controls all the vehicles behind it, with a necessary gap maintained and altered when other vehicles pass between them. The trailing vehicles require less human input, but the driver still remains in the loop – and in the cabin. That driver would still require HGV training, which doesn’t help during driver shortages
A more realistic and potentially labour-saving solution comes in the form of remote-controlled HGVs. The notion of remotely controlling systems isn’t new – it dates back to the late 19th century, when the electrical engineer Nikola Tesla trialled an unmanned torpedo boat controlled by radio waves. The same basic technology has been used for decades to drive toy-sized vehicles.
Of course, teleoperating road vehicles won’t be the same as controlling a shoebox-sized car. It will take advantage of advances in vehicular automation while still maintaining an element of remote human control over a wireless link. As such, HGV teleoperation can realise the benefits of automation – in terms of scale and reliability – while also taking advantage of human vigilance, enhancing their safety.
Some training would still be involved in this solution, but teleoperation has two key labour benefits. First, the human overseer could feasibly be located anywhere, reducing disruption when drivers are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s also possible that, with continued improvements, trained drivers could oversee more than one HGV at a time – enabling fleets to require fewer human operators.
Teleoperation is currently being trialled up in north-east England, where a 40-tonne HGV is being piloted over a 5G communication network. The £4.8 million project is funded by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to realise the benefits of cutting-edge technological developments in both telecommunication and vehicular teleoperation. Such a combination of emerging technologies could result in optimal route planning, reduced emissions, reduced labour movement and safer journeys.
At present, the teleoperated lorry is being put through its paces at the Nissan test track in Sunderland as part of a “last mile delivery” system – transporting goods on the final, shortest leg of their journey – to support manufacturing logistics. It’s a fitting example of how human effort can be relieved from the most intensive stage of the logistical chain.
To bring this vision to reality, the retailer Wilko recently made a £3 million investment into StreetDrone – one of the key partners with us on the teleoperated HGV project. StreetDrone is now aiming to bring this technology to UK roads by the end of 2023, albeit initially in smaller vehicles than HGVs.
Safety and security
Such reliance on technology, however, brings about a different set of challenges. Chief among them are security threats posed to the system itself which, like any other digital system, is vulnerable to hacks.
The integration of 5G communication, remote control and a vehicle into one system opens the door to possible manipulation. Developers of teleoperated HGVs know they must be mindful of ransomware attacks by ordinary criminals, or more sophisticated attacks to critical infrastructure by aggressive nation states.
As part of the teleoperated HGV project, Coventry University is spearheading an extensive cyber-threat analysis and risk assessment to address these threats. Our work is attempting to understand the nature of potential hacks and cyber-attacks, building the defences that will ensure the vehicle’s safety and security when released on public roads.
Ultimately, as with self-driving technology, a major obstacle to the deployment of remote-controlled HGVs is public distrust. The general public is already concerned about the safe manoeuvring of autonomous vehicles – add in the potential for them to be hijacked or deactivated on the roads, and distrust could be a major impediment in the adoption of vehicular teleoperation.
Technology undoubtedly has to be a part of any future solution to overcoming our transport and logistics issues, including driver shortages. And if full autonomy is too uncertain a solution for our society, perhaps we need to “teleoperate” our way into the future instead: automating where possible while keeping a sharp, human eye on the road ahead.
How to make more time and money from your manufacturing operation
2020 will see a further increase in the deployment of industrial digital technologies within UK manufacturing operations. These technologies can help manufacturers address some of their pain-points and create new gains for their customers, shareholders and workers.
Let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of excitement or promotion around so-called Industry 4.0 technologies such as the internet of things, robotics and automation, machine learning, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
Cutting through all the jargon, we at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (the IET) would like to de-mystify some of the hype that beckons you to jump on the “digital bandwagon”, particularly if you are a small or medium-sized enterprise owner, manager or investor.
How will any of this improve the things that really matter?
At any one time, there are a myriad of issues facing SME manufacturers, many of them completely beyond your control. The challenges are many, varied and specific to each firm and its niche or sector. And it’s no secret that with challenges come opportunities too!
• Lack of visibility
• Skills and staff shortages
• Fulfilling customer orders
• Rising costs, such as energy
• Productivity improvements
• Product quality/consistency
• Machine downtime
• Power outages
• Legacy premises and old equipment not fit for purpose
• Retaining existing customers
• Getting paid on time
• Keeping a constant flow
• Prototyping costs and time
• Too much time spent firefighting
• Winning new orders
• Time to market taking too long
• Matching capacity to demand
• Limited funds for CAPEX
• Supply chain issues
Industry 4.0 technologies won’t necessarily solve any of these issues for you outright, but they will enable you to hone in on and quantify solutions to those things you can directly inspire, inform and influence. Harvesting, analysing and acting on the right data in real time offers increased speed and ability to address your pain points within the business and lies at the very heart of Industry 4.0.
Why should I even spend time thinking about all this?
Fundamentally, there are two reasons. First, reduced costs. Your operating costs should fall and your available time should rise as a result of using the right digital tools within your business.
Second, that you should stay ahead. It’s likely that many of your competitors, collaborators and clients may well be exploring or increasing their use of digital technologies within their businesses. Stay in the game, get yourself up to speed and avoid getting left behind by innovating before they do.
Where do I start?
Set your sights high but start with a grounded view. Don’t spend money on “digital”, if you haven’t already optimised your “physical”. The adage remains: get lean, then get digital. You need to find out what’s really happening within your manufacturing operation, or as we say, create a single version of the truth. To do this you will need to digitally connect your existing machines and information systems across the business.
This used to be the privilege of big businesses that could afford expensive bespoke programmes to connect their systems. The new digital tools bring such connectivity between systems such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) within the grasp of any SME.
To complete this task, it’s likely that you will need to add some simple and relatively inexpensive sensors to your existing machines (at the cost of a few pounds) and some new connecting protocols to your network.
To do this and make sense of the data generated, you may need to get help. Challenge your new apprentices or latest recruits to work with your champion on this. Failing that, try contacting your local further education college, university engineering department, equipment supplier or catapult centre.
Having gained a better understanding of the key factors at play within the business, you’ll be in a much better position to shine the spotlight on those parts of your operation which require deeper examination, and that will give you savings and increased flexibility. It’s vital to act on these insights of your operation and reap the rewards before moving forward to the more advanced steps where you will need to invest your hard-earned cash on further technology.
As anyone who has ever been through a new ERP or control system implementation knows, there is no point at all in digitising poor productivity (at best) or digitising chaos (at worst).
Creating new gains
Industry 4.0 is all about taking your existing human capital, shop floor equipment and back office systems and connecting these valuable assets, giving you a clearer and faster view of your world, and enabling your team to save money and time, invest your savings in the right technology at the right time with clear return on investment, and spend more time with your existing and new customers to grow your business.
by John Patsavellas, Senior Lecturer, Cranfield University and expert panel member at the Institution of Engineering and Technology
Best in CLASS: the future of electricity distribution
As one of the world’s leading electricity distribution network operators, Electricity North West is on the front row in the race towards decarbonisation.
Electricity North West is responsible for maintaining and upgrading 13,000km of overhead power lines and more than 44,000km of underground electric cables serving residents and businesses in north-west England.
It operates one of the most reliable networks in the world and has earned a reputation for cutting-edge innovation too. The company is currently developing a £2 billion investment plan up to 2028 to keep it ahead of the pack.
The cornerstone of those plans is in making sure that the network helps the region and the UK meet its stretching net-zero targets – and innovation is the answer.
One scheme currently being rolled out throughout the north-west is Customer Load Active System Services (CLASS), a globally recognised project generating interest across three continents.
Costing £10 million to develop, CLASS helps balance electricity grids. Rather than increasing generation to meet peaks in demand, the technology reduces demand by lowering voltage by an imperceptible amount for a short time.
“CLASS makes small reductions in voltage that our customers don’t notice but that can save a significant amount of power for the region and money for our customers,” says Steve Cox, Engineering and Technical Director at Electricity North West. “We’ve deployed CLASS over the past three years and it is now a key part of managing both the regional and UK power grid.
“As the UK continues to decarbonise, we need new technologies to balance customer demand and variable output renewable generation sources such as wind. CLASS is a proven technology, invented in the north-west, which has been successfully used hundreds of times. The need for such technologies will become even more important as we move forward towards a low-carbon future. Even better, CLASS is carbon neutral and no actual energy is used when it is deployed.
“CLASS helps keep customer bills down and reduces the carbon, with no difference in service. It’s a clear win-win. It’s also significantly cheaper than traditional balancing techniques.”
Since rolling out CLASS, Electricity North West has been installing voltage controllers in its substations. Cox also revealed all UK distribution network operators and energy regulator Ofgem are now working together to see how CLASS can be deployed across the country.
Back in August 2019, a mass blackout affected millions of properties throughout the UK. Cox says that had all DNOs used CLASS, not one property would have experienced an outage.
“Traditionally, when networks experience a loss, the generation makes up the difference and turns it up,” he says. “CLASS turns demand down when required, with very small changes that have huge effects.
“The 2019 blackout was a prime example of how beneficial CLASS can be – they are rare, but utilising CLASS would have meant customers wouldn’t have experienced a loss of power.
“As well as keeping the power on, our predictions say that if rolled out nationally, bills could be reduced by £1.50 per year for the next 25 years, which equates to a £1.7 billion saving for 26 million customers.”
Want to know more? Contact us at InnovationTeam@enwl.co.uk
How can service partnerships deliver guaranteed business outcomes?
New service models can help industrymaximise uptime, extend product life cycles, enhance performance and boost energy efficiency.
Service organisations play a vital role in helping industry to run smoothly, reliably and cost-effectively. However, customers could enjoy better value and more sustainable operations by a shift in focus. Instead of the traditional approach of paying for maintenance, repair and replacement operations, they can adopt outcome-based models for guaranteed uptime or energy savings.
Adopting this business model requires a radical rethink of the usual customer and service partner relationship. In particular, we need to establish a collaborative partnership enabled by digital solutions. That means our customers share their objectives, needs and risks so that ABB can develop the best service regime to support them.
Connectivity is key
The advent of digital connectivity provides the infrastructure that makes it possible to offer guaranteed uptime, performance or even energy efficiency. With the pandemic came a seismic shift in the way that services are provided, as in many cases it was simply not possible to send a team of engineers to site.
There has been a great deal of interest from industrial customers seeking ways to make their operations more robust and reliable. Essentially, they want to protect themselves against the risk of any similar crisis. Implementing remote services is the solution, as it enables remote support for the repair of existing equipment, as well as installation and commissioning. Not only does this ensure business continuity, but it also reduces travel time as well as health and safety risks.
Service partnerships deliver outcome-based business models
Customers can realise many benefits by replacing outdated run-to-failure business models and price-driven, win-lose procurement exercises with trust-based relationships. Their service partner, enabled by digital solutions, is then able to implement a holistic approach to reduce risk, optimise performance and foster innovation. Ultimately, this will also boost sustainability by reducing waste as part of the circular economy and lowering carbon dioxide emissions.
The next step is a new type of service agreement that enables customers to buy agreed levels of uptime, productivity, energy efficiency or some other KPI. We are also seeing the establishment of ecosystems that bring together service providers for the overall success of the customer’s business. They might include insurance companies, financial institutions, and businesses in the cybersecurity, AI and machine-learning fields.
Just one example of an outcome-based business model is a current project for Statkraft, Europe’s largest generator of renewable energy. ABB has been awarded a major turnkey contract to design, manufacture and install two high-inertia synchronous condenser systems for the Lister Drive Greener Grid Park in Liverpool. To ensure round-the-clock availability for this vital system, we have signed a 10-year service contract. In effect, Statkraft is purchasing a guaranteed level of availability or uptime – with maintenance included from ABB.
To offer a guarantee for uptime, we need to monitor our customer’s equipment with our digital solutions and then deliver proactive maintenance to ensure that breakdowns never happen. The benefit is that OEMs like ABB have the in-depth knowledge and expertise in their products. That means they are best placed to optimise the performance and life cycle of their products.
New business models for service are not just about reliability and uptime. They can also enhance sustainability, with energy efficiency being a massive opportunity. Remote monitoring of equipment enables us to see where it is performing well and where it is not as efficient as it could be. For example, electric motors might be uprated to the highest efficiency levels, such as IE5. Inefficient methods of speed control such as throttling might be replaced by variable speed drives that can typically boost energy efficiency by 30 to 50 per cent.
Payback periods for energy efficiency improvements can be as short as one to two years. In some cases, the payback might be five years, which would normally be hard to sell to customers. However, as mentioned previously, we are seeing a greater rethink towards sustainability and carbon neutrality, specifically. With the opportunity to reduce their energy bill and carbon footprint, customers are making investments over much longer periods. Therefore, a five-year payback becomes much less of a barrier.
The establishment of new business models, also known as XaaS (everything as a service), is already well underway in other sectors. The industrial service industry is only at the initial stages, but early adopters are likely to gain an important competitive advantage.
Adrian Guggisberg is Division President of ABB Motion Services.
For more information about ABB Motion Services, visit new.abb.com/service/motion
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM ABB MOTION SERVICES
Nikola Tesla: 5G network could realise his dream of wireless electricity, a century after experiments failed
At the height of his career, the pioneering electrical engineer Nikola Tesla became obsessed with an idea. He theorised that electricity could be transmitted wirelessly through the air at long distances – either via a series of strategically positioned towers, or hopping across a system of suspended balloons.
Things didn’t go to plan, and Tesla’s ambitions for a wireless global electricity supply were never realised. But the theory itself wasn’t disproved: it would have simply required an extraordinary amount of power, much of which would have been wasted.
Now, a research paper has suggested that the architects of the 5G network may have unwittingly built what Tesla failed to construct at the turn of the twentieth century: a “wireless power grid” that could be adapted to charge or power small devices embedded in cars, homes, workplaces and factories.
Because 5G relies upon a dense network of masts and a powerful series of antenna, it’s possible that the same infrastructure, with some tweaks, could beam power to small devices. But the transmission will still suffer from the key drawback of Tesla’s towers: high energy wastage, which may be difficult to justify given the urgency of the climate crisis.
Decades ago, it was discovered that a tightly focused radio beam can transmit power over relatively large distances without using a wire to carry the charge. The same technology is now used in the 5G network: the latest generation of technology to beam internet connection to your phone, via radio waves transmitted from a local antenna.
This 5G technology aims to provide a 1,000-fold capacity increase over the last generation, 4G, to allow up to one million users to connect per square kilometre – making those moments searching for signal at music festivals or sports events a thing of the past.
To support these upgrades, 5G uses some engineering magic, and this magic comes in three parts: very dense networks with many more masts, special antenna technology, and the inclusion of millimetre wave (mmWave) transmission alongside more traditional bands.
The last of these, mmWave, opens up much more bandwidth at the cost of shorter transmission distances. For context, most WiFi routers operate in the 2GHz band. If your router has a 5GHz option, you’ll have noticed that movies stream more smoothly – but you have to be closer to your router for it to work.
Increase the frequency further (like mmWave, which operates at 30GHz or more) and you see even greater improvements in bandwidth – but you need to be closer to the base station to access it. This is why 5G masts are more densely clustered than 4G masts.
The last bit of magic is to add many more antennas - between 128 and 1,024 compared to a much smaller number (just two in some cases) for 4G. Multiple antennas allow masts to form hundreds of pencil-like beams that target particular devices, providing efficient and reliable internet to your phone on the move.
These happen to be the same raw ingredients needed to create a wireless power grid. The increased network density is particularly important, because it opens up the possibility of using mmWave bands to transmit different radio waves which can carry both internet connection and electrical power.
Experimenting with 5G power
The experiments used new types of antenna to facilitate wireless charging. In the laboratory, the researchers were able to beam 5G power over a relatively short distance of just over 2 metres, but they expect that a future version of their device will be able to transmit 6μW (6 millionths of a watt) at a distance of 180 metres.
To put that into context, common Internet of Things (IoT) devices consume around 5μW – but only when in their deepest sleep mode. Of course, IoT devices will require less and less power to run as clever algorithms and more efficient electronics are developed, but 6μW is still a very small amount of power.
That means, for the time being at least, that 5G wireless power is unlikely to be practical for charging your mobile phone as you go about your day. But it could charge or power IoT devices, like sensors and alarms, which are expected to become widespread in the future.
In factories, for instance, hundreds of IoT sensors are likely to be used to monitor conditions in warehouses, to predict failures in machinery, or to track the movement of parts along a production line. Being able to beam power directly to these IoT devices will encourage the move to far more efficient manufacturing practices.
But there will be challenges to overcome before then. To provide wireless power, 5G masts will consume around 31kW of energy – equivalent to 10 kettles constantly boiling water.
Though concerns that 5G technology can cause cancer have been widely debunked by scientists, this amount of power emanating from masts could be unsafe. A rough calculation suggests that users will need to be kept at least 16 metres away from masts to comply with safety regulations set by the US Federal Communications Commission.
That said, this technology is in its infancy. It’s certainly possible that future approaches, such as new antenna with narrower and more targeted beams, could significantly reduce the energy required – and wasted – by each mast.
At present, the proposed system is rather reminiscent of the fictional “Wonkavision” in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which achieved the feat of beaming confectionary into TVs – but had to use a huge block of chocolate to produce a much smaller one at the other end.
Because it’ll consume a high amount of power compared to the power it’ll deliver to devices, 5G wireless power is, for the moment, speculative. But if engineers can find more efficient ways to beam electricity through the air, it may well be that Nikola Tesla’s dream of wireless power could be realised – over 100 years since his attempts failed.