‘Wireless-enabled applications will give humans superpowers’

21 May 2021

Dr Holger Claussen. Image: Maxwell Photography

Dr Holger Claussen foresees a future where humans will gain capabilities such as x-ray vision or instant access to specialist knowledge through wireless communications.

As head of the newly established Wireless Communications Laboratory from Tyndall National Institute, Dr Holger Claussen has set out to invent the future of machine and human communications.

Tyndall’s first research facility outside Cork, the new lab is currently based in Connect, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for future networks and communications, hosted at Trinity College Dublin.

Claussen joined Tyndall in December 2020 to create this lab and lead it to breakthroughs in wireless communications. His research career began at the prestigious Bell Labs and, during his near-20 years there, he built up a world-class team laying the foundation for many next-generation communications products. In particular, Claussen has been lauded for his work in small cells (low-powered cellular radio access nodes with shorter range than larger macro-cells) and self-managing networks.

Now, he intends to bring wireless communications into the 21st century, exploring the potential next-generation technologies such as AI and quantum systems will bring to the internet of things, Wi-Fi and the advent of 6G networks.

‘Wireless networks will bridge the divide between the emerging digital, physical and biological worlds’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Being able to instantly communicate and interact with someone on the other side of the world has something magical about it.

During my PhD with Bell Labs I learned to focus on the paradigm-shifting ideas that transform the future of humanity and technology rather than looking at incremental improvements. This was really exciting and after 20 years I still enjoy this type of research every day.

I find research in wireless communications particularly interesting as it intersects with many areas including physics, artificial intelligence, robotics, computing and software, and it is broadly applicable to enabling improvements in many aspects of our lives.

What research are you currently working on?

We are currently at an inflection point where machines and real-time applications will be the main driver for the evolution of future wireless networks. This will lead to significantly different requirements such as reliable low-latency communication, and operation in different environments ranging from factories to liquids, in-body applications and more. This makes the design of future wireless communications even more challenging.

To design these future networks, we need research breakthroughs in multiple areas. Novel radio front-ends that are compact and ultra-flexible including operation in THz frequencies. Fully programmable and AI-defined radio access networks to automatically adapt the network to the specific requirements of future applications. And new protocols that can utilise multiple parallel wireless connections to provide end-to-end reliability and latency guarantees over unreliable wireless links.

Tyndall’s new Wireless Communications Laboratory will address these fundamental research challenges and invent key technologies that shape the future of wireless communications networks. And advances in AI and quantum systems will be key enablers for these solutions.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Everyone can relate to the need for faster Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, particularly now when many people are relying on fast and reliable networks to be able to work from home. In the future, wireless communications will be even more important.

Wireless networks will bridge the divide between the emerging digital, physical and biological worlds providing instant access to all information and near-infinite computing resources for both humans and machines. They will enable the creation of digital twins of machines or processes that are wirelessly synchronised with the physical world, allowing us to predict the future and prevent problems before they occur. In addition, wireless-enabled real-time applications using AR and VR will give humans new capabilities akin to ‘superpowers’ such as x-ray vision or instant access to specialist knowledge – for example, to fly a plane.

As a result, wireless communications will become a critical enabler for much of our daily lives. It will be at the heart of the future economy, essential for many industries including IT, manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture, transport, maritime and more.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Real-time communications will significantly improve the way we can work and interact with our friends and colleagues all over the world. Location will be less important, which will give us more freedom with regard to where to live and work.

Future ultra-reliable low-latency wireless networks are also a key enabler for robotics – in particular, when multiple robots collaborate. This will automate many aspects of our lives and will allow us to focus on more interesting and high-value tasks.

Another application area is industry 4.0 and enabling a fully automated factory. Fixed communication links will be replaced by wireless communication which is much more cost-effective and flexible. Examples include connectivity for mobile factory robots, monitoring and control of systems, digital twins of machines and processes, augmented reality and localisation. This will allow smart factories to rapidly changeover production lines, shorten lead times, and operate much more efficiently.

In addition, there is an increasing demand for wireless communications in the healthcare sector. Examples include remote surgery or in-body communications, which could underpin medical implants. This could have implications for health monitoring, restoring sight or hearing, or developing an artificial heart or robotic arm. Such profound advances will enable us to live longer and healthier lives. In the future, applications could even go beyond restoring our health to augmenting our physical and mental capabilities.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in wireless communications?

There are significant technical challenges. Achieving 100 times more capacity and reliable low-latency communication in the increasingly congested wireless frequency spectrum at the same cost as today is a very hard problem to solve. It requires fundamental advances in a number of research areas. Solving some of those challenges, however, also makes for very interesting and rewarding work.

A second challenge is that there is often resistance to change. Getting new innovations adopted is sometimes more challenging than creating them, particularly when new approaches disrupt established solutions or business models.

One example was our work on small cells at Bell Labs, where initially the wireless business unit was concerned that the lower-cost small cells would destroy the profitable market for macro-cells. However, it was clear that macro-cells could not provide the exponential increase in capacity required. A few years later, we were the world leader in small cells which contributed significantly to the capacity growth over the last decade. And macro-cells continue to be important to provide coverage.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

In addition to the traditional communications topics, the two areas where I see significant potential are artificial intelligence and quantum systems. Advances in these areas will not only have a high impact in creating the next-generation wireless communications networks, but they are much more broadly applicable to other areas as well – including healthcare, financial services, manufacturing, agriculture, environmental modelling and many more.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.