‘Get ready for the 6G era that will be here by 2030’

27 Oct 2021

Julie Byrne. Image: Jason Clarke

Nokia Bell Labs’ Julie Byrne talks about chairing a national conversation around research and the major tech trends she sees coming down the line, from biosensors to 6G.

If the past 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that research and development is critical. Not just research in the area of vaccines or infections or the immune system, but research into areas that affect every corner of society.

It is through research that the some of the world’s greatest minds can help solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

But who decides what areas of research should become priority? Earlier this year, a national campaign was launched asking the people of Ireland to share their thoughts on current research and suggest what they think future research should focus on.

The Creating Our Future campaign will run until the end of November 2021 and is being overseen by an advisory forum, which is chaired by Nokia Bell Labs’ Julie Byrne.

“The starting point for all research is curiosity and ideas,” she told Siliconrepublic.com. “The campaign is an exciting opportunity to connect real-life questions and ideas from our society with our extremely talented research community. And it’s a very real opportunity to influence future research and innovation in Ireland.”

When wearing her other hat, Byrne is head of external collaboration programmes at Nokia Bell Labs, where she brings together the brightest research minds from academic institutions all over the world and researchers within Nokia Bell Labs to collaborate on technology innovations.

Particular focuses include 5G-advanced and 6G technology, augmented intelligence and industrial automation.

These are among some of the biggest tech trends Byrne sees changing the world. “Get ready for the 6G era that will be here by 2030,” she said.

“We will be immersed in new digital worlds, utilising holographic telepresence to brainstorm with our colleagues and socialise with friends and family across the globe. We will have a wealth of robots at our disposal, which will revolutionise industry and also be part of our everyday lives.”

She also sees augmented intelligence being used in biosensors, which could be used to warn us of potential health problems long before symptoms appear. “This next era in communications technology will literally transform how we do almost everything.”

Research in Ireland

Nokia Bell Labs set up its industrial research lab in Ireland in 2004, at a time when Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the predecessors to its current research centres were just getting established.

In the years since, Byrne said Ireland’s research ecosystem has flourished. “Now we have a rich research ecosystem of world-class, publicly funded research centres actively collaborating with international R&D centres and SMEs,” she said.

“In addition, the supports for industry-academic collaboration managed across SFI, Enterprise Ireland and the IDA have enabled an ecosystem that has firmly established Ireland as a hub of technology innovation on the international stage.”

‘Ireland’s rich heritage in the arts can be a unique complement to our tech base in tackling the big societal challenges facing us’

However, while the country is punching well above its weight in terms of reputation, investment is still a challenge – something SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson spoke to Silicon Republic’s Ann O’Dea about recently.

Byrne also cited funding as a major challenge, with Ireland’s gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP sitting below the OECD average.

“Furthermore, as countries worldwide are defining their post-Covid recovery paths, we see increasing public investment in areas such as 6G and related technologies. To remain competitive, we will need to increase funding in our research sector here.”

Aside from funding and investment, Byrne said collaboration can also be a challenge, especially when it comes to solving worldwide problems. But the events of the last 18 months could be helping to address that challenge.

“We’ve seen the power of collaboration in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we need to replicate that approach to address our climate challenges. As science and technology give us the tools to automate our lives and live more sustainably, we need diverse research perspectives to foster our sense of humanity and our community belonging, as we spend increasing amounts of time living in virtual, online worlds,” she said.

“Ireland’s rich heritage in the arts can be a unique complement to our tech base in tackling the big societal challenges facing us, and more collaboration across science and the arts could be a real differentiator.”

Looking to the future

Despite the challenges, bringing a national brainstorm to the table in the form of the Creating Our Future campaign is a major step towards more collaboration in Ireland’s research sector.

Byrne said the campaign is an opportunity to “tap into our collective imagination” and gather a diverse range of ideas that will help researchers explore a better future for society.

“I’m excited about the potential for the new insights that can arise from unexpected conversations between individuals and groups that don’t typically interact with each other, leading to the cross-pollination of ideas that can happen when you bring very diverse perspectives together,” said Byrne.

“For example, when we talk about transforming our peatlands, we should also talk about defining a new peatlands cultural heritage as well as the science, technology and economics of the transformation.”

Byrne said the campaign could have a lasting impact, but only with the broadest possible participation.

“I encourage everyone to participate, and no idea is too big or too small. Every input helps influence future research in Ireland.”

An online portal is currently open for submissions until the end of November.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic