Faster, better, stronger: The next stage of global communications networks

27 Mar 2020523 Views

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Prof Bogdan Staszewski from UCD’s IoE2 Lab looks at the future of global communications, from faster networks and more powerful computing to the challenges of energy and cybersecurity.

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I am an engineer and an engineer’s job is to design new solutions for building and making things. Engineers concern ourselves with what goes on below the surface, with the building blocks that make up the world in which we live and work, which is constantly evolving.

As electrical and electronics engineers, my colleagues and I work in a microscopic world of integrated circuits – the hardware at the deepest level of the networks with which we interact every day and on which we have come to rely.

‘From global communications to the movement of money, we rely on the fast and secure transmission of quintillions of bits of data every day’

Life today revolves around these networks. From global communications to the movement of money, we rely on the fast and secure transmission of quintillions of bits of data every day. And as technological and economic progress is made, there are ever more demands for capacity in these networks, and for ever greater speed, efficiency and security.

The possibilities created by increased connectedness has led to simple but profound challenges. In network terms, how to send the greatest amount of data in the shortest time while reducing the power requirement and cost, is chief among them.

The potential of IoT

Internet of things (IoT) networks are helping to address major societal challenges. Water regulation in agriculture in drought regions such as California, and dyke and canal infrastructure management in the Netherlands are just two examples. The systems – underpinned by networks of sensors and microprocessors, capable of wireless connectivity and energy scavenging – have vastly improved efficiency and delivered numerous benefits.

We are looking to even more advanced applications of these technologies, such as autonomously driven vehicles and robotic surgery. We are designing technology that could either completely replace humans or watch and take over when the driver or surgeon gets too tired or distracted.

We are envisaging vehicles that can communicate among themselves and a traffic coordinator to ensure smooth traffic flow with no need for traffic lights. We are preparing for autonomous operating rooms where robotic surgeons can be directed remotely by human surgeons in another country.

This is technology that could deliver superior and safer performance than error-prone human operation, but which is entirely dependent on unimpeachable network speed, efficiency and security that has not yet been achieved.

It is predicted that connected autonomously driven vehicles will eliminate traffic and accidents. We can imagine insurance premiums going down substantially. Of course, we can also imagine an utter disaster if a hacker was able to sneak into these networks, or if an uplink failed at the wrong moment while crucial information was being transmitted.

Hence, the network must be super fast, super secure and have enough bandwidth.

Research efforts

The view from the core of this technology offers a unique perspective on these challenges. Like physicists and geneticists, electrical and electronics engineers look for answers in ever smaller parts inside our networks.

Energy supply and consumption is at the heart of big societal challenges and so too is it one of the most critical considerations for IoT applications. My colleagues and I in the IoE2 Lab at University College Dublin are currently tackling this problem using the latest nanoscale CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technologies, in pursuit of a common ultra-low-power system-on-chip hardware platform.

This means an integrated computer and electronics system – containing a CPU, memory, and digital, analog, mixed-signal and radio frequency signal processing functions – all on one microchip.

A man in a suit and tie leans on a railing for a headshot against a diamond-shaped backdrop.

Prof Bogdan Staszewski. Image: UCD

As an aside, there’s a lot of interest in radio frequency integrated circuits (RFIC) research now because it offers a huge cost benefit for system-on-chip solutions – and this will only grow along with the pervasiveness of wireless capabilities in electronics.

Success in this research knows no pinnacle, it is just constantly evolving. We started with 1G and 2G wireless communication. Then came 3G and 4G. Nowadays the carriers are installing 5G networks, but researchers are working on 6G even though there is no agreement about what it will be. That’s the journey that makes us all excited.

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The focus will remain on reducing power consumption and increasing performance, so that we can move towards IoT network applications that can perform more and more complex tasks. Power and capacity are key.

Cooperative wireless networks

The need to economise power consumption is well understood, for a variety of practical, environmental and socio-economic reasons. Data, however, is a less familiar commodity in our world, in spite of the volume we generate on a daily basis, almost universally. And IoT is also greatly accelerating the demands for bandwidth in our networks, which in turn creates issues around equality of access and the enabling of future technology.

At IoE2, we’re looking at the problem of so many wireless devices coexisting in extremely congested networks, and the solution is ‘cooperative wireless’.

‘Like physicists and geneticists, electrical and electronics engineers look for answers in ever smaller parts inside our networks’

Cooperative networks are at the foundation of IoT. At the system level, this means algorithms, components and software needed to make them energy and bandwidth-efficient. But at the physical layer beneath, we need hugely flexible nodes that can operate in an intelligent and cooperative manner.

To put this in context, a single ant cannot possibly do anything useful but the whole colony of ants are physically able to lift an elephant if they work in collaboration. Even a simple IoT node can do wonders if connected to a large network.

For instance, Swarm’s constellation of nanosatellites has helped harness the potential of IoT networks and their thousands of devices – and billions of bits of data. Each nanosatellite is small and rather ‘dumb’ but, in collaboration with others, they can execute quite sophisticated tasks – and at a fraction of the cost of existing networks linked to broadband internet satellites.

Security in the age of quantum computing

Of course, enhancing capacity and enabling technology also requires enhanced security, especially as our networks become capable of storing more and more data.

We have found ways to increase security at the sub-system level, by creating tamper-proof ROM (read-only memory) and microchips that cannot be reverse engineered. We make increasingly sophisticated chips and memory that are perfected to be error-free and operable throughout their lifetime without updates or patches.

But the journey to advance and secure our networks has passed beyond the world of microelectronics, into the quantum world – a world of the sub-atomically small. It would be fair to say this is the next real game-changer for ICT and will even surpass the invention of the integrated circuit itself.

While quantum computing will probably remain aloof from most people, the technology arising from its development will have major implications for society and for the evolution of communications and future networks.

‘The eventual growing use of quantum computing will render normal encryption virtually useless, creating the need for a global rewrite of our networks’ security’

In simple terms, by exploiting quantum mechanics, a quantum computer takes mere seconds or minutes to crack an algorithm that classical computers would take lifetimes to crack. The power of this technology is transformational. It underpins the only form of communication that is provably unhackable and uninterceptable, heralding a new age of data security.

However, the development of quantum technologies will drive quantum communication and destabilise traditional networks. While only the military and proverbial Swiss banks have the need of these super secure communications for now, the eventual growing use of quantum computing will render normal encryption virtually useless, creating the need for a global rewrite of our networks’ security.

This technology is only a few years away. And even though the major hype of research remains on quantum computing rather than its application in other fields such as communications, its arrival will profoundly change the world as we know it.

Until then, all the possibilities of our future networks will rely on us building upon current technologies to make the communication pipe bigger and cheaper – making our networks better, faster, with less power.

By Prof Bogdan Staszewski

Prof Bogdan Staszewski is a professor of electronic circuits at the UCD School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. He is part of the IoE2 Lab within the UCD Centre for Internet of Things Engineering and co-founder of Equal1 Labs, conducting research to build the world’s first practical single-chip CMOS quantum computer.