Looking up to a sustainable future for the ICT industry (Opinion)

Written by Guo Ping, Rotating Chairman at Huawei Technologies

The global digital economy is developing rapidly and over 50 percent of the world’s GDP is expected to be digitalised in 2022, as demand for digital products and services continues to surpass expectations.

According to the Digital Economy Report 2021 prepared by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), data flows and digital technologies, such as data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and other Internet-based services are evolving exponentially.

However, supply is a different story. In the recent movie Don’t Look Up, the world faces a major catastrophe that it prefers to ignore. For the ICT industry as a whole to see the future, we have to look up: above the politics, above the partisanship and all the rhetoric. Let’s look up and ahead to find the suitable way forward.

In my view, digitalisation and carbon neutrality are key issues that will impact the global ICT industry for years to come.

While 3G and 4G technologies seem to be sufficient today, they may not be enough to effectively run the applications of the future. It will therefore be advisable for countries with nascent mobile broadband infrastructures to directly leapfrog the stages of ancient technologies and focus on 5G deployment, where funding and technical capacities are available.

This debate on capacities and the modular structure of ICT infrastructure is anchored not just on practical usage of the systems and equipment but also on the training that our people will need to undergo, including assessing the foundational theories they learn in school.

These theories will be challenged as user experiences demand better equipment and faster communicative capabilities. So, we as an industry, must explore and build new theories and architectures to achieve digital sustainability beyond such foundations as Shannon’s Theorem and Von Neumann Architecture.

The reality is that channel capacity is approaching its upper limit. Therefore, we need to explore theories and technologies, like next-generation multi-input multi-output (MIMO) and artificial intelligence (AI) powered wireless networks, which will get us ever closer to the Shannon Limit.

At the same time, we must study new theories like semantic communications to build on Shannon’s work. This will create new horizons for development within the information and communications industry.

With these in mind, it is important for players to significantly increase their strategic investment into foundational technologies.

We need to work with our partners to reshape our technological paradigm to fit these expectations, including finding better fundamental theories, building stronger architecture and robust software. I see these as imperatives that will support the long-term, sustainable development of the ICT industry.

It is still challenging to achieve high-frequency, ultra-large-bandwidth, and ultra-high-speed wireless communications. And so, we must proactively explore new technologies to reshape the architecture of our equipment.

For example, we need to integrate photonic and electronic technologies to solve key problems and the technique bottlenecks facing semiconductor chips.

Computing architecture also poses challenges since AI and big data applications are developing at breakneck speeds, yet the traditional, CPU-centred computing architectures are struggling to keep up.

We need to design peer-to-peer architectures that utilise the full potential of graphics processing units (GPUs) and network processing units (NPUs) to support global AI development.

This will be important in a future where 5G technology is expected to gain prominence. As has been witnessed over the last decade, Africa, for instance, saw its mobile broadband penetration grow 20 times from 2010 to 2020 and is expected to gather steam across all continents in the coming years.

We have to rethink our approach to software as AI is growing at an explosive rate, significantly driving up demand for computing capacity. However, hardware development is slowing down.

In response, we have to massively improve software performance and double the performance of key success indicators, like the number of wireless cells and scheduled users. For the ICT industry, an AI-centred, full-stack software refactoring will definitely create all sorts of new opportunities for several players and users.

We need to invest even more in optimising system architecture and doubling software performance. We hope to build a highly reliable and trustworthy supply chain by overcoming technique and technological challenges.

We know that great user experience comes from software-hardware synergies and are applying this concept to ICT products. The idea is to use optimised algorithms to consume less energy and improve performance of all ICT equipment. I am confident that this level of sustained investment in foundational technologies will improve the industry.

Our industry also faces challenges regarding carbon neutrality. Over the last 10-plus years, telephony and other communication networks have evolved in the process of introducing the latest IT practices. It is important that we continue to pay attention to carbon emissions as we improve digital infrastructure capabilities.

One project that I participated in evaluating showed that detailed monitoring of global environmental data could create carbon emissions equivalent to 12.5 percent of today’s total. Further digitalisation will result in increasing carbon emissions.

ICT has been shown previously to increase the relative carbon footprint of other industries. So, in the coming future, the industry must buck this trend and work to reduce their carbon footprints, which in many cases is 10 times larger than its own footprint.

The rule of thumb is that the strength of the digital economy is roughly equal to connectivity density multiplied by computing power. Now we need stronger computing power, it will be paramount that the ICT industry maintains a sense of long-term vitality.

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