What did we learn from the Tory Party Conference?

In a couple of words; not a lot.

Considering there was the big claim of £5 billion investment into rural broadband, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised a rapid acceleration of fibre investment and 5G is on everyone’s lips, not a huge amount of homage was paid to the telecoms and technology industry.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Brexit is dominating the headlines and politicians seem more interesting in insulting those on the other side of the Commons than addressing actual policies. There were of course passing references to things that matter, but this is the spearhead of the political circus.

Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Leadsom might not hit the headlines for telecoms and technology news that often, but her department is one which we should pay considerable attention to. In a brief address, the message was simple; success in-hand with the Government not in-spite of it. How this works out remains to be seen, there are plenty of sceptics out there.

“We’re standing on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, and for the first time since the first industrial revolution, the UK is positioned to lead in extraordinary new ways,” said Leadsom.

“Those memories shaped my politics, but it was Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a shareholding democracy and her introduction of the right to buy that shaped my personal ambition -and that is to help everybody to build a secure life for themselves and their families.

“So, I want to see a better environment for business, less red tape and lower taxes to incentivise them.”

This is a claim many business leaders will want to see. Lower taxes and less regulation to worry about. What is worth noting, this is a very generalist claim. The telecoms and technology segments are overdue a regulatory overhaul and this will not change because a politician is chasing headlines with a soundbite.

One area which is worth paying attention to is the idea of automation. This segment of the speech was directed more towards autonomous vehicles and drones as opposed to a workforce overhaul, though it could indicate there are some new policies in the pipeline. This Government has been very keen on gaining a leadership position in the growing world of autonomous driving and drone management already, and it would not surprise us to see another incremental step forward soon enough.

Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer

This is the speech many in the telecommunications and technology world would have been paying attention to, and it might well have fallen short of expectations.

Over the weekend, it was reported Javid was going to announce new investment to encourage investment in the UK’s hardest to reach areas. $5 billion to ensure the UK does not create another digital divide which the Government has been working to correct ever since. The investment was confirmed, though little else was offered to add colour to the new policy.

The investment will be used to ensure fibre deployments reach the most difficult 20% of households and businesses throughout the UK. But like his colleagues, Javid elected to concentrate the majority of his speech on a bit of Corbyn-bashing.

One area which could be worth keeping an eye on is the promise to continue the devolution of power throughout England. Although this will please some in the regions, those who seek regulatory consistency will perhaps exhale deeply.

There will of course be regional variances in how regulations are designed and implementing, Cowbridge is very different to London after all, however the risk of devolution is a mix-match of red-tape. Negotiations with hundreds of councils throughout the UK, all of which have their own demands and requirements. It is the stuff of nightmares for a cash-intensive industry.

Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Amazingly, the person with the most relevance had the least to say.

In short, Morgan congratulated the Conservative party for what it had achieved thus-far, quoted figures, promised the UK is the best place in Europe for tech and talked-dirty about the Labour Party leadership.

Perhaps the most meaningless speech of the day.

Key take-aways from today at the Conference

It is difficult to cut through the noise, but we will do our best. A lot of today was hyping the Conservative Party, undermining the Labour Party and chasing headlines.

However, the idea of re-nationalism was consistently attacked. Lesser regulations have been championed. While technology and telecoms will form the central pillars of the UK economy moving forward.

There are a couple of interesting soundbites to take-away from today, and perhaps more than was offered during the Labour Party Conference, but we were hoping for more than posturing. Perhaps that was our short-coming.

Facebook is reading minds while Amazon perfects text-to-speech

A Facebook-funded study has achieved a breakthrough in decoding speech directly from brain signals at the same time as AWS has made automated speech more realistic.

The study funded by the creepily-named Facebook Reality Labs was conducted by San Francisco University. Its findings were published yesterday under the heading ‘Real-time decoding of question-and-answer speech dialogue using human cortical activity’. It claims to have achieved breakthroughs in the accuracy of identifying speech from the electrical impulses in people’s brains.

The clever bit doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual reading of these impulses, but in using algorithms and context to narrow down the range of possible sounds attributable to a given piece of brain activity. This helps distinguish between words comprised of similar sets of sounds and thus improve accuracy, with a key piece of context being the question asked. Thus this breakthrough is as much about AI and machine learning as anything else.

At the same time Amazon Web Services (AWS) has announced a new feature of its Polly text-to-speech managed service. The specific announcement is relatively minor – the ability to give the resulting speech a newsreader style of delivery – but it marks a milestone in the journey to make machine-generated speech as realistic as possible.

When you combine the potential of these two developments, two eventualities spring to mind. The first is an effected cure for muteness without the need for interfaces such as keyboards, which would be amazing. The second is somewhat more ominous, which is a world in which we can no longer be sure we’re communicating with an actual human being unless we’re face-to-face with them.

The AWS post makes joking reference to HAL 9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but thanks in part to its own efforts and those funded by Facebook, that sort of thing is looking less like science fiction and more like science fact with every passing day.

 

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AT&T joins the retail robot revolution

AT&T Business has unveiled a new partnership to target the retail segment, a vertical which might look completely different in a few years’ time.

Working alongside Badger Technologies, the aim here is to improve capabilities which are already in place as opposed to create a human-less shopping experience. With its new 5G capabilities, improvements for indoor coverage and expansion of MEC, the duo are targeting operational efficiencies throughout the super market.

“In-building cellular solutions, including 5G and edge computing, are critical drivers of digital transformation for retailers,” said Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business.

“These technologies will eventually equip robots with both the compute power and lower latency needed to increase revenue, improve the in-store experience, and elevate employees to better assist customers. Badger Technologies’ robots can help retailers make sure they have products in stock and in the right place, increasing customer satisfaction. That leads to increased revenue. That’s the power of data.”

Robots in supermarkets are not exactly a new idea. In some of the larger retailers in the US, small robots roll through the aisles hoping to identify out-of-stock, mispriced or misplaced inventory as well as store hazards, informing human colleagues of up-coming tasks which need to be completed. However, running these systems over wifi can be inefficient and even impossible when it comes to transmission and processing of data.

Although this is a very simple application focused on improving efficiency as opposed to revolutionising the retail experience, it is an incremental step towards automation in the industry. In a few years’ time, there might not be any need to have humans working in the supermarket whatsoever; MEC and improved connectivity will be critical components.

Firstly, you have to look at the home delivery segment. Not all consumers will buy into this concept, however with improved connectivity, this could be a completely autonomous process. Amazon fulfilment centres already incorporate robotic processes to reduce the need for humans, whereas progress is being made on autonomous vehicles and small robots to make the delivery over the ‘last mile’. In theory, this does not have to have a single human in the process.

One other area which seems to attract headlines every couple of weeks are the cashier-less stores. The concept is not new, self-check out machines are becoming increasingly common, though this idea could be taken up another level. Amazon is once again making progress here, potentially removing the need for self-scan tills completely, though improvements in indoor connectivity and MEC could help this idea progress even further.

Finally, you only have to look at companies like Boston Dynamics to see the advancements which are being made with humanoid robots. Cashiers are heading towards the door and it might not be too long before shelf-stackers might follow them. Robotics is a field which is advancing ridiculously fast (see video at the bottom of article), and while the economics will not make sense for the moment, that is only a matter of time.

The warehouse could be robotic, payments could be managed through sensors and apps, on-shelf-stock and hazards could be monitored by simplistic robotics and cameras, restocking and hazards cleared by advanced robotics and deliveries could be performed by drones or autonomous vehicles. With MEC decreasing latency, cloud-based AI constantly improving all the processes and indoor connectivity ensuring everything runs smoothly, soon enough there might not be any need to have a human involved in the supermarket.

This might seem like an unrealistic idea right now, but always remember this Bill Gates quote; most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.

5G Makes Mining Site Safer & More Efficient

As the newest generation of mobile technology, 5G has dramatically transformed many industries, not the least of which is mining. Formerly dependent on manual labor, mining has evolved into a high-tech industry that incorporates remote driving and 5G-enabled unmanned smart mines.

At the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Shanghai earlier this year, many eyes were on a booth exhibiting a remote control platform for excavators and live stream of onsite excavation. This mining site belongs to China Molybdenum and is the world’s only 5G smart mine in operation. 30 5G autonomous mining vehicles have been deployed, and the company’s monthly capacity is 500,000 tons.

How did China Molybdenum achieve this? At the 2019 Customer Strategy and Pain Points Analysis Conference (CSPA), COO and Chief Engineer Yang Hui from Yuexin Intelligence shared with the audience the great value 5G contributes to the construction of smart mines and explained how China Molybdenum introduced 5G technologies. According to Yang, 5G is ideal for smart mine construction and mining is the new “battlefield” for the business use case of 5G technologies.

COO and Chief Engineer Yang Hui of Yuexin

COO and Chief Engineer Yang Hui from Yuexin intelligence speaks at the 2019 Customer Strategy and Pain Points Analysis Conference

China Molybdenum has been replacing its 4G technologies with 5G technologies and has been improving unmanned mining through 5G network development and technologies such as short-range control, long-range control, control of single vehicle, centralized management, and smart management and control since 2015. This initiative relies on the concerted efforts of many companies, including Huawei, Yuexin Intelligence, and of course China Molybdenum itself.

Minimizing risks through unmanned mining
There are two main types of mining techniques: surface mining and sub-surface mining. Surface mining has absolute advantages in terms of mining scope and safety, and various technologies have been developed for it. As a result, most mines have adopted this technique over the past ten to 20 years.

Statistics show that there are more than 3,000 surface mines with reserve deposits of over 20 million tons in China. It would cost around CNY200 million for each of these mines to invest in intelligent mining equipment. If a manufacturer can occupy just 10% of this market, its market prospects are on the order of CNY60 billion.

However, safety is still a major concern in surface mine operations. In such complicated terrain, large machinery can fall at any time. “I once saw an excavator disappear while it was in operation,” said Yang Hui. “Later, we found it in a 30-meter deep pit.”

In the interest of keeping miners out of such dangerous environment, the mining sector has long been exploring the possibility of unmanned mining.

Three challenges for unmanned mines
Unmanned mining involves enabling equipment and machinery to function without requiring manual operation, especially with regard to autonomous driving. As many people have realized, the relatively closed-off mining area is a viable scenario for implementing autonomous driving.

Unmanned mining is being quickly adopted in other countries too. The mining sector giant Rio Tinto Group is leading the world in the area of intelligent mining, according to Yang.

At the remote control center in Perth, staff of Rio Tinto can now remotely control unmanned trucks, trains, drills, and the like at the Pilbara iron mining site, a 2-hour flight away in Western Australia. Compared with other countries, China has lagged behind in unmanned mining. There are only few unmanned mining projects in operation that generate real benefits. The main reasons for this are as follows:

First, there is a lack of application scenarios. Mining equipment is expensive. For example, a single vehicle costs at least several million CNY. Purchasing new equipment is too big a risk for mining companies.

Second, there is a lack of core technologies. In recently years, research into autonomous driving has mainly explored driving on roads in cities. No particular research and development has gone into autonomous driving in the field of mining.

Third, market preferences mean that no technological breakthroughs in mining-specific autonomous driving are on the horizon. While autonomous cars on urban roads or expressways are a market darling and attract significant investment, autonomous vehicles for the mining industry are less favored, leaving a gap that is hard to fill in a short time.

Building sophisticated unmanned mines in five years
To fill this gap in the market, Yuexin Intelligence has been working hard to explore unmanned mining. China Molybdenum and Yuexin launched their unmanned mining project in 2015, deploying remote control technology to address the safety issues relating to extraction activities in mining voids. These safety concerns had been plaguing the company for years, according to Yang Hui.

Yuexin Intelligence led the project, going through the project charter stage, research and development, prototyping, trial production, commissioning, trial run, and final production. Short-range remote control became a reality in 2015. Long-range remote control in 2016. And in 2017, self-driving trucks were successfully tested.

“At that time, we were content with remote control,” said Yang Hui. “In dangerous areas, we remotely controlled excavators to dig out the ores and then the remotely controlled trucks to load and transport ores. This did not improve efficiency; on the contrary, it made the process more cumbersome,” said Yang Hui.

Remote control technology did help enable the extraction of high-grade ores previously off limits due to safety concerns, but mining efficiency has stayed the same. What kind of technology can be used to fully automate mining operations, without involving humans in the field?

By 2018, remote drills, remote excavators, and a fleet of 30 driverless electric haulage trucks empowered by Yuexin Intelligence were put into use. The solution allowed drilling, shoveling, loading, and transportation to be fully automated, without the need to deploy any on-site staff.

Most notably, Yuexin substituted 5G for 4G, enabling a dramatic increase in productivity. Production capacity shot up to 500,000 tons per month. This was the first time that 5G technology was deployed in the mining industry in China.

5G enables more efficient and safer intelligent mines
There are a couple of reasons why Yang says 5G is ideal for mining. First, mines are generally located in remote areas where network coverage is weak, so a dedicated network needs to be constructed. 5G is a great option, as it is relatively easy to build a 5G network.

Second, most of the mining machinery is constantly on the move, so a mobile network is needed. In addition, as blasting is frequently used in mining, fiber networks are not realistic. Third, in the case of surface mining, only a few cell sites are required to cover the entire mining site.

5G unmanned mines are able to meet multiple needs: HD image backhaul on mobile devices, intelligent scheduling systems for autonomous driving, cloud computing, and wireless transmission of massive numbers of HD images.

5G networks also enable key breakthroughs in autonomous driving for intelligent mining. First, before 5G, each truck used to need an onboard industrial computer installed to process data. Once 5G is deployed, all data is transmitted from the vehicles to a cloud server for central processing.

Second, low latency is crucial to the application of autonomous driving technology for mining. According to Yang Hui, only after latency is reduced to under 30 ms will operators be able to control autonomous driving vehicles without feeling any lag. And only then will traffic and operational safety be assured. The 5G network, with its low latency, has enabled long-range remote control to become a reality after stagnating for many years. It also increased the speed limit of autonomous mining trucks from 10 km/h to 35 km/h, improving transportation efficiency.

Last, 5G enables a positioning precision of less than 1 meter. Replacing GPS with 5G positioning in mines reduces the cost and facilitates more-effective management of personnel and vehicles. Referring to the various costs relating to deploying 5G technology for mining, Yang Hui said that the number of 5G-ready devices (such as 5G CPE) necessary for intelligent mining is small, so equipment cost is not as high as it rumored to be.

5G creates other kinds of value for mining, too. Chief among them are addressing safety concerns and improving production efficiency. For Yuexi Intelligence, operational precision, stability, and efficiency have been greatly improved with 5G technology. Looking at the case from the larger industry perspective, the practice of the 5G unmanned mines is also applicable to other surface mining sites, and serves as an important reference for the use of 5G in traditional industries.

The private power of the edge

One of conundrums which has been quietly emerging over the last couple of months concerns how to maintain privacy when attempting to improve customer experience, but the power of the edge might save the day.

If telcos want to be able to improve customer experience, data needs to be collected and analysed. This might sound like a very obvious statement to make, but the growing privacy movement across the world, and the potential of new regulatory restraints, might make this more difficult.

This is where the edge could play a more significant role. One of the more prominent discussions from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year was the role of the edge, and it does appear this conversation has continued through to Light Reading’s Big 5G Event in Denver.

Some might say artificial intelligence and data analytics are solutions looking for a problem, but in this instance, there is a very real issue to address. Improving customer experience though analytics will only be successful if implemented quickly, some might suggest in real-time, therefore the models used to improve performance should be hosted on the edge. This is an example of where the latency business model can directly impact operations.

It also addresses another few issues, firstly, the cost of sending data back to a central data centre. As it was pointed out today, telcos cannot afford to send all customer data back to be analysed today, it is simply an unreasonable quantity, therefore the more insight which can be actioned on the edge, with only the genuinely important insight being sent back to train models, the more palatable customer experience management becomes.

Secondly, the privacy issue is partly addressed. The more which is actioned on the edge, as close to the customer as possible, the lesser the concerns of the privacy advocates. Yes, data is still being collected, analysed and (potentially) actioned upon, but as soon as the insight is realised the sooner it can be deleted.

There are still sceptics when it comes to the edge, the latency business case, artificial intelligence and data analytics, but slowly more cases are starting to emerge to add credibility.

Europe unveils its own attempt to address ethical AI

Addressing the ethical implications of artificial intelligence has become very fashionable in recent months, and right on cue, the European Commission has produced seven guidelines for ethical AI.

The guidelines themselves are not much more than a theoretical playbook for companies to build products and services around for the moment. However, any future legislation which is developed to guide the development of AI in the European Union will likely use these guidelines as the foundation blocks. It might not seem critical for the moment, but it could offer some insight into future regulation and legislation.

“The ethical dimension of AI is not a luxury feature or an add-on,” said Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip. “It is only with trust that our society can fully benefit from technologies. Ethical AI is a win-win proposition that can become a competitive advantage for Europe: being a leader of human-centric AI that people can trust.”

“We now have a solid foundation based on EU values and following an extensive and constructive engagement from many stakeholders including businesses, academia and civil society,” said Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel. “We will now put these requirements to practice and at the same time foster an international discussion on human-centric AI.”

The seven guidelines are as follows:

  1. Human agency and oversight: AI systems should enable equitable societies by supporting human agency and fundamental rights, and not decrease, limit or misguide human autonomy.
  2. Robustness and safety: Trustworthy AI requires algorithms to be secure, reliable and robust enough to deal with errors or inconsistencies during all life cycle phases of AI systems.
  3. Privacy and data governance: Citizens should have full control over their own data, while data concerning them will not be used to harm or discriminate against them.
  4. Transparency: The traceability of AI systems should be ensured.
  5. Diversity, non-discrimination and fairness: AI systems should consider the whole range of human abilities, skills and requirements, and ensure accessibility.
  6. Societal and environmental well-being: AI systems should be used to enhance positive social change and enhance sustainability and ecological responsibility.
  7. Accountability: Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure responsibility and accountability for AI systems and their outcomes.

The Commission will now launch a pilot phase with industry and academia to make sure the guidelines are realistic to implement in real-world cases. The results of this pilot will inform any measures taken by the Commission or national governments moving forward.

This is one of the first official documents produced to support the development of AI, though many parties around the world are attempting to weigh in on the debate. It is critically important for governments and regulators to take a stance, such is the profound impact AI will have on society, though private industry is attempting to make itself heard as well.

From private industry’s perspective, the mission statement is relatively simple; ensure any bureaucratic processes don’t interfere too much with the ability to make money. Google was the latest to attempt to create its own advisory board to hype the lobby game, but this was nothing short of a disaster.

Having set up the board with eight ‘independent’ experts, the plan was scrapped almost immediately after employees criticised one of the board members for not falling on the right side of the political divide. This might have been an embarrassing incident, though the advisory board was hardly going to achieve much.

Google suggested the board would meet four times a year to review the firms approach to AI. Considering AI is effectively embedded, or will be, in everything which Google does, a quarterly assessment was hardly going to provide any actionable insight. It would be simply too much to do in a short period of time. This was nothing more than a PR plug by the internet giant, obsessed with appearing to be on the side of the consumer.

AI will have a significant impact on the world and almost everyone’s livelihood. For some, jobs will be enhanced, but there will always be pain. Some will find their jobs redundant, some will find their careers extinguished. Creating ethical guidelines for AI development and deployment will be critical and Europe is leading the charge.

Orange Spain and ZTE complete Europe’s first standalone 5G call

The mobile operator claimed that the voice and data call over end-to-end 5G network in Valencia was the first of its kind in Spain as well as in Europe. All other trials have been done over non-standalone networks.

The Spanish branch of Orange successfully trialled a voice and data call on a “100% 5G” network with standalone architecture, the company announced. The end-to-end solution was provided by ZTE, one of Orange’s suppliers. The test achieved a peak downlink data rate of 876 Mbps on one test terminal, and 3.2 Gbps with 12 test terminals working simultaneously in the same cell.

“It is critical to understand this new and disruptive technology, with which we could close the gap from our 4G networks to offer our customers the best possible 5G network in the world when the time is right,” said Mónica Sala, Director of Networks at Orange (translated from Spanish). “The know-how of ZTE is evident in achieving this milestone and we are very proud of the results.”

The live 5G networks today, in South Korea and the US, for example, are primarily providing enhanced mobile broadband services, which can be achieved with non-standalone mode, i.e. overlaying 5G radio networks on top of 4G core. This was the architecture that Huawei used when demonstrating 5G at MWC on Vodafone’s network. On the other hand, to achieve 5G’s full capabilities, including to provide virtualised networks (e.g. network slicing for a particular client) and to run the extreme low latency applications (e.g. automatic cars) there would need end-to-end 5G networks, i.e. 5G radio and 5G core.

ZTE was also obviously happy with the success of the trial. “It is a great pleasure for us to work hand in hand with Orange for technological innovation and 5G leadership,” Xiao Ming, President of Global Sales at ZTE stressed. Orange is one of ZTE’s two biggest accounts in Europe (the other being the Three group), so holding on and expanding the partnership is critical for the company that has been struggling in the mature markets.

Orange Spain plans to extend 5G trials to other industries including construction, energy, health, automotive, and tourism, to test out the use cases. The company also said that it is going to test 5G in a handful of cities with the support provided by Red.es, the country’s digital transformation programmes, operated under the direction of the Secretary of State for Information Society and Digital Agenda.