InterDigital’s sixth sense
The lifecycle of new, cutting-edge technology for most businesses starts with manufacturers touting why the latest innovation can help transform your operations. Will it make processes more efficient, or will it reduce run-rates?
If we peel back the mask a little, however, a lot of the larger tech trends start way earlier than that. Rarely is modern tech the creation of the traditional mad “inventor type” but rather a multi-faceted process involving several creators and companies.
There is no more famous inventor than Thomas Edison. The American businessman helped create devices in fields such as electric power generation, mass communication, sound recording, and motion pictures. Most famously, he helped to create the modern incandescent light bulb.
Edison and his company were seen as prolific inventors and, when he died in 1931, he had 1,093 US patents in his name,[as well as many patents in other countries.
For modern technologies such as 5G, the process of creation is very different and one company deeply involved in developing mobile transmission tech is InterDigital. That company, it is worth noting, has a portfolio of about 27,500 U.S. and foreign issued patents and patent applications.
“Foundationally, we are an R&D company,” explains InterDigital president and CEO Liren Chen. “What that means is we don’t do product development. We are engineers and scientists who look at the research side [of technology].”
What this means is looking at the core components that will make up any new technology – such as 5G, for example – and seeing how these will work, creating a framework and developing new ideas to support them.
InterDigital is focussed on three core pillars: Wireless technologies, such as 5G and now 6G; Video, which is primarily broadcasting tech; and emerging technologies, which includes things such as AI and machine learning.
On this last pillar, the key concern for the company is how AI converges with other technologies, such as 5G.
Chen explains: “We’re not looking to replace Google or Microsoft. What we’re interested in is how AI converges with other areas. Take the next iteration of 5G, for example. In the next standard, the industry will be using AI in 5G, so what we want to determine is how you adapt your AI interface into your phone to create a dynamic environment that suits your usage.”
This takes place years before most industries are discussing technology trends. In fact, Chen says the Delaware based firm aims to be at least a decade ahead of most trends.
“We do the foundational research, not the applied research or case studies,” he adds, “and then once we’ve developed the technology we develop the standards around that issue, alongside our peers. Our role is to convince the industry that our solution is the right one, then we monetise it through licensing agreements.”
At the edge
What do we mean when we say “cutting edge” – what exactly is it that InterDigital does, I ask Chen.
“Let’s look at the cellular space,” he replies. “Here we are continuing to push the envelope for cellular technology. In terms of development of 5G standards, we are right in the middle of that journey. There are two release stages for 5G that have already been finalised. But the third is scheduled to be released by summer, after it was delayed by Covid.”
He is referring to the 3GPP’s “Release 17 and 18” which prioritises new radio and technologies including MIMO (Multiple input, multiple output) as well as dynamic spectrum and industrial IoT.
This may not sound as “cutting edge” given that we’ve been in a 5G world since 2018. But, as Chen points out, this will be the first year that 5G penetration for new smartphones is over 50%. And commercial uses, he adds, will likely continue until the end of this decade.
It is in the next breath, however, that he explains where InterDigital is in the technology chain. Because even though the firm – which employs over 300 engineers worldwide – is knee-deep in 5G developments, it is also working on the next generation of mobile connectivity, too. I.e. 6G ahoy!
“We started the foundational development for 6G a few years ago,” Chen smiles. With 6G unlikely to launch until the end of the decade, what does this actually involve, and how can InterDigital know 10-years out what 6G actually is?
“Frankly, we do not know for sure. So we work on a lot of different technologies, but we’re especially looking at ultra-high frequency flows called terahertz. We also look at more intelligent network architecture and the role AI might play there as well.”
So what is terahertz radiation? It begins at a wavelength of around 1 millimeter and proceeds into shorter wavelengths, it is sometimes known as the submillimeter band, and its radiation as submillimeter waves. This band of electromagnetic radiation lies within the transition region between microwave and far infrared, and can be regarded as either. Researchers in 2012 doing early communications tests with this type of radiation found it could allow data transmission at up to 100 Gbit/s.
This research process will take several years, adds Chen, but “three, four or even five years down the line” companies such as InterDigital will come together with other technology firms and organisations such as the 3GPP to determine what 6G actually means for businesses and for people.
Chen, who has been in the industry for over 25 years and was previously at Qualcomm, has worked on the development of 2G, 3G, 4G and now 5G but after each generation, he says, the smartest engineers try to re-examine it, to see if a new wave is even necessary. Spectrum issues, for example, led a switch from 3G to 4G which saw the industry ditch CDMA protocol.
“But no-one really knows yet what 6G will look like,” he adds. “There are certainly some areas that are being discussed. People talk about terahertz, which is obviously even higher frequency and they talk about AI, and also security. Then there is a lot of talk on the non-smartphone use cases. Instead of milliseconds of latency that will be available in 5G advanced, they talk about microsecond latency that may allow technology to be more immersive and may allow you to do some smart manufacturing that isn’t possible on 5G.”
The potential increased bandwidth and the reduction to latency have obvious appeal for some industries, such as automotive providers looking to launch self-driving vehicles, or factories that need real-time connectivity for safety reasons. But this raises a question – wasn’t this all promised prior to the launch of 5G?
Chen points to the difference in latencies between 4G networks and 5G ones. For cars, he says, latency on an LTE network is just too high for vehicles moving at realistic speeds.
“If you want to use 4G technology to control a car, you need to reduce latency or distance by factor of 100 at least. So that is a big design goal for 5G.
“When you design a new protocol, as we do, you have these aims to make it 10x better or 100x better but it is very difficult. And even then, once you deploy a network, there is the implementation side. But this stuff is certainly not ready for prime time yet.”
He pauses. “Once you all use all the use cases here, people probably will figure out that, guess what: 5G networks are still not good enough. You need more bandwidth, higher resolution, lower latency, and lower power consumption. At the moment, there are a lot of restraints based on power usage.”
But 5G, he adds, will still be important, especially in the development of 6G, because for InterDigital and its partners, there will be lessons to learn from what 5G did and did not achieve. It will also act as a framework for 6G.
“If we look at the history, in the mobile space, at least, every generation of technology builds on top of the previous one. And there’s a set of common technologies, so you try to take it forward and try to make it better. Then there are some brand new technologies you create that are unique to that generation.
Algorithm of the night
While one of the other pillars for InterDigital is broadcasting, I’m keen to learn more about the role AI will play in Chen’s vision of the future. Why, of all the new tech on the horizon, is the company so focussed on Artificial Intelligence?
“If I tell you that, I’d have to kill you,” he quips. AI, he acknowledges, can mean different things to different areas of the technology industry. But for Chen and InterDigital, it is best viewed through two different lenses.
“One is the data, and how you use AI to train data capture,” he explains. “The other is the algorithm that makes up the frame of any system.” Though AI has often been developed behind closed doors, there is now more of a push to make it open source. Is this a problem for a company that relies on patents to make money? Chen doesn’t think so, because it allows the industry to work on solutions that benefit everyone.
“We are a patent licencing business, even though the main focus is on standard-essential patents, it is helpful to have communication patents also,” he says. “But we also work with an ecosystem. We have engineers, working partners. We work with universities, we support PhD students through our internship programmes. So the healthier the ecosystem become, the better off we are.”
With the algorithm, the question is how to you use AI and data to make your operations more efficient? If you can use an algorithm to achieve this efficiency, and work with some open source tools that have been invented for AI, you can improve your operation.
If you apply this to other technologies that InterDigital is working on, such as 6G, it really starts to make sense. An AI powered telecoms network can learn more about how a consumer uses their device and react accordingly. If a user is more prone to streaming high-bandwidth content in the evening, the network can ramp up automatically. But, perhaps more importantly, it can self-learn ways to be more efficient.
“To make things more reliable, more efficient, and to start integrating with every phone in the world will be different. Your phone is learning and training yourself, too.”