Addressing these physical and technical limitations will require leaps in innovation, but the promise of applications powered by advanced 6G connectivity is motivating creative solutions.
Adaptive technology solutions are a key area of research. Rather than focusing on optimizing bandwidth for a single device, for example, a 6G network will use nearby devices to help deliver the necessary bandwidth and reduce latency. This 3D signal shaping focuses on combining and processing wireless signals from multiple sources based on their proximity to the end user.
New semiconductor materials will help manage device space requirements as well as handle wider frequency bands. Although it requires complex engineering, one promising approach combines traditional silicon circuits with those made from more exotic compound semiconductors, such as indium phosphide. In addition, researchers are looking at ways to modify the environment with reconfigurable smart surfaces (“smart surfaces”) that can optimize signal propagation to change signals in real time to provide better bandwidth and lower latency .
Another avenue of research relies on artificial intelligence to manage networks and optimize communications. Different types of network usage (eg texting, gaming, and streaming) create different types of network demand. AI solutions allow the system to predict this demand based on behavioral patterns, rather than requiring engineers to always design for the highest levels of demand.
Nichols sees great potential for networks from improvements in artificial intelligence. “Today’s systems are so complex, with so many levers to pull to meet diverse requirements,” says Nichols, “that most optimization solutions are limited to first-order fixes like more sites, updated radios, better feedback connectivity, more efficient data gateways, and restricting specific users.” By contrast, using artificial intelligence to handle optimization, he says, represents “a significant opportunity to move toward autonomous, self-optimizing, and self-organizing networks.”
Virtual simulations and digital twin technology are promising tools that will not only support 6G innovation, but will be further enabled by 6G once established. These emerging technologies can help companies test their products and systems in a sandbox that simulates real-world conditions, allowing equipment manufacturers and application developers to test concepts in complex environments and create early product prototypes for 6G networks .
While engineers and researchers have come up with innovative solutions, Nichols notes that building 6G networks will also require consensus among technology providers, carriers and operators. As the deployment of 5G networks continues, industry players must create a cohesive vision of what applications the next-generation network will support and how their technologies will work together.
However, it is this collaboration and complexity that can generate the most exciting and lasting results. Nichols notes that the range of engineering specialties needed to build 6G and the industry collaboration needed to launch it will drive exciting interdisciplinary innovation. Because of this resulting demand for new solutions, the road to 6G will be paved, in Nichols’ words, with “a huge amount of technical research, development and innovation from electronics to semiconductors to antennas to radio network systems to Internet protocols to artificial intelligence to cybersecurity. “
This content was created by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. Not written by the MIT Technology Review editorial staff.