Addressing these physical and technical limitations will require leaps of 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 focus on optimizing the bandwidth for a single device, for example, the 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. Though 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 of changing the environment with reconfigurable intelligent surfaces (“smart surfaces”) that can optimize signal propagation to modify signals in real time to deliver better bandwidth and lower latency.
Another avenue of research relies on artificial intelligence to manage networks and optimize communications. Different types of network usage (texting, gaming, and streaming, for example) create different types of network demand. AI solutions enable a system to predict this demand based on behavioral patterns, instead of requiring engineers to always design for the highest demand levels.
Nichols sees great potential for networks from improvements in artificial intelligence. “Today’s systems are so complex, with so many levers to pull to address the diverse demands,” says Nichols, “that most decisions on optimizing are limited to first-order adjustments like more sites, updated radios, better backhaul, more efficient data gateways, and throttling certain users.” By contrast, employing artificial intelligence to handle the optimization, he says, presents “a significant opportunity for a move to autonomous, self-optimized, and self-organized networks.”
Virtual simulations and digital-twin technology are promising tools that will not only will assist in 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 makers and application developers to test concepts in complex environments and create early product prototypes for 6G networks.
While engineers and researchers have proposed innovative solutions, Nichols notes that building 6G networks will also require consensus between technology providers, operators, and carriers. While the rollout of 5G networks continues, industry players should create a cohesive vision for what applications the next-generation network will support and how their technologies will work together.
It is this collaboration and complexity, however, that may generate the most exciting and enduring outcomes. Nichols notes that the breadth of engineering specialties required to build 6G, and the industry collaboration necessary to launch it, will drive exciting cross-disciplinary innovation. Because of the resulting demand for new solutions, the path to 6G will be paved, in Nichols’ words, with “a tremendous 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 produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.