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.
Adaptable technological solutions are a key area of research. Instead of focusing on optimizing bandwidth for a single device, for example, a 6G network will use nearby devices to deliver the required 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 operation with wider frequency ranges. Although it requires complex engineering, one promising approach combines traditional silicon circuits with those made from more exotic complex semiconductors, such as indium phosphide. In addition, researchers are looking at ways to change the environment using reconfigurable intelligent surfaces (“smart surfaces”) that can optimize signal propagation to modify 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 (messaging, gaming, and streaming, for example) 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 in improving artificial intelligence. “Today’s systems are so complex, with so many levers to pull to meet different requirements,” says Nichols, “that most optimization decisions are limited to first-order adjustments like more sites, updated radio, better backhaul, more efficient gateways data, and throttling certain users.” In contrast, using artificial intelligence to manage optimization, he says, presents “a significant opportunity to move to autonomous, self-optimizing and self-organizing networks.”
Virtual simulations and digital twin technology are promising tools that will not only aid in 6G innovation, but will further enable 6G once it is established. These new 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 proposed innovative solutions, Nichols notes that building 6G networks will also require consensus among technology vendors, carriers and operators. As the rollout of 5G networks continues, industry players should create a cohesive vision of what applications the next-generation network will support and how their technologies will work together.
However, this collaboration and complexity can produce the most exciting and lasting results. Nichols notes that the scale of engineering specialties required to build 6G, as well as the industry collaboration necessary to launch it, will drive exciting cross-disciplinary innovation. Due to the resulting demand for new solutions, the road to 6G will be paved, according to Nichols, 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 cyber security.”
This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by the MIT Technology Review editorial staff.