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5G, the new mobile communication technology that has China and the US as primary developers, promises to trigger a revolution in communication and in the way we interact among ourselves, with the devices, and the Internet.

This post contains a not-too-technical overview in layman terms of what 5G technology is, what its applications are, and how interpreters can benefit from it, provided they are able to adapt their skills or acquire new ones.

A basic knowledge of how the new networks will work is essential to understand where opportunities and challenges lie.

What is 5G?

The new technology commonly known and advertised as 5G adds layers of complexity to the current networks. Communication technology has evolved over time and every ‘G’ generation has had its own characteristics and concepts applicable to it.

In 1980s mobile communications became available on the market and users could use vocal communication among them. Voices sounded artificial and stability of calls due to poor coverage was a real issue. That was 1G.

In early 1990s, 2G was launched, which allowed users to exchange textual communications. The era of the short messaging system (SMS) had just begun.

3G appeared on the market in 1998 and paved the way to a new generation of mobile devices, the smartphones.

At present, almost all mobile telecommunication providers have adopted 4G/LTE, a technology that allowed users to enjoy high data rate and therefore high definition media streaming. Mobile users of Netflix, Hulu, or other media streaming services rely on this technology for efficient data download.

Wireless Technology

Mobile communications rely on wireless electromagnetic emissions to send and receive data. In very basic terms, everything you need to create a network is:

a transmitting station <=> a bidirectional antenna <=> a receiving station

In wireless communications, every station will link to the other via the antenna, with empty space in the middle. An example of this is your mobile phone and the router for wi-fi signal at home. Also, the role of every station is dual, as they can both transmit or receive.

Reality is more complex than that and I know some of my geek friends may criticize this approach, but simplifying is key here.

Just for the sake of comprehension, let’s introduce three simple additional concepts. The electromagnetic emission of a signal is usually represented graphically as a sine wave.

The waveform oscillates and the number of oscillations per second is called frequency.

Signals – and therefore data – can be transmitted at different frequencies and the capacity of a network to transmit the maximum amount of data in a given time is called bandwidth. The wider the bandwidth, the larger the amount of data you can send/receive at once. Think to bandwidth as a means of transport. A car or a truck would indicate a small or large bandwidth, respectively.

Another concept I want to introduce is latency, i.e. the delay from input into a system to the desired outcome or, if you prefer, the time required to deliver your packages with the car or truck from node A to node B. The higher the latency, the longer the time required to transmit data. In our example, latency may increase for several reasons, including – for example – a traffic jam, or a road with potholes.

5G Technology

The promise of 5G is to improve at least four aspects of wireless communication technology, namely bandwidth, latency, energy efficiency, and network capacity.

Bandwidth increase means more data will be available at a given time. With projected speed of about 1 GB per second, users will be able to download a movie in 3 to 4 seconds. Bandwidth-intensive applications, such as autonomous navigation systems in drones and cars, will enjoy huge benefits from it.

Latency reduction will also be a great game changer. Having a larger data set to be delivered is nothing if it takes too much time to do it that makes transmission ineffective, as it may be the case of a high definition video call that breaks often.

Data transmission is also energy intensive. The promise of 5G to increase energy efficiency and reduce its consumption is indeed appealing, as users will receive more data for the same or less energy consumption rate in their devices.

The growth of capacity in networks is a plus, but also a requirement. The demand coming from the development of better artificial intelligence, quantum computing (more below), new generations of sensors, and the Internet of Things will definitely call for network expansion.

As far as the technology is concerned, 5G uses a higher frequency than 4G. This means the signal has a shorter wavelength (wavelength is the inverse of frequency) and is therefore less capable to travel across a distance. In short, the higher the frequency, the less distant from the antenna the signals goes. As a consequence, in order to maintain the same signal coverage and to make 5G accessible to the same number of users, the service providers will have to increase the number of antennas.

In a recent report titled “5G: The Chance to Lead for a Decade“, Deloitte Consulting estimates the number of towers and small cells – or more generally, sites – will have to increase three to ten times and that “first-adopter countries embracing 5G could sustain more than a decade of competitive advantage (…) and will (…) also be rewarded with broader economic benefits.” This is also about exploiting what The Economist called the data-network effect. In a nutshell, data will be used “to attract more users, who then generate more data, which help improve services, which attract more users” in the not-so-new data-driven economy.

In order to ensure proper 5G coverage, several small transmission devices will have to be installed everywhere from lamp to traffic light posts, buildings, bridges, etc.

The two main competitors in the 5G race are the US and China. According to Deloitte, China outspent the US by $24 billion in 5G infrastructure adding about 460 sites per day in 2017 alone, with 14.1 sites installed per 10,000 people versus 4.7 sites in the US. Add to this that the cost of engineering and permitting is far lower in China. By comparison, the US should spend 2.67 times what China spends to generate an equivalent amount of wireless capacity, and the gap is getting wider as time goes by.

It is not surprising that the Trump administration is putting heat on American allies to ban Chinese tech firms from building the 5G infrastructure on the account of a possible national security threat. Indeed, Trump knows the 5G game is not only about the users among the common people or regular businesses. The winner would gain economic, intelligence, and military edge for much of the century. There lies multimodal discrediting and the rhetorical technique of accusing the opponent.

5G Opportunities and Challenges for Interpreters

5G-powered enterprises, including interpreters, will be less constrained by their physical location thanks to an improved service delivery capability.

The handling capability of data-intensive applications, from high resolution video to virtual reality/augmented reality, the reduced lag or connectivity issues, and the spreading of the Internet of Things will generate opportunities and challenges for interpreters.

Let’s consider for a moment a new technology – i.e., distance interpreting, or remote interpreting, if you prefer, in all its forms – that is apparently disrupting the way we know interpreting services today.

Discussions are being held among interpreters and associations of interpreters with platform providers about the rules and standards for this new form of interpreting.

Concerns span from the physical co-presence of booth mates, to frequency response, to audio quality. On March 7, 2018, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) released a position paper on distance interpreting, but standards are far from being agreed or developed. So far, every platform provider is going on its own and has developed its proprietary solution.

With this in mind, many of the objections raised by interpreters will be overcome once a proper communication infrastructure is in place.

In the analysis that follows, I have classified possible innovations based on their expected implementation time.

Short-to-medium Time (5-10 years)

Wherever good 5G coverage is provided, the quality of calls, frequency response, and video resolution will be far greater than today’s. Reduced latency will ensure no time shifts exist between the sound distributed at the conference venue and the signal received remotely. But is not just that.

The sense of alienation and estrangement in simultaneous interpreting caused by not being at the actual venue will be overcome by means of virtual reality. A camera positioned strategically will stream a video feed to a remote visor. As the interpreter wears the visor and moves the head around, wherever he or she may be, so does the camera. The same principle applies to participants in a business meeting. You can gather 10 people in a virtual room, with a depiction of a table and screen, where everybody will look at everybody virtually. It’s the evolution of videconferencing.

As an alternative, high definition screens with live feeds from multiple cameras could be installed on the inner walls of next generation virtual booths to show what the interpreter would see through the front and side windows.

The same would apply to whispered interpreting. We will see a stage with a host and a guest with a discreet camera in between. Instead of sitting beside the guest, or interpreting the answers to the later Q&A session in consecutive, the interpreter could be everywhere, wear a virtual reality visor, and turn the head left or right to look at whomever is speaking, and translate. No more fixed cameras out of control of the interpreter, who will choose who to look at. I guess this will be the realization of the concept of invisibility of interpreters…

Medium-to-long Term (10+ years)

Depending on the new infrastructure rollout time and the development of suitable devices, one of the most promising forms of interaction will be holographic calls. While anthropomorphic holograms feel like science fiction – think of the scene when robot R2-D2 projects Princess Leila’s message in Star Wars – they are already something that exists today.

In 2017, US communication giant Verizon and the equivalent Korean Telecom experimented a successful holographic call where two employees talked to each other on the phone while looking at a 3D, real time, and real size moving image of their counterpart.

And while the resolution of the feed was quite poor, just imagine the infinite number of opportunities that unfold. The first that comes to my mind would be medical checks through Tactile Internet. If needed, patients will be able to talk to their doctor as if (s)he were there in person. The same applies when doctors and patients are in different countries, with interpreters in the middle equipped with all the gear presented above. What is more, with the quick development of sensors and the Internet of Things, amputees can already enjoy a rough sense of touch through hi-tech limbs. Think to a medical visit whee the doctor is in the US and the patient in Italy. As soon as sensors are developed enough, the former will be able to touch the latter remotely and experience the same touch as if the patient was actually under his/her hands. Interaction between the two would take place through interpreters, if needed. Eventually, surgical robots operated remotely are already in use today.

In another successful experiment conducted in 2018, a concert for piano and voice was held in a music hall in the UK, where the piano player was on stage, and the 3D image and voice of his daughter, the singer, came from Berlin, about 1,000 km away, with a delay of just 20 milliseconds, which the human ear cannot perceive.

One last aspect worth mentioning with reference to interpreting services is the combination of Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing. Since 5G will produce huge amount of data (self-driving vehicles generate 1 million GB of data at a time), computing methods other than deterministic will have to be replaced by probabilistic ones. With quantum computers, complex sets of data can be analyzed and dissected at very high speed to find patterns and make predictions. By storing those predictions and comparing them with the actual outcomes, computers will build their own experience and formulate highly probable outcomes for similar problems. While listening to a speaker, they could be able to guess the next concept the speaker wants to express using the database of their previous attempts as a source. This is not very different from what actual human interpreters do today when they receive no documentation beforehand, only that the memory of past experience for a quantum computer and its ability to learn are virtually unlimited and become larger event after event.

There is no doubt this is something we will see in a short time span, no more than 10 to 15 years from now. Many of those who believe this is just science fiction will be disappointed to realize that future will come earlier than they expected.

To be continued…

While this post has focused on opportunities, Part II will deal with the challenges most of us will have to face in the near future.

I am referring to skill development for practicing interpreters; training the next generation of interpreters; new opportunities for Research and Development applied to interpreting services; the role of startups, young tech-savvy interpreters entrepreneurs; and the gap that will exist between interpreter who live, train, and work in technology-rich countries versus those who are in countries where the adoption of new technologies will be slower.