Dr. Zygmunt J. Haas of the University of Texas at Dallas On How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives

…Connected Vehicles. We all know that the transportation technology is progressing towards more autonomous cars, car that one day may be completely self-driven. To make sure that the cars can do this safely, neighboring cars will need to communicate among themselves, to prevent collisions, safely perform maneuvers, plan routes, etc, etc. Such communications need to be very fast, that is, with short delay, and due to the massive number of cars on the road, needs to support a highly dense deployment. So, we see that the 5G features will be required for such Connected Vehicles application.

5G infrastructure is being installed around the world. At the same time, most people have not yet seen what 5G can offer. What exactly is 5G? How will it improve our lives? What are the concerns that need to be addressed before it is widely adopted?

In our series, called, How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives, we are talking to tech and telecom leaders who can share how 5G can impact and enhance our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Zygmunt J. Haas from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Prof. Zygmunt J. Haas received his Ph.D in 1988 from Stanford University in Electrical and Computer Engineering. In 1988, he joined the AT&T Bell Laboratories in the Network Research Area. There he pursued research in wireless communications, mobility management, fast protocols, optical networks, and optical switching. In August 1995, he joined the faculty of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University, where he is now a Professor Emeritus.

Dr. Haas also holds the title of Professor and Distinguished Chair in Computer Science at the University of Texas at Dallas. He heads the Wireless Network Laboratory (wnl.ece.cornell.edu), a research group with extensive contributions and international recognition in the areas of Ad Hoc Networks and Sensor Networks. Dr. Haas served as an NSF Program Director in the Engineering Directorate. Dr. Haas is an IEEE Fellow, an author of over 300 technical conference and journal papers. He holds twenty patents in the areas of wireless networks and wireless communications, optical switching and optical networks, and high-speed networking protocols.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Well, as you know, I started my professional career after obtaining my Ph.D. in 1988 at the AT&T Bell Laboratories — yes, Bell Labs used to be part of AT&T years ago. I worked in the Network Research department on Optical Networks, working in communication with light signals. At some point, I attended an AT&T workshop on wireless communication. The chairman, knowing me for my work on light communication, said: “I see that some of us here who came to the wireless communication workshop finally saw “the light at the end of the communication tunnel.” This was one of the highlights of my welcome to the wireless communication world!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In academia, we often consider teaching as the required, but non-rewarding part of our work. It took me less than a couple of weeks after I became a professor to learn how wrong this is. Skipping over many details, the story is that, even before I graduated with my Ph.D., I always considered myself as an expert on a particular topic. I used to say that there is no question related to this topic that a student could ask me that I cannot answer right the top of my head. Well, guess, what, during the first class on that I ever taught as a professor, a student asked me, what I would consider, the most trivial question on this topic. I was shocked to realize that I did not know the answer to this simple question. This taught me one thing that has been a guiding point of my career — “you never really understand a topic until you can explain it in simple words to someone who knows nothing about it”. It is a very good lesson to remember, especially if one works for academia: we teach, because teaching allows us to really understand and gain insight into a subject matter; an insight that we then use in our research to advance science and engineering.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is: “Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss you still will be among the stars,” a bit modified version of the quote by Les Brown. This quote helped me get where I am today in my, now, 35+ years of professional career. Without bold thinking, without taking chances, and without doing what others tell you is impossible, it is difficult to succeed in this quite competitive world. I always did what I believed is right, especially if it means “going to where no one has even gone before.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As I stated at the beginning, my first position after graduating from Stanford was with AT&T Bell Labs. The person who hired me into this position was also my first boss. For privacy reasons, I will omit his name here. I can unequivocally say that I owe much of my success to him. I learned from him how to be successful in professional relationships, how to manage people, and how to work around “sticky” situations to arrive at a “win-win” solution. Although when I joined his department, he was much more professionally advanced that I was, he always treated me with respect and I always considered him my mentor and, in time, my friend. Decades later, I still keep in touch with him and discuss problems. You can say that I was lucky to come across him in my professional career. I can also tell you that others in that department were lucky to had him as a boss too. I have nothing but admiration for him.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Well, I do not consider myself a business leader. But working as a researcher in academia, some degree of business leadership is required for success. A first important character trait is not to sweat the small stuff. We all often get entangled in unnecessary small fights that, even if we win, are just pure waste of time. I would rather spend my time fighting over important things. A second trait is to never give up if one feel that he or she is right. It is easy to accept another person’s opinion, but we are all people, and all people are sometimes wrong. I always tell my students that if they believe that they are right and I am wrong, they should work as long as needed to prove it to me, and I will happily accept this if they prove it to me. Finally, a third trait is to be bold in your thinking. Remember what JFK said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” This quote says it all.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects? How do you think that will help people?

Without being too technical, in the past, wireless systems were implemented based on the understanding that the wireless propagation environment is the “necessary evil” that we need to live with, and that we need to design our system to cope with. But what if we could actually change and tweak the wireless environment, so that it will work to our benefits? This is the basic idea behind the Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces, or RIS is short, where we place some passive, but reconfigurable, objects in the environment that will assist us with communications. This is a project that we are working on in my research lab. It is also pursued by other researchers throughout the world. It is an exciting idea that could provide a true ubiquitous communication environment in the future.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Like 4G, 5G has many different facets, and I’m sure many will approach this question differently. But for the benefit of our readers can you explain to us what 5G is? How is 5G different from its predecessor 4G?

Let’s start with what 5G is. 5G is the next generation of wireless systems. Today’s wireless cellular systems are based on the 4G standard. It allows us to use our smart phones to watch movies, surf the internet, download a lot of information. But before there was 4G, there was 3G, and before that 2G, and even 1G. For example, 1G and 2G were focused on voice communication, telephony. 3G allowed some data access, but not as extensive as 4G allows. So, with each generation of wireless systems, a new generation provides better services, which allow us to run more exciting applications. 5G is the next improved generation after 4G.

How such improvements are possible? Well, here we would need to get into more complex technology issues that we may want to skip. But one such a change from 4G to 5G is the spectrum — the range of radio frequencies — used for communication in 5G. The frequencies of 5G are much higher, where the spectrum is less used by other technologies, and where there is more spectrum available.

Ok, let’s now talk a bit about what those improvements of 5G are. Again, without going into too technical aspects of the 5G technology, 5G can deliver a number of improvements over 4G systems. First, it’s the capacity; the data-rate that the system can support. 5G data rate is expected to be about 100 times that of 4G. Why it matters? Well, assume you want to download a movie to watch on your flight, when clearly you will not have cellular connectivity. Rather than waiting many minutes with 4G, you should be able to download a movie in a few seconds. And if you want to download, say 10 movies before your flight, rather than doing this in over an hour, you can be done in less than a minute. That’s a big difference.

The second difference is delay, sometimes also referred to as latency. Delay is the time it takes for information to travel to you from its source. Part of this delay is inevitable — this part relates to the time it takes to propagate a signal over some distance; we all know that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. But there are other components of the delay which are limited by other factors, such as processing speed. Although 4G is pretty good on delay, 5G offer again 100 times reduction to the head-spinning 1 millisecond delay. Why it matters? Well, with the ever more complex interactive games, long delay can make your game not so interactive anymore. Suppose you see Mario on your display and jump on him. But Mario was long moved by your game partner before then. You will get frustrated playing such a game.

But there are even more serious implications to delay. Here is another example. Many of us experienced Virtual Reality, where we can, for example, walk through the Buckingham Palace with a Virtual reality headset. If you move your head, you expect the view to move as well. This is what our brain expects to happen. But if there is a delay in fetching the information, the view will not move fast enough, making your brain confused. You will likely experience nausea, a sickening feeling. In summary, short delay is crucial for some delay-critical applications.

Another difference of 5G from the 4G technology is the density of users. Although it may seem to us that today with 4G everyone has a smart phone, one might ask how many more smart phones we need to support? Well, 5G is expected to support connectivity not only to smart phones, but to Smart Things. This is the basic idea behind the Internet of Things, or IoT in short, concept. Nearly all things in our lives will be connected. For instance, a wall switch, a refrigerator, a coffee maker, even things that we wear, will have connectivity. Why do we need a connected refrigerator? Well, wouldn’t it be nice if when you run low on milk, the refrigerator will call the grocery store to deliver you your milk, and just as you arrive home, so that the milk will not wait outside in hot weather. Everyone can imagine many thousands of such applications where truly ubiquitous connectivity, not only to smart phone, but to smart things, would be of benefits. Again, 5G promise to improve the density of connected users by 2 orders of magnitude.

Let me just discuss one more difference — it has to do with energy. Imagine all those hundred of thousands smart devices that we just discussed. Most, if not all, of them will be powered by batteries. And even though we can make electronics today very energy-efficient, so that a small, miniature device can operate for several years without the need to replace its battery, when you have such a massive deployment of IoT devices, you will be changing batteries of close to 100 devices. Such maintenance would be prohibitively complex and expensive. 5G promises a much more energy-efficient communication, partially because the distance from an IoT device to the network will be much shorter. 5G also promises a more “greener” network, one which requires less energy to power.

Can you share three or four ways that 5G might improve our lives? If you can please share an example, for each.

Let me share 3 possible applications of 5G that might lead to improvements of our lives. One such an example is, what we refer to as, Connected Vehicles. We all know that the transportation technology is progressing towards more autonomous cars, car that one day may be completely self-driven. To make sure that the cars can do this safely, neighboring cars will need to communicate among themselves, to prevent collisions, safely perform maneuvers, plan routes, etc, etc. Such communications need to be very fast, that is, with short delay, and due to the massive number of cars on the road, needs to support a highly dense deployment. So, we see that the 5G features will be required for such Connected Vehicles application.

Another application is in the field of robotics. There are locations, even in the US, where specialists that perform procedures are in short supply or even non-existent. Imagine a location with limited expertise in a particular kind of surgery. A remote surgeon can connect, in real time, with the operating room staff and remotely guide the operating room instruments and equipment to either assist or even to fully perform the surgery. Because the interaction of the remote surgeon with the equipment and instruments has to be nearly immediate, low latency communications are essential. Furthermore, the amount of data that needs to be sensed and conveyed to the surgeon’s remote location is very large, so that the surgeon can see the displayed data in real-time, thus requiring high data-rate. Again, we see how the 5G features will be required for such a tele-robotics application.

My third example is from the field of tele-medicine. It is well known that frequent monitoring of patients’ health parameters could improve the healthcare, and maybe more importantly, may alert a patient’s physician of an approaching crisis. A physician located in a remote location may review his patients’ health parameters frequently. The physician may also be alerted to abnormal values and make sure that the patient receives the required immediate care. Monitoring of massive number of patients with different conditions requires the sufficient density of the wireless network and connections with sufficient data-rate. Again, we see here how the 5G features will be able to support such telemedicine applications. By the way, this application is not much different from an array of other sensing applications with large-scale deployment.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this 5G technology that people should think more deeply about?

Well, as every new and exciting technology, we scientists and engineers tend to run fast ahead, because we strongly believe in the benefits that the humanity can gain from the technology deployment. But we often forget that not everyone will use the technology as we expect them to. Unfortunately, some people are trying to take advantage of insufficiently matured technology to exploit the technology vulnerabilities to their advantage. Most often it is financial profit that drives malicious behavior, at other times it’s the sheer satisfaction of being able to break something that others worked hard to create. In short, we scientists and engineers often forget that security of a technology is critical to its success. And by security, I mean the many aspects of security, such as confidentiality, privacy, information integrity, availability, etc, etc. Ensuring security of a system should never come as an “ad on” feature, but rather be an integral part of the system designed in the very first implementation. 5G, with all its potential benefits, also creates new challenges that we are not necessarily used to in other systems, whether wireless or not.

Some have raised the question that 5G might widen the digital divide and leave poor people or marginalized people behind. From your perspective, what can be done to address and correct this concern?

It is true that 5G requires the customer to upgrade their equipment, and that the technology may not be easily accessible for those who cannot afford such an upgrade. So, it is a valid concern. But let’s remember that this is the case with any new technology. New technologies tend to be more expensive and limited to those that can pay for the services. But as the technologies mature and in particular with deeper technology penetration into the digital market, the “economy-of-scale” phenomenon kicks in, and each customer enjoys price reductions. In fact, to increase the 5G market, many service providers offer 5G services at a reduced rate.

Excellent. We are nearly done. Let’s zoom out a bit and ask a more general question. Based on your experience and success, what are the 5 things you need to create a highly successful career in the telecommunication industry? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Well, it relates to what we discussed before with respect to the traits for being successful in one’s career. I would say that the most important thing is to always look for innovations — never get stale in your career. The field of telecommunication, and in general any scientific and engineering field, are progressing very fast. If you do not keep up to date, you actually move backwards.

Second thing, and this is in my opinion true for any industry, not necessarily telecommunication only, make sure that you love the type of work that you do. It should motivate you to get up every morning and go to do you work, because you want to do this, you are excited to do it, not because you must. If one is doing his or her job just because of the financial compensation, they are missing a big part of their lives. It is definitely fine to change positions if you are no longer enjoying what you are doing. There are many, many new opportunities out there, so seek the one that is most appropriate for you.

The third thing on my list would be to be connected with your peers. Network with your colleagues, both at work and at other gathering opportunities. You will learn about new opportunities in the field, about the current directions of the field, and get to know new people. Engineers do not work in a vacuum, so connections are important.

The fourth thing on my list is do not try to “reinvent the wheel.” Before you jump into starting a new project, see whether similar thongs have been already done. Can you learn about possible approaches to solve the problem from others solving similar problems in the past? We have at our hands an enormous tool — the Internet. It allows us to nearly instantly find information that can assist us with the most difficult tasks. I recall a story about a friend engineer who worked for months on solving a project, just to learn that a group in another country solved a much bigger and more difficult problem and published the results in a publicly accessible report on the very day that he started to work on the problem.

The fifth thing is collaboration and guidance. It is said that “two brains are better than one”. Discussing your work with a colleague in your department, can be a big step towards a journey of finding a solution. Often, just explaining the problem to someone else allows us to see other possible approaches. This worked for me numerous times. This is why in academia we have the wonderful benefit of working with bright students. Often, trying to explain a research problem with a student would makes the problem clearer for me. The opposite is true too — explaining your solution to someone else allows that other person to critically evaluate your work, saving you embarrassment by advertising an erroneous result.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The John Lennon’s song “Imagine” says “Imagine all the people sharing all the world”. Indeed, imagine that we can share all our technological progress and inventions truly with all the world people, not just those that are priviledged enough to take advantage of our progress. Distributing knowledge has enormous power to come back and benefit all of us. We are all connected in this world, and in one way or another, everything that we do affect other people, which would affect us in return. Imagine that all the talent of the world’s people, even the most disadvantaged people, could be used collectively to evolve our civilization to a better future.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We post all our papers online. My Wireless Networks Laboratory has a web page, where people can go and read news about my research group and about our work. Of course, if anyone is interested to learn more, I am always happy to chat or respond to emails. I am very keen on collaborations, especially cross-disciplinary ones.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

It has been my pleasure!

About The Interviewer: ​David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath​, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


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