Digitization for printing, virtual worlds and smart 5G networks – better take a deep breath!

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What's the most important event between the MWC and CeBIT? A deep breath. Don't laugh, but I've got a 3D printer in my office now. It's there for me to try out and play around with. Maybe I'll print out a new case for my cell phone. Or output a wearable. In any case, that gray box has already "printed out" an admonishment. To the effect that we need to be braver and take more risks in our thinking. In just a few years, 3D printers are going to be turning out human organs for transplants. Biological printing is coming of age. You don't agree? Futurologists such as Ray Kurzweil, an American researcher, speak about the "law of accelerating returns" – which means that the pace of technological change keeps speeding up. So that change is much faster today than it was, say, just 10 years ago.

 Claudia Nemat, Member of the Deutsche Telekom AG Board of Management, Technology and Innovation

Claudia Nemat, Board Member Deutsche Telekom AG, responsible for Technology and Innovation

As the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona and CeBIT in Hanover clearly show us, the future is knocking on our door. Innovations with great potential are here. We thus need to be much more radical in imagining and thinking through the possibilities that digitization can open up. We need scenarios that are more disruptive. Here's a simple self-test: you know you're going in the right direction when other people start making fun of your predictions and plans. And we need to stay aware of what other people are already doing. Labels such as "not invented here" or "crazy fantasies" must not be allowed to kill innovations.

In Barcelona, when I moved away from the Deutsche Telekom stand, it was still impossible to avoid virtual reality and 5G, the next mobile communications standard. These two topics are going to take digitization to the next level. 3D is yet another key topic, and not only for the logistics sector. I'll get back to it in greater detail another time.

Turning to 5G – this new standard is going to change how we think about networking. In Spain, we presented a fully functioning, end-to-end 5G network. It has a flexible architecture that enables it to take on an extremely diverse range of characteristics. Its system structure is software-defined. It uses open interfaces, hardware based on industrial standards and network slicing, i.e., the division of a network into virtual networks. So what are the implications?

Just think about applications in the cities of the future, for example. Sensors, on everything from trash cans to streetlights to parking spaces, gathering data on any number of different parameters. Or just think of digital applications for farming. Sensors in the soil, or on plants, keeping farmers informed about key factors such as moisture, fertilizers and pest infestations. Experts predict that billions of such sensors will be introduced over the next few decades – in addition to the chips already present in smartphones, laptops, kitchen appliances, automobiles, etc.. All of these different devices and units will need to be able to communicate with one another. This new world of interconnection will open up new dimensions of coordination and efficiency.

And then of course there is our network latency record of less than 1 millisecond. 5G, with its new potential for delay reduction in signal transmission, will also open up new possibilities for autonomous devices (automobiles, drones, etc.).

Virtual reality, i.e., highly realistic environments generated by goggles, for example, and augmented reality, i.e., computer-generated injection of digital information over a normal field of perception, are still seen by most people as recreations for nerds. Or, at best, as gimmicks for gamers.

The so-called "hype cycle" often comes into play in connection with innovations. When they first appear, technical innovations often meet with exaggerated expectations. Then, when they actually start getting used, they disappoint. Only later do they achieve truly productive market maturity. The first consumer version of the Google Glass headset is considered a failure, for example. On the other hand, in Barcelona I saw a pilot project, employing such a headset for applications in maintenance and assembly operations, that was very impressive indeed. In all likelihood, service technicians will begin relying more and more on such technologies, for such things as checking details of components, reviewing assembly steps or receiving live support from the head office.

Virtual reality will totally change our concept of what "being in one place" means. Already, one can easily attend lectures at a university in England or the U.S. via the Internet. But what if students in Germany, Nigeria or Korea could participate in class discussions via virtual reality, within a virtual classroom? The whole concept of being present in a specific place will also acquire a new dimension in the workplace. The boundaries between workplaces, homes and mobile working environments are blurring. Collaboration over long distances will become even easier than it already is.

For some people, such scenarios are rather disquieting. We're still at the very beginning of the whole digital transformation process, and yet we are already seeing enormous changes. Throughout all areas of our everyday lives. What about such issues as data privacy, jobs and independence? Yes, the risks are there. But to control them, we have to get involved – we can't simply ignore them or try to block them. I am convinced that we can shape the future in ways that will keep the focus on people, and I believe that the opportunities predominate. Our society and companies need to be working toward these positive ends and cooperating in developing digital responsibility. The network of things is going to become a reality, and thus we need to be discussing, openly and courageously, where we need to set our boundaries. #digitalduty