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The Road to 2030 in the Age of Intelligence

Huawei plans to help shape the intelligent world by focusing on key research areas. Find out what they are.

By 36Kr

On May 11, 1997, IBM's supercomputer Deep Blue caused a sensation throughout the world when it defeated the then world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. It was hard to imagine that Deep Blue was a giant that weighed 1,270 kilograms, had 32 brains (microprocessors), and could perform 200 million calculations per second, with a computing power of 11.38 GFLOPS.

On March 15, 2016, AIphaGo, Google's Go-playing AI, won the final match in a five-part man-machine series of matches against then world Go champion Lee Sedol, beating Sedol four matches to one. According to Sogou CEO Wang Xiaochuan, AlphaGo's computing power is 30,000 times that of IBM's Deep Blue. Today’s most powerful modern supercomputers boast hundreds of thousands of times more computing power than Deep Blue. In fact, any laptop has more computing power than Deep Blue, showing how quickly computing power has progressed over the past 20 years.

Kai-Fu Lee said that chess is considered as a standard for testing the level of an AI. Go has 300 more times the possible plays than chess, so if AI can defeat the best human Go players, that indicates that the development of AI has entered a new stage. To many observers, AlphaGo's victory over Lee Sedol heralded the dawn of the AI era. Google's former CEO Eric Schmidt said that no matter who wins the game, it is actually a victory for humans.

The future is here

Today, AI technology is being widely applied. In the stock market, AI is better at adapting to changes and predicting results than people are. In the news media industry, AI writes faster and makes fewer errors than human writers. In smart manufacturing, more robots are being equipped with sensors and AI capabilities to  work with people.

In the healthcare domain, AI-enabled medical equipment has greatly changed the way medical services are delivered and received, improving the well-being of patients at lower cost.

In the logistics domain, intelligent robotic warehousing systems use AI capabilities provided by micro data center facilities both on the cloud and on site to communicate with each other and handle tasks, shortening the time required for order picking to minutes.

Intelligent transportation systems use big data and cloud technology to improve transportation efficiency and reduce environmental pollution by easing traffic congestion and cutting energy consumption.

When COVID-19 broke out, intelligent technology played an active role in pandemic prevention and control, drug development, disease diagnosis and treatment, and more. Intelligent technology gave birth to new ways of working and living, such as cloud conferencing and cloud classrooms, and contributed greatly to resuming production.

Israel, for example, has a very small land area, less than half of the Pearl River Delta in China and 45% of the land is desert. Arable land accounts for only one-fifth of Israel's land area — the country is pretty barren. Israel gets only two-thirds as much annual precipitation as China's rainless central and western regions. However, by using big data and AI, Israel has turned itself into a major agricultural exporter. The annual yield of cotton is 7,500 kg per hectare, and the annual yield of citrus fruits can be up to 4.5 tons per hectare.

This is the magic of intelligent technology. The core technologies of the first Industrial Revolution, second Industrial Revolution, and Information Revolution were steam engines, electricity, and computers/semiconductor chips, respectively. Each technological revolution reshaped the industrial landscape and created new industries that characterized the era.

We are now witnessing the Intelligent Revolution led by 5G, IoT, and AI. Intelligent technology will become a new driver of economic growth, a new blue ocean for industry development, and a new engine for the high-quality development of the digital world.

New challenges of the intelligent world

Bill Gates once said that we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. This is exactly the mistake that many people are making with the Intelligent Revolution. We have overestimated the development speed of intelligent technology in the next two years. However, although 5G cannot meet the requirements of diverse IoT scenarios today, we've perhaps underestimated the changes it will bring in the next decade.

The Intelligent Revolution will bring us both unprecedented opportunities and challenges. We envision that a fully connected, intelligent world is just around the corner. However, the reality is that most current technologies are still far from mature and reliable.

Humanity and the capabilities that we’ve acquired through the use of current technology does not always mean we can outperform other animals in the natural world. For example, phone cameras have achieved 100x zoom, but there’s still a huge gap between camera capabilities and a spider’s eyes in terms of detecting the outlines of objects and motion. Therefore, we may learn from spiders to develop cameras that meet the requirements of autonomous driving. An ant's brain only consumes 0.2 mW of power, but can process many activities, like nesting, socializing, fighting, and feeding aphids. Today's deep neural network training in the AI domain is nowhere near as efficient as an ant's brain. If we can learn more about how the ant brain works, the industry may find new types of computing with lower power consumption and higher efficiency.

From a long-term perspective, the ICT industry is facing new challenges in the next 10 or even 20 years, and urgently needs a new round of breakthroughs. "The continuous development of IoT services such as autonomous driving requires ultra-broadband, low latency, and highly reliable computing power," said William Xu, Huawei's Director of the Board and President of the Institute of Strategic Research, at the Huawei Global Analyst Summit 2021. "However, 5G is currently not mature enough to support these diverse IoT scenarios."

Huawei believes that by the next decade, there will be hundreds of billions of connections around the world. Broadband speeds of 10 Gbps will be available for every user. We will see a 100-fold increase in computing power and storage capacity. More than 50% of energy will come from renewable sources. The technologies that power the generation, transmission, processing, and use of information and energy will need to evolve.

Based on these predictions and assumptions, Huawei presented, for the first time, the challenges and research directions it foresees in the next decade.

  • Defining 5.5G to support hundreds of billions of diverse connections
  • Nanoscale optics for an exponential increase in fiber capacity
  • Optimizing network protocols to connect all things
  • Computing power strong enough for the intelligent world
  • Extracting knowledge from massive data for breakthroughs in industrial AI
  • Going beyond von Neumann architecture for 100x denser storage systems
  • Combining computing and sensing for a hyper-reality, multi-modal experience
  • Enabling continuous self-monitoring for more proactive health management
  • An intelligent Internet of Energy for the generation, storage, and consumption of greener electricity

These nine challenges and research directions are linked to each other. When we try to understand them based on the three pillars of our world – matter, energy, and information, the logical relationship among these challenges and research directions will become clearer to us.

Let’s consider the challenges of aging populations and accelerating energy consumption. Data shows that global energy consumption is growing at an annual rate of 1.7%. According to report statistics, the pace of energy consumption has increased by 22 times since the 18th century. Currently 85% of the energy comes from non-renewable fossil fuels, while other emerging energy sources are not ready yet to play a major role. Therefore, low-carbon energy, broader electrification of industries, and intelligence are the path to sustainability.

Huawei estimates that by 2030, more than 50% of all energy will come from renewable sources, and more than 50% of cars sold will be electric. By empowering a wide range of industries, ICT has the potential to reduce global carbon emissions by 20% over the next decade. To build an intelligent Internet of Energy to achieve green electricity generation, storage, and consumption, advancements in the following key technologies are required.

First, management technologies. Digital technologies, such as big data, AI, and cloud, need to be integrated with the Internet of Energy to achieve bit-based watt management through an energy cloud and energy network.

Second, control technologies. Power electronics-based energy routers can be used to build intelligent energy network controllers that realize bidirectional energy flow and intelligent energy distribution.

Third, energy storage technologies. New energy storage technologies, including new electrochemical and hydrogen storage mediums, need to be developed for multiple scenarios to meet these growing storage requirements.

Fourth, power electronic technologies. Wide-bandgap semiconductors, including SiC and diamond for medium- and high-voltage applications, and GaN for medium- and low-voltage applications will be needed to make energy components more efficient and compact.

The intelligent era is still in its infancy, but the next ten years promises to bring changes that are more revolutionary than ever imagined. To advance toward the intelligent world of 2030, we need to address a range of challenges, involving connectivity, capacity, protocols, and computing power.

According to William Xu, the nine technological challenges and directions for further research represent what Huawei believes is needed to achieve an intelligent world by 2030: stronger connectivity, faster computing, and greener energy. 

Embracing the next decade

With imagination, we can see the future, but with technology, we can get there. In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly argues that there has never been a better day in the whole history of the world to invent something.

At the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, we can see that the ICT industry is facing tremendous development opportunities and that the world is moving towards digitalization and intelligence. What will the world look like in 2030?

Many of the new technologies we know will reach the tipping point of revolution and penetrate further into every aspect of our lives. The creation and practices of entrepreneurs have shown people what the future can look like. In the future, technologies such as autonomous driving, robotics, IoT, 3D printing, blockchain, and hyper-reality, multi-modal experience will mature and be applied.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, once predicted that future machines would know you better than you know yourself, because artificial intelligence programs would be learning about you every day, beginning at birth, reading your every email and listening to every beat of your heart. Ultimately, it would be able to help you make better choices about anything, including life-changing decisions like who to marry and when. Heavy manual labor will increasingly be handled by robots, allowing humans to spend more time thinking and with family and friends.

What can we do today to advance toward the intelligent world of 2030? The answer lies in two key concepts — technological innovation and trust-based cooperation.

Huai Jinpeng, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, once argued that choice of a direction and path has become an ability and wisdom. In his view, cooperation and communication are the best choice when facing challenges and confusion in the intelligent era. The right path to intelligent development is to ensure that we are moving in the right direction without being concerned about immediate benefits.

This is in line with Huawei's belief that to meet the needs of human development and solve the problems we face, we need to bring together the wisdom and creativity of all mankind. We must overcome challenges through an open, inclusive, collaborative, and innovative mechanism. We also need to combine industry, academia, research, and applications to address challenges and embrace opportunities with technological innovation.

Examples in this regard include:

  • Supported by governments and the coordination of industry organizations, we can work together with industry players in industry alliances to create a development environment that encourages unity and cooperation for shared success.
  • Leveraging industry and enterprise resources, we can set up innovation laboratories in universities to develop high-quality basic research talent and industry talent to meet society's need for diverse intelligent development.
  • Allowing industry challenges and the world's most pressing problems to determine the direction of scientific research, leveraging the sturdy platforms and resources of enterprises, driven by high-quality research projects, and with the leadership of scientists, academicians, and experts, we can support promising young and mid-career scientists in conducting exploratory and original basic research. This will expand China's room for maneuver and influence worldwide in basic technology research and innovation.
  • We can also identify and develop market demands, and set up R&D and application pilots for typical industry use cases based on leading enterprises to create a virtuous cycle of application, demand, and supply.

Undoubtedly, in terms of the prospect of creating a fully intelligent world by the next decade, the ability to unite the entire industry for collaborative innovation in certain areas of focus will really make a difference. Restoring the normal business order of the semiconductor industry requires rebuilding global trust and collaboration in the global value chain. As William Xu said, we need to integrate industrial challenges and academic insight, then adopt a venture capital mindset to innovate together and build the intelligent world of 2030.

In the current environment, this trust and cooperation will not be easy to restore, but with the powerful vision of an intelligent world to guide us, we believe that humanity is bound to reach a consensus.

In his book Intelligent Age, Wu Jun said that in past technological revolutions, a person, an enterprise, or even a country had only two options: join the wave and become one of the top 2%, or wait and hesitate, and then be eliminated. How can we become one of the 2% today? The simple answer is that we must ride the waves of the Intelligent Revolution.