Editorial: Can anyone tell me why I need 5G?

In the 1980s, one would sometimes see a bumper sticker posing the question, “Can anyone tell me why I need a personal computer?” It was a cranky response to marketing by early PC manufacturers — most of them now long forgotten — who pitched their products as your next essential household appliance, without really explaining what it was supposed to do. In fact, there was not a lot it could do. Basic word-processing was possible, but getting the result onto a printer could be an all-day affair, as various pieces of hardware did not play together nicely. Nor was there any place to send your file, since the Internet of the day was a baroque assortment of dozens of regional networks, each with its own complex communication protocols that had to be programmed into a modem, another piece of hardware that did not play nicely with PCs. And even if you succeeded in getting on-line, you could run up a massive phone bill in the process.

Skeptics of the PC were not Luddites, therefore, but realists waiting for the household appliance that was to come. The one that really would be essential — capable of sending virtual greeting cards, playing games, mixing music, doing our banking, and keeping many of us sane over the last few years by enabling elaborate video exchanges after everyone was told to go home and stay home. Many of these applications would have run on an earlier generation of PCs (and, like classic car fanatics, many retro computer wonks do just that), but the information technology ecosystem of the day did not prompt anyone to develop them. Nor was there a business case for doing so. As we now know better, commercially viable apps and hardware maintain a chicken-and-egg tension that often keeps consumers guessing. And when guessing turns to frustration, they write bumper stickers.

Which brings us to the latest manifestation of such tension, the hype surrounding 5G connectivity. Although numerically it would seem to be just the latest scale-up of data transmission capability for the wireless networks that follow us almost everywhere we go, this latest step is regularly touted as a game-changer, opening up a new range of applications for all of us. Unfortunately, as with the original PC, the nature of those innovations is being left to the imagination. And the providers of 5G hardware are among the least likely to exercise their imaginations in this way. Like the original PC-makers, they will be waiting for added-value from people and organizations with access to 5G, who use its new capability to do something that the rest of us may be willing to pay for.

As happened in the 1980s, many of these new goods or services will originate in universities, where professors and students are already playing with the potential of this new technology. Many of them can now foresee its exciting implications, which could lay the foundation for new enterprises Some of them might even have visions of starting their own enterprise. But even if they do, the profits — and likely the entire business — are likely to wind up in the hands of more aggressive investors with deep pockets.

In fact, these innovators may not even get that far, if the intellectual property they create belongs to whoever was funding their work. Again, like the 1980s, the full extent of their participation in the process may simply have been the fun of getting in on the ground floor of what these new toys can do. And for many of them, that may be enough.

For the rest of us, however, this outcome will fall far short of the mark. If we have learned anything since the 1980s, it is that the economic fate of nations can hinge upon how they embrace these new technologies. For all the happy talk around 5G and innovation, it comes with a host of potential pitfalls, including unprecedented cybersecurity risks. That was why Canada joined a group of countries that have formally banned the Chinese firm Huawei as a supplier of 5G hardware, on the assumption that the company could be forced by its government overseers to use this equipment to conduct espionage or engage in other unwelcome intrusions.

This move was politically and economically loaded, to say the least. It was intended to remove Huawei from the development of Canada’s 5G network, but it has not removed the company from a key sector of 5G innovation — the university network. An assortment of administrators and researchers at campuses across the country recently told The Globe and Mail that the federal government’s ban will not affect their research partnerships with Huawei. According to the Globe, the company spends around $25 million annually at about 20 public universities in Canada, including more than $6 million just at the University of British Columbia.

It took years for the federal government to ban Huawei as an equipment supplier, and it would be all but impossible to ban Canadian universities from collaborating with the company. In the meantime, the amount of intellectual property these research partnerships might generate — and who will ultimately own it — is anybody’s guess. As Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy, argued in Research Money last year, universities would do well to become more transparent on the subject with the Canadians that pay for so much of their work.

Unfortunately, the kind of transparency we will receive are loud expressions of pride at being the first past the post. Universities will be only too happy to celebrate some 5G innovation as a Canadian innovation, even as it becomes the backbone of a major offshore industry. One day the researchers involved might be feted with a Nobel prize — along with foreign partners, of course — for some scientific or technological contribution that left Canada almost as soon as their initial publication appeared.

Nor is there anything new to be learned here, as the lesson extends back much further than the 1980s, perhaps as far back as a million years. That is when new findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimate that stone tools at an archaeological site were burned by fire. This insight, co-authored by University of Toronto anthropologist Michael Chazon, comes courtesy of artificial intelligence, a noted field of global strength for Canadian innovation, which could be held hostage to the way 5G evolves in this country.

AI analysis of archaeological artifacts revealed the chemical changes caused by fire, something that was not at all evident to human investigators that had already studied them in detail. This observation makes it entirely possible that at least a million years ago, some genius figured out how to start a fire, so we could do all the amazing things our civilization has been doing ever since, such as serving up hot meals so we could do those things on a full stomach.

Spare a thought for that anonymous genius — first past the post — who undoubtedly showed others how fire-making worked. In short order, everyone would get in on the act, until it was no longer regarded as a remarkable innovation. What would be remarkable was the work of artisans, who were acquiring the more subtle skills of working with fire — giving us everything from bread and beer to alloyed metal. Long after our pioneering genius was forgotten, they would continue to be rewarded for their roles, which have never faded in significance, even after all this time.