How Optical & Wireless Could Build the 'Internet of Skills'

LOS ANGELES — What comes after the Internet of Things? How about the Internet of Skills?

In an OFC keynote Tuesday morning, Mischa Dohler, a professor at King’s College in London, pitched the idea of an Internet fast enough to, essentially, transfer expertise. It would make possible all kinds of sci-fi concepts, such as remote surgery, where a robotic arm could not only receive the surgeon’s commands but also transmit a sense of touch, via haptic gloves, back to the human surgeon.

The idea came to him while in Sierra Leone, observing how many people had no access to medical professionals.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t we combine our cutting-edge robotics with cutting-edge networking and a bit of really good AI and build an entirely new Internet’ — an Internet which would allow us to virtualize skills and transmit them from anywhere on the planet,” he said.

Piano Man

Mischa Dohler, sporting his smartest duds and a haptic glove.

You’ve already heard futurists suggest such ideas. The difference here is that Dohler has done the math; he’s researching how to overcome the major impediments. And he’s connected his efforts with an end-to-end 5G research effort that includes the University of Surrey, the University of Bristol and King’s College.

The Internet of Skills might sound like it has mostly to do with wireless — some of it was demo’ed at Mobile World Congress, in fact — so why bring it up at an optical conference? The obvious answer is that all this wireless connectivity needs wired backhaul. But it goes beyond that. If things go Dohler’s way, the pressure on the wired network will be even more immense than you’d expect.

For example: Signals would be sent unencoded — uncompressed. That’s the only way to overcome latency problems when these connections become global — from the UK out to Los Angeles, for example. The speed of light becomes a noticeable factor at that distance, so the delay created by encoders becomes unacceptable.

Without encoding, “your data traffic just goes through the roof,” Dohler said. To the optical engineers in the audience, he added, “You have a lot of work to do to help us.”

For example, it would help if buffering and routing could be done at the optical layer. “It’s one of the homeworks I’d like to give,” he told the OFC audience. “I know it works in the lab, but I’d like to make it commercial.”

What’s the point of doing all this? One reason is because it’s just plain cool, Dohler said. He doesn’t think our society does enough to celebrate science and technology. Another motivation would be a “democratization of skills,” as he put it. “I could teach somebody how to play the piano [Dohler is an accomplished pianist], and somebody could teach me how to paint.”

But he also sees a chance to create disruptive differences in some industries — remote surgery being one example. Combine that with the democratization of skills, and things really get interesting. “If we could digitize that skill of the operation, we could save it in a database and could replay it like Netflix,” he said.

— Craig Matsumoto, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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