UCL Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering


The Network Will Save Us

1 June 2020

10 ways the Internet will enable a post coronavirus world. Miguel Rio, Professor of Computer Networks


As the entire planet stayed home, the Internet kept us connected to our families, friends, teachers, and doctors. It enabled us to communicate, access information and entertainment as well as enjoy the arts. Despite some hiccups, like under-provisioned cloud servers and some video codecs too bandwidth hungry, it did a pretty good job at it. As we prepare to live in a new reality on the other side of the curve, here are 10 ways that the future Internet will enable the planet to shift into new ways of living.  

1. Home working
As the lockdowns started many of us retreated to working from home. Video-conferencing tools like zoom or Microsoft Teams, allowed many of us to have meetings wherever we were. Telepresence will become much more prevalent. But we will want better quality. Better video, better sound, better backgrounds. In the future, with hologram projections (like George Luca’s Princess Leia showed us in 1977), we will be able to better emulate  physical meetings. To achieve this, we need a faster Internet with smaller delays than we have now.

2. Telemedicine
 As we stayed home, many of our fellow citizens needed access to medicine and we came up short. We need to enable every house to be a virtual doctor’s office with good video and sound, but also with as much instrumentation as possible (blood pressure, glucose monitoring, stethoscope etc) remotely accessible by our health professionals. We also need to have homes that take care of us with continuing monitoring and voice interventions if possible. We can even work towards connected AIs to fight one of the biggest problems of society: loneliness. This telemedicine vision needs a network that is much more resilient and secure than today, and we will all need at least two good connections to the Internet. One optical and one wireless.

3. Hospital of the future
An aging population coupled with new and emerging health technologies are increasing the number of people in hospitals. But healthcare budgets are not rising proportionally. Connected technologies can be crucial to increase productivity in health and social care industry by remote-monitoring patients and their environment (including their beds) and communicating this in real-time to algorithmic assisted decision making. Use of connected augmented reality in medical procedures will improve outcomes and virtual reality can be used to improve patients’ experience in the hospital. Again, a more reliable and faster Internet is needed.

4. Education
Delivering education during the lockdown has been challenging. Content delivery was not ready and the lack of Internet access for many brought to the limelight issues on equality of Internet access. Going forward, we will need to do much better. Even when schools are back to normal there is so much more we can do educationally in the home. High quality interactive content, again with holograms at some point, can capture the imagination of our children when learning history, science and even maths. But most importantly, connectivity to machine learning algorithms can provide personalised education delivered to every student helping everybody to reach their potential. 

5. Transport
One aspect of life that will, hopefully, change significantly is transport. Despite a nostalgic relationship with trains that many people have, they are not a great way of moving people around. They are expensive, overcrowded and timetable dependent. Urban trains in rush hour are particularly unpleasant. One day we will look back with disgust at how people travelled to work like this. Connected technologies will be able to help a lot. We will be able to timeshift the use of public transport more efficiently. If we can’t work from home, we can travel at different times, working on the train with the help of high bandwidth wireless broadband. Later in the decade when AI makes driverless cars possible, a development that will need lots of connectivity by itself, we will be able to work, sleep or be entertained inside our vehicles thanks again to high bandwidth wireless connections.

6. Virtual transport
But often we won’t want to travel. The future Internet will allow us to bring our destinations to our homes. With technologies like virtual reality, we can bring a virtual representation of any place in the world to our living room. First, we will use uncomfortable headsets but later we will have ‘StarTrek’s Holodeck-like’ projection system. Why go through uncomfortable airports and stay at dodgy hotels when you can enjoy everything that Planet Earth has to offer before tucking into your own bed. And the planet will thank you for reducing your carbon footprint.

7. Onshoring of supply chains
Globalisation was already in retreat and the crisis will probably accelerate that movement. With the improvements in robotics and the realisation that producing things, especially things that are crucial for national security, cannot be left to market forces, we are going to see big movements towards onshoring. Networking through the internet of things (IoT) is going to be critical to improve productivity in the manufacturing sector and compensate for higher labour costs. Supply chain real-time management will improve by tracking all the components in real-time with much better precision in space and time. Technologies like narrowband IoT (part of 5G) are going to be critical.

8. Farming and food production
Before the crisis, there were already movements to reduce the carbon footprint of our food by producing it more locally. As the threats of food security become more ingrained, we are going to see much more food produced closer to home. With technologies like LEDs and robot assisted vertical farms, every country can become self-sufficient. Again IoT, assisted by robots (or drones), will help increase productivity of soil (an even scarcer resource if we want to plant the trees needed to fight climate change)  by taking in numerous measurements of soil and weather and being able to pinpoint light, water and fertiliser efficiently.

9. Arts and entertainment 
When many of us fought boredom and depression locked in our houses, the arts came to save us. The National Theatre, Andrew Loyd Weber’s musicals and so many others came streaming into our living room. The idea that we shouldn’t have to travel to a big city to watch a big show is something that needs work in the years to come. One can create distributed audience participation systems that create new business models and bring shows to people that could never enjoy them. But this cannot just be a one-way data path. It needs to be both ways. The audience needs to be able to participate remotely in the show. Sounds, facial expressions, heartbeats, even hormone readings should be able to be sent back in real-time establishing synchronicity between the spectator (either at home or in small local theatres) and the performer. Again, we need faster networks to achieve this.

10 Epidemics 
The Coronavirus crisis caught the entire planet off-guard. Most of the countries did not have the technology and equipment to manage it. No decent app to trace contacts. No infrastructure for immunity passports. And the delays in reporting the outbreaks in most countries contributed significantly to increases in the epidemic. When the governments needed to make preparations for the new arrangements (new hospitals, new volunteer networks, massive distribution of medical equipment) we cannot stop thinking that better IoT connectivity would make things significantly better. We may think that this was a one-off, a black swan in 100 years but the destruction of habitats are bringing wild animals, like bats, into closer contact to us, increasing the likelihood of these events. Furthermore pandemics can come from bio-hacking/bio-terrorism where costs are going down dramatically or from human errors in our labs. We need to be ready next time. And with more of our health data being stored in real-time in your phones we can detect the next outbreak before anybody shows any symptoms.

Most of these things are not possible with today’s Internet. We need to upgrade it to be faster, more resilient and more secure. And it needs to be everywhere. If the virus is a portal to a new world, building this new world will require 3 things:

  • First: We need to invest in better broadband for everybody. We need fibre to the home and good wireless access (either through cellular or satellite for very remote areas). This will not require significant taxpayer support since the vast majority will be able to pay for the long-term investment. 
  • Second, we need more support for research and development into all areas of high-speed networking, both fundamental and applied. The Internet needs a significant upgrade. 
  • Finally, we need to have national conversations about our relationship with technology, namely what are the trade-offs between security and privacy and how we create technological and legal mechanisms to accommodate both without having to trust our governments too much. 

Miguel Rio is a Professor of Computer Networks in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at University College London. He holds a Meng and MSc from the University of Minho, Portugal and a Phd from the University of Kent, United Kingdom. He has been a principle investigator in numerous research projects funded by the UK government, the European Union, industry and the US/UK military. His current interests are on edge networking, software defined networking, network resilience and improving network quality of experience.