Announcement: Human Augmentation—New Technology Area

Explorer introduces a new technology area: Human Augmentation. Emerging human-augmentation technologies will aid healthy people as well as people with reduced abilities, and are poised to be highly disruptive across society and many industries—but their use will raise many questions over how the law, regulations, and ethics should apply. Read more


Archived Viewpoints

About This Technology

Cell phones and mobile services are simply part of the fabric of people's lives in the developed world—and increasingly so in emerging economies. Mobile-communications technologies have already greatly transformed the way we work, play, and relate to one another. Some 90% of US adults have a cell phone, and cell-phone market penetration surpasses 100% in some countries where many people have active accounts with more than one mobile service. Yet the changes are ongoing, and disruptions continue to occur. Smartphones, mobile apps, high-data-rate connections, and new forms of social interaction generate a steady stream of news and commentary but are still not in use by the majority of cellular-service users worldwide—notably in China. And even with the current state of the art, people continue to aspire to use smartphones for an expanding range of applications that are not yet available or practical. Certainly, cell phones have rapidly penetrated the mass market, but the full promise of mobile communications will not become reality until mobile devices become ubiquitous channels for just-in-time information access, work-anywhere productivity, find-anything shopping, pay-anywhere transactions, real-time logistics advice, and other transformative offerings.

People often use the word mobile to refer to typical cell-phone services that enable users to remain connected wirelessly to a network even in motion at high speeds. Many mobile-data applications depend on such services, which are currently undergoing a transition from using third-generation digital technologies to using fourth-generation infrastructures and devices. Much interest focuses on the competition among smartphone operating systems and the emergence of new must-have cloud services. Some companies are especially concerned with the competition among the most popular technologies (which emerged from the GSM road map), the alternative technologies advocated by Qualcomm (CDMA2000), and the alternative technologies advocated by the Chinese government (TD-SCDMA). But the CDMA-versus-GSM rivalry that has marked the mobile-technology marketplace during recent decades is fading as a unified fourth-generation technology takes hold. And the roles of local- and personal-area networks are changing as Bluetooth developers promote applications beyond simple replacement of cables and as Wi-Fi becomes increasingly important for containing the price of data services and the costs of supporting increased data traffic on congested mobile networks. Moreover, new wireless technologies—such as near-field communication are promising to introduce new waves of innovations for mobile transactions, connected everyday objects, and body-area networks. Recent trends toward reintroducing infrared interfaces to smartphones may also lead to applications that reinforce a sense that handsets are destined to become universal remote controls for life.

Now that we have experienced several decades of mobile-services developments, what do technology road maps have in store, and what new applications and services will emerge? Advanced research in 5G networking aims to increase bandwidth and coverage of networks dramatically, with a goal of increasing capacity by a factor of 1000. Such improvements aim to accommodate many wirelessly connected devices per person, eliminate network congestion at peak times, and accelerate creation of new applications. No one knows what 5G technologies will take hold, but technologies under development include repurposing of former TV-broadcasting frequencies, energy-efficient multicasting of popular content to many people at once, and protocols that let a user receive data that relay from multiple people's nearby phones that are not in use (sometimes, cooperative wireless networking). How will people use the greatly expanded capacity? Everyday objects, vehicles, and large infrastructure systems will interconnect in an Internet of Things, enabling smartphones to provide detailed information about billions of RFID-tagged everyday objects—for example, food packages that report detailed information about food origins, nutritional content, and recipes. Smartphones also promise to improve their interoperability with existing electronics, becoming remote controls for TVs, energy appliances, and security systems. Question-answering apps such as Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google's Google Now promise to evolve into conversational interfaces that interpret vague requests and ask users for clarification. Much competitive activity seeks to execute retail transactions and peer-to-peer payments and to replace bank cards, checks, cash, and paper receipts for retail purchases. And many developers see a future that is rich with wearable health sensors, smart wristwatches, and head-mounted displays (such as Google Glass) that will allow users to multitask while standing and walking and leave their hands free to use for diverse tasks.