Forget 5G, Soon Skynet Will Rule Our Airwaves

Mike Dano
10/17/2019

In the 1984 sci-fi film "The Terminator," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Skynet was the military's fictional artificial intelligence (AI) program that became self-aware and decided to exterminate humanity. Because of reasons.

Back here in the real world, the US military is dabbling in AI, but not necessarily the killer-robot variety. Instead, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking at how AI could better manage wireless communications.

DARPA's goal is to create a wireless network that can transmit enormous amounts of data while concurrently dodging interference from a wide variety of sources -- the agency is looking at technology that could ultimately make 5G obsolete. Or at least a lot less important.

What's more: DARPA expects to have something to show for its efforts as early as next week. That's when the agency's three-year "Spectrum Collaboration Challenge" (SC2) comes to a close. During next week's MWC Los Angeles trade show, DARPA will award a $2 million prize to the team of researchers who creates the best Skynet for spectrum management.

"The main driver for this competition is really in trying to answer the question, 'Can we make a new breed of autonomous radios that are able to dynamically and collaboratively figure out how to share spectrum, moment-by-moment?" explained Paul Tilghman, a DARPA program manager who is overseeing the agency's spectrum challenge.

Let's get nerdy for a minute
Fans of wireless transmission technologies know that 5G is, at its most basic level, a really efficient way to transmit data over radio frequency. However, it only works if there's nothing else happening in the spectrum band it's using. That's why Verizon has spent billions of dollars on making sure it has exclusive access to spectrum licenses in bands ranging from AWS to millimeter wave.

But what if Verizon could push 5G into other spectrum bands that it doesn't own? Like, the spectrum that AT&T owns -- or the spectrum that the US government owns? (Or, from the US military's perspective, what if soldiers could still communicate with each other when the enemy is trying to jam their signal?)

That's the core idea behind DARPA's SC2. Since 2016 the agency has been encouraging teams of researchers to figure out how AI might be able to manage wireless communications so that, for example, Verizon's 5G network could operate in the same spectrum band as AT&T's 5G network and not cause any interference.

Survival of the most spectrally efficient
So how does DARPA's spectrum competition work? It puts wireless networks into a specially designed, WWE-style cage match to fight it out. It's called the Colosseum. I'm not joking.

DARPA's Colosseum is currently housed in Laurel, Md., at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, but it will be moved to Los Angeles for the SC2 finals next week. It sports 21 server racks and consumes 65 kilowatts, and "can emulate more than 65,000 unique interactions, such as text messages or video streams, between 128 radios at once," Tilghman wrote in IEEE Spectrum. Researchers can tweak it so that it can simulate all kinds of real-world wireless networks and interference challenges. It's the Thunderdome of 5G.

As Tilghman explained, the contestants in DARPA's spectrum challenge have been developing all kinds of different AI programs to manage wireless communications, and they essentially compete with each other inside the Colosseum to see who can transmit the most data the fastest.

In that regard, the competition takes the unique spectrum-sharing technology developed for the 3.5GHz CBRS band and puts it into overdrive.

Finding Skynet
Ten teams are competing in DARPA's SC2 finals next week. The first, second and third place winners will walk away with $2 million, $1 million and $750,000 in prizes, respectively. The teams competing are:

  • Andersons – an independent competitor
  • Dragon Radio – Drexel University
  • Erebus – a team of independent researchers
  • GatorWings – University of Florida
  • How Make Radio – Agitator LLC
  • MarmotE – Vanderbilt University
  • SCATTER – IDLab, an imec research group at Ghent University and University of Antwerp, and Rutgers University
  • Sodium-24 – an independent competitor
  • Sprite – Northeastern University
  • Zylinium – a team of independent researchers

Already some competitors are hyping the event.

"Last year… we only would award prizes to teams that demonstrated that their radio system could figure out how to use the spectrum better than today's status quo, which is a static set of allocations," Tilghman said. "The question now is really, how good can they do? Honestly we don't know that answer yet. That's why we have a huge championship event. It's going to showcase what the future of autonomy in the wireless world really holds."

So next week ten teams will enter the Thunderdome and Skynet might be developed as a result. If so, there's only one 1980s sci-fi catchphrase left to say:

— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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