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Carnegie Mellon University’s Swarun Kumar On How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives

An Interview With David Liu

5G could improve our lives in many ways. The speed up offered with 5G networks would improve the download speeds and streaming quality for applications such as gaming, HD video streaming, and video conferencing. It could also enable new applications that are latency-sensitive such as augmented reality and connectivity for autonomous cars. 5G could also enable smart infrastructure, smart homes, smarter factories, and workplaces by connecting ubiquitous sensors ranging from traffic lights, roadside sensors, and thermostats.

5G infrastructure is being installed around the world. At the same time, most people have not yet seen what 5G can offer. What exactly is 5G? How will it improve our lives? What are the concerns that need to be addressed before it is widely adopted?

In our series, called, How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives, we are talking to tech and telecom leaders who can share how 5G can impact and enhance our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Swarun Kumar.

Swarun Kumar is an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department with an affiliate appointment in the Computer Science Department and the Human-Computer Interaction Institute. His research builds next-generation wireless network protocols and services. Swarun leads the Emerging Wireless Technologies Laboratory at CMU. He is a recipient of the 2021 SIGBED Early Career Researcher award, the NSF CAREER award, and the Google Faculty Research award. Swarun received the George Sprowls Award for best Ph.D. thesis in Computer Science at MIT and the President of India gold medal at IIT Madras.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started to truly get excited about wireless systems research during my Ph.D. at MIT where I worked on building next-generation services for Wi-Fi. Over my Ph.D., I built systems that increased the speed of Wi-Fi several fold, particularly in crowded spaces like restaurants and airports where Wi-Fi tends to slow down. My research influenced next-generation Netgear Wi-Fi access points in improving their speed and performance. Since moving to CMU, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to explore how 5G and beyond can enable connected everything — enabling new applications for smart cities and smart infrastructure. At the WiTech lab at CMU, we are currently deploying new wireless systems for connecting smart sensors, improving accessibility for persons with disabilities and enabling lower-cost access to high speed Internet — initiatives that I am extremely proud of.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of the most fun projects I worked on started with my Ph.D. student complaining about uneven heating of pizza he cooked in the microwave oven. We then realized — this is a wireless research problem, because — after all, the microwave oven is technically a device that uses wireless energy for cooking. We have since developed smart microwave ovens that use wireless system design principles for specialized cooking applications such as cooking meat and fish — applications you normally never use a microwave for.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is perhaps Albert Einstein’s: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” We can perhaps never learn everything there is about the world in one lifetime. But our creativity, intuition and imagination can let us better navigate the unknown. As a researcher who attempts to venture beyond the limits of known science and technology, imagination and intuition are perhaps the best guides we have.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am truly grateful to many people in my life. My parents who are forever encouraging and never felt that I had limits; they had to truly work hard to help me be where I am today. My wife, Poornima, and two kids — Saanvi and Rithwik — have been a pillar of support. I have had the good fortune of having amazing students, mentors and collaborators throughout my career and I am extremely grateful to them all. I want to especially mention my Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Dina Katabi, who worked tirelessly for all her students; I recall once how she helped me polish a talk to a major international conference by working on my presentation for twenty-four hours straight.

Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I think creativity, persistence and collaboration are the key to success. My research has been guided by taking a creative approach to problems, and then consistently investing the effort needed to achieve our vision with an inter-disciplinary team. For instance, our research lab has explored new ways to make everyday fabric and material interactive. Imagine carpets or furniture that could be instantly transformed to touchscreens that you could use to interact with your mobile devices. While this was an exciting and creative vision, making it a reality required working with diverse researchers with expertise in material science and human-computer interaction. We also had to invest significant time, effort, and persistence in moving from a paper design to a viable system demonstration.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects? How do you think that will help people?

Building on our prior work on smart wireless materials, we have recently developed soft and transparent tattoos that can be attached to the skin to help persons with disabilities. Our technology can help patients navigate muscle impairments monitor their condition over time. Most recently, we have demonstrated the use of this technology to sense the intended speech of persons with voice impairments by sensing their facial and neck gestures without the need for manual input to a text-to-speech system. We believe this technology can provide a new modality for improving accessibility for persons with voice disabilities.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Like 4G, 5G has many different facets, and I’m sure many will approach this question differently. But for the benefit of our readers can you explain to us what 5G is? How is 5G different from its predecessor 4G?

5G broadly describes the next generation of cellular networks after 4G. In simple terms, its main objective is to improve the speed of mobile Internet connectivity that users experience. This means a speed up for applications such as HD video streaming and gaming on cellular devices networks. Besides these traditional applications, 5G could enable new applications such as augmented reality and connectivity for the Internet of Things. In this sense, 5G is also about improving reliability, latency, and scale, besides just a raw network speedup for its users.

Can you share three or four ways that 5G might improve our lives? If you can please share an example, for each.

5G could improve our lives in many ways. The speed up offered with 5G networks would improve the download speeds and streaming quality for applications such as gaming, HD video streaming, and video conferencing. It could also enable new applications that are latency-sensitive such as augmented reality and connectivity for autonomous cars. 5G could also enable smart infrastructure, smart homes, smarter factories, and workplaces by connecting ubiquitous sensors ranging from traffic lights, roadside sensors, and thermostats.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this 5G technology that people should think more deeply about?

I view 5G as a vehicle to bring ubiquitous and high-quality Internet coverage to a larger number of people. I do have concerns about the cost of 5G access, the speed of 5G deployments and equity in the deployment of 5G. However, I have no doubts that 5G in and of itself would benefit the communities where it is deployed.

Some have raised the question that 5G might widen the digital divide and leave poor people or marginalized people behind. From your perspective, what can be done to address and correct this concern?

There needs to be a holistic technology and policy framework to ensure equitable deployment of 5G. The pandemic has exposed the importance of good quality Internet in accessing remote education for our children and access to the workplace. Access to high speed Internet needs to be seen as a utility, not as a luxury. We therefore need a policy framework that incentivizes a more equitable deployment of 5G. That said, I also see promising solutions emerge from a technology perspective, such as lower-cost Wireless Internet Service Providers and emerging solutions for low-cost satellite Internet, although there is much work left to be done in these areas.

Excellent. We are nearly done. Let’s zoom out a bit and ask a more general question. Based on your experience and success, what are the 5 things you need to create a highly successful career in the telecommunication industry? (Please share a story or example for each.)

In my view, to succeed in the telecommunications industry, one would need grit, creativity, a collaborative spirit, and the ability to deal with systems that are scalable and diverse. As an example, at Carnegie Mellon University we run a next-generation wireless testbed to connect the Internet of Things that scales to large parts of the City of Pittsburgh. Deploying this system as a university team was challenging and required enormous effort and scale. We needed creative solutions to deal with the weakening of signals from the natural hilly topography of Pittsburgh. We worked collaboratively as a team of radio engineers, wireless communication experts, hardware, and software designers to build the system at scale. Dealing with diverse failure modes and making sure our system was flexible to address new situations was also important in making our solution successful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Addressing the digital divide has never been as important as now, given the importance of Internet access after the pandemic. I would urge everyone to consider donating used desktops, laptops, and electronics at a nearby charity of your choice.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My personal research website is at http://swarunkumar.com/ and my research lab can be accessed at http://witechlab.com/. You can also follow me on Twitter at @swarunk.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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David Liu

David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication

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