By Brett Wilkins

The opening panel session at All Tech Is Human: San Francisco featured Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who spoke at length about 5G, the ethics of artificial intelligence, bridging the digital dive and more. Rosenworcel is a Democrat who was appointed to the five-member FCC by President Barack Obama and successfully nominated to a second five-year term by President Donald Trump. She is the only woman on the five-member FCC leadership team, which is currently comprised of three Republicans and two Democrats and is led by Trump appointee Ajit Pai. 

5G Revolution 

“The 4G revolution was all about the smartphone and the conveniences it brought us all,” said Rosenworcel. “The 5G revolution is going to bring speeds that are 10-100 times faster with far less latency in response.” 

That means a lot more than just faster smartphone video viewing. Connectivity will move beyond phones and into the realm of ubiquitous IOT-connected sensors that will allow us to do everything from enabling autonomous vehicles to improving health care outcomes. 

“This means a level of connectivity… that we’ve never seen before,” said Rosenworcel. “It brings all sorts of possibilities — and all sorts of challenges.” 

“There is an incredibly nerdy connection between 5G and artificial intelligence,” said Rosenworcel. “Think of an autonomous vehicle. It will have thousands of sensors taking in millions of data points to turn into algorithms to make sure the vehicle responds with sub- millimeter spectrum latency to drive effectively.”

“All of that takes place over wireless connectivity in a 5G world,” she added. “We’ve got to figure out how all of that data activity and all of that connectivity from wireless and help us solve more problems than we create.” 

Ethical and Technical Challenges of 5G and AI

What are some of the major ethical concerns we should be aware of around this powerful new technology? 

“With all that connectivity comes huge security challenges,” Rosenworcel explained. “There are also enormous ethical challenges associated with the data and algorithms we develop. Are they fair? Do they reflect historical bias?”

“We really need a national strategic plan to start addressing clear objectives [for AI development],” she added, citing China’s New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan as an example of “what we need to be doing right now.” 

“Other countries are investing a lot of money and time in developing these plans… we don’t have one and I think that’s to our long-term detriment,” said Rosenworcel. “We should have public investment in research and development… But right now we’re cutting the National Science Foundation’s research budget.” 

“We also have to think about retaining talent in this country,” added Rosenworcel. “Our national dialogue right now is about keeping people out, and that’s a huge challenge.” 

Another big challenge, this one on the technical side, is spectral efficiency. 

“We’re using more wireless activity than we ever have before, and our airwaves are finite,” she said. “Now we’re making more of them and we have to distribute them more efficiently, and there are opportunities with AI to do that.” 

“What if we started teaching our networks and our devices to be spectrally efficient in every single environment?… Can we teach our networks to understand what’s happening with themselves with data and AI so they’re more resilient?”

Digital Divide 

According to the FCC, 21 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. Most of these people live in rural areas. 

“But I don’t think those numbers are particularly reliable,” argued Rosenworcel. “The New York Times reported on another study that found that 162 million Americans access the internet but not at broadband speed. There’s something going on and we don’t have an adequate handle on where service is and isn’t.” 

“We also have to focus on issues of affordability,” Rosenworcel asserted. “We’re leaving people out of the digital revolution because they can’t afford to participate in it.” Unfortunately, she added that this “has not been the focus of Washington policymaking on the digital divide.” 

It’s not just a rural problem, as many people imagine. 

“We have urban problems, we have rural problems; we have people being left out,” said Rosenworcel, who then spent several minutes discussing the educational implications of the digital divide. 

“There are 12 million students in this country who don’t have reliable internet access at home and they fall into a homework gap,” she said. “We want those kids to have a fair shot for a future,  and they’ve got to be able to do their homework. That a problem in urban and rural areas.” 

Talking Solutions 

“There’s not one single solution,” explained Rosenworcel, who said a big step in rural areas would be installing wireless internet on school buses. 

“Kids in rural areas spend an enormous amount of time on buses going to school and going home,” she said. “If we were to wire school buses with WiFi, a lot of kids… who don’t have access at home would be able to download school work during that ride time.” 

“Another thing we can do is, next time we auction off spectrum, we should set aside some of the revenue for a public homework gap fund,” added Rosenworcel. “I’d like to see billions of dollars devoted to the homework gap, but obviously we’ll have to work with Congress to see what we can accomplish.” 

(Photo: Brett Wilkins)

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