The Digital Future

  • 28 October 2020
  • Technology
  • Sundeep Bhandari and Andrew Smith

As a nation, we are sending more messages, making more calls and carrying out more digital transactions than ever before. This has only increased further over the past few months, as we have all had to adjust and embrace new digital ways of working. 

At the same time, new applications are emerging, such as autonomous vehicles, smart cities, precision farming, remote robotic surgery and smart grids, which will rely upon the collection, connection and comprehension of data at higher speeds. Understanding the quality of data is essential for us to have confidence in the decision making and regulation of its use. 

The ability to create, capture, communicate and use validated data, based on high-precision measurements is the key pillar upon which an efficient digital infrastructure stands. Significant digital transformation is upon us and it is vital for us to rise to the emerging challenges this brings, to allow the UK to maximise the opportunities to support and underpin UK societal and economic prosperity through measurements. For the past 7 months or so we’ve rested the entirety (well almost) of our economy upon our digital communications infrastructure and it’s performed (on the whole) quite well.  Apart from forgetting to ‘unmute’ quite a few times (operator error rather than network performance), we have all dropped or crashed our video calls a few times. This doesn’t matter if our use of digital technology isn’t business or safety critical, but when it is, we need to be confident that the digital fabric is resilient and reliable.

From mapping the spread of disease to monitoring climate change, data holds the key to solving some of the world's biggest challenges. It also promises to deliver improved productivity, help companies streamline their processes, make improvements and maximise their output.

Dependable decisions rely on understanding the provenance and reliability of data. NPL’s data scientists are working to help organisations analyse and use data with confidence. We are developing data standards and platforms to help collect, connect and comprehend data and to create the future tools to analyse datasets and allow the fusion of disparate datasets to deliver richer quality and more insightful knowledge for decisions. A major part of NPL’s data science work is to evaluate uncertainty to support traceable and reliable decision-making.

This ability to extract meaning from increasingly complex data will shape the future of our society and economy, from the next generation of medical imaging to advanced manufacturing and digital supply chains.

Whilst it is commonly accepted that we are embarking upon a ‘data revolution’, the risks around implementation are not so well appreciated. The UK has ambitions of becoming a global leader in 5G, taking advantage of its potential and creating a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone. But developing future networks that will underpin these technologies is far from straightforward. The quality infrastructure is not in place for digital data and needs to be expanded to accommodate this rapidly evolving paradigm and prevent unintended consequences from the use of the digital infrastructure. 

Data exchange is how our phones and smart devices talk to each other. As the technology around us becomes more sophisticated, more data is needed, and the accuracy of this data will be critical to ensure this technology is safe. 

One of these new technologies is driverless cars; these cars will need to talk to each other as well as the infrastructure through cellular and satellite networks. Ensuring all these different communication channels work in a safe environment is vital. Autonomous cars have to make millions of split-second decisions based on an ever-changing environment. If this system isn’t fool proof, the consequences could be extreme. 

NPL is perfectly placed to support these challenges, by working across industry, government and academia to provide a measurement framework fit for a digitally transformed world; involving the establishment of secure, traceable and authenticated digital approaches and embedding measurement into end to end digital infrastructure.

If we want to have a smart world where we are using e-health, relying on smart cars and living in smart cities, all of this data also needs to be processed. Today alone, we will have sent around 250 million emails worldwide, 16 million text messages, every second there will be 4,000 google searches taking place. There is already a huge amount of data being generated and the rate is only going to grow exponentially.  

NPL is working to ensure the UK can harness and exploit digital and data infrastructure and technologies – operating across different platforms – to allow successful digital transformation for the UK. 

One of the key differences between today’s networks and future networks is that the latter will need to incorporate a plethora of new technologies to deliver the promise of 5G, noting that 5G itself is a catalyst and is only part of the solution. Entirely new technologies, both hardware and software, will form part of the mix required to deliver content and enable decisions ubiquitously, seamlessly and in sub-millisecond timeframes when business or safety critical. These technologies will likely need to be interoperable with the ‘current network’ at the time for over 20 years and will therefore have to work across different connectivity and communication service providers and across multiple connectivity generations, using a combination of existing internet protocols (which are up to 40+ years old!) and interfacing with new ones. There will also be new challenges such as managing the boundary between private networks and public realms, and the growing use of AI in our emerging converged networks. 

Rigorous testing is required to identify bugs, gaps, loopholes and conflicts that only manifest at scale in the real world. Without this there is a real risk that future network technology deployment will be undertaken in an uncoordinated way; with the impact only becoming apparent in live network failures and performance issues, therefore impeding the adoption of digital services, lowering productivity and undermining public confidence. 

As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, NPL has the capability to provide the rigorous testing, measurement and de-risking required for future networks. NPL is working to ensure that people have confidence in the UK’s digital technologies, and that these technologies will help to achieve prosperity, increased safety and competitive advantage globally. 

Sundeep Bhandari is Strategy Manager (Digital) for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). 
NPL is owned by the UK government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and is a world-leading National MetrologyInstitute, responsible for measurement strategy and delivery in the UK. Measurements and standards are key to effective digital infrastructure; Sundeep’s work focuses on shaping the evolution of physical metrology into the ‘cyber-physical’ world, embedding measurement into processes using digital and data sciences to deliver confidence in the intelligent and effective use of data. The largest component of his work relates to digital infrastructure, developing and guiding 5G and beyond future communications initiatives at NPL.  His work (alongside government, industry and academia) identifies that future networks will be key to economic productivity and realisation of the digital economy. Sundeep is also a member of the Dept of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) UK5G Testbeds and Trial Working group; DCMS Next Generation Special Advisory Group; vice-chair of the UN’s ITU Focus Group on Network 2030; and, an active participant of the Non-Internet Protocols (NIN) and 5G interoperability (5GINT) groups of ETSI.

Dr Andrew Smith has over 30 years experience working at NPL, the UK’s National Metrology Institute. He has wide experience in both technical roles, including measuring ultra-fast electrical pulses, and leadership roles, including programme management and group leadership for over 15 years. He is currently working in NPL’s digital sector strategy team on engagement with a variety of senior industry, government and academic stakeholders in the area of a Future Networks Initiative, where he is a strong advocate for the importance of a coordinated approach to bring together industry and academia in an independent neutral test environment to accelerate the development and deployment of converged communication networks, and to help deliver innovation, standards development, improved skills and CR&D.