Revolutionary breakthroughs in technology are built on a century of science

Rapid advancements in telecommunications have come through basic scientific research and connections between industry and universities, writes Chen Lifang of Huawei

June 15, 2018
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I will travel to London in a few days to attend the Huawei Academic Salon, an annual gathering of university leaders, policymakers and industry from across the UK. The aim of the event is to discuss the ways in which innovation and talent are transforming business and society for the better.

Over the past 25 years, I have been privileged to witness the extraordinary growth of the telecommunications industry.

Although this rapid growth may seem to have occurred overnight, it builds on years of steadfast investment in basic communications research conducted by generations of scientists over more than a century.

In 1864, James Clerk Maxwell used mathematics to derive his theory of electromagnetic waves. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1887, Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of those waves, paving the way for wireless communications. In the 1940s, Claude Shannon introduced the concept of information entropy and became known as the founder of information theory digital communications.

Today we are all building on the breakthroughs made by these scientific giants. Artificial intelligence and genomics are just two of the emerging fields where there are some truly exciting developments. Although these areas are not yet underpinned by a century of theoretical study, basic research in AI and genomics began decades ago. Now, the years of diligent labour have begun to bear fruit.

Basic scientific research is like a beacon illuminating the world, guiding companies in different industries and benefiting people everywhere.

Huawei, for example, has grown from an unknown entity 30 years ago into a leading innovator in information communications technology. Our progress stems from technological breakthroughs we achieved with basic research.

For example, Europe has a large number of what we call distributed mobile base stations. Years ago, a customer came to us asking for help designing cellular base station equipment that was smaller and easier to install. Using innovative technology, we were able to shrink the physical footprint of this equipment by splitting it up into its component parts and rearranging it. This reduced our customer’s operating costs by 30 per cent. Soon, mobile operators around the world were using distributed base station technology.

Research in complex mathematics enabled us to develop another innovation called SingleRAN (Radio Access Network). Until recently, each time a new generation of mobile technology came along, operators had to build a new physical network of base stations: one network for 2G, another for 3G, and so on.

SingleRAN uses software to integrate different generations of mobile technology. This allows operators to maintain a single network that supports multiple generations of mobile technology – a revolutionary change to the communications industry.

Huawei not only pioneers basic research, but also benefits from it. That’s why we have put so much emphasis on research and innovation since the founding of the company in 1987.

Every year, we invest at least 10 per cent of our annual revenue – and sometimes as much as 15 per cent – back into research and development. Over the past decade, we have invested $60.4 billion (£45.5 billion) in R&D, and in the near future we plan to invest around $16 billion annually. We also collaborate with universities and other scientific research institutions around the world, helping scientists conduct their research through knowledge-sharing and financial support.

The UK has highly skilled researchers and world-renowned universities that continue to perform well in global rankings. 

The quality of British institutions and their students is hugely impressive which is why Huawei is partnering with more than 20 leading UK universities.

We are a founding member of the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey; we set up a joint lab for distributed data management and processing with the University of Edinburgh; and last November, BT, Huawei and the University of Cambridge started a new five-year initiative that aims to see the two companies establish a joint research and collaboration group at the University of Cambridge

All these R&D collaborations are a crucial part of furthering technology development in the UK and elsewhere.

At Huawei, we hope to work hand-in-hand with professors, industry leaders and policymakers from every region of the globe. Such partnerships will enable us to continue to develop innovations that bring digital technology to every person, household and organisation – and in so doing, to usher in a connected, intelligent world.

Chen Lifang is director of the board and a senior vice president at Huawei.

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