Cutting-edge technologies struggle to prove disruptive impact

The ‘father’ of LiFi Harald Haas said on Monday (27 February) that its LED-based wireless connection deserved EU support, while blockchain developers defended the major impact of the public ledger in society.

Companies brought to this year’s Mobile World Congress specific applications to show how artificial intelligence, the internet of things or the new mobile broadband connection (5G) could change our lives.

Few other technologies of this digital wave promise even greater benefits.

LiFi, a concept pioneered by the German Harald Haas, would provide wireless connection by using LED lights. This light connection would increase the size of the pipe to transfer data.

Blockchain, the technology behind virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, could represent the end of the middlemen in any transaction. It could mark the arrival of Internet 2.0, where value and not only information is shared.

But both proposals need to work out important hurdles before they enable the disruptive impact they aim for.

Massive penetration

Still, Haas considered that LiFi could deliver the “revolution” it promises. “I expect a massive penetration in five years’ time,” he told EURACTIV in an interview on Monday during the congress.

He came up with the idea15 years ago. At that time, ‘telecom’ firms where developing 4G to cope with the transition from mobile telephones to mobile media.

“At that stage it was very clear the problem of finding radio spectrum,” he recalled.

The ‘spectrum crunch’ led him to look at LEDs as a resource. They offered 1000 times bigger capacity than the entire radio spectrum to transfer data, but it was not sure whether it could provide high data rate.

“Our breakthrough was to unlock the data rate,” he explained.
Once that obstacle was overcome, the next stage is to turn every object in our homes into a connected device.

“Your toaster has an LED light to say if it is ‘on’ an ‘off’. Now we can use this status light to make predictable analysis. The toaster can order a new one itself to Amazon when it is about to break”, he predicted.

“This is only the beginning” of a “revolution”, he explained with enthusiasm.

LiFi already attracts attention from the public and private sector. BT and Deutsche Telecom are testing the technology. His research is supported by Scotland, while the German government follows its progress with interest.

Lack of EU support

But EU authorities remain unconvinced.

For five years, he tried to convince them about the benefits of LiFi. “My proposals have been regularly rejected”, he lamented.

“Sometimes it is hard to convince a community about a new radical technology if they have not seen it. That is understandable”, he said.

That is no longer the case. Therefore he warned of the “big opportunity” Europe would lose to lead in a European technology, as compared to America’s wifi.

But it needs “much stronger backing by the European Commission”, he insisted.

He hoped that Commission vice-president, Andrus Ansip would visit his boot in the congress to clear all the “misconceptions” about this technology, including its failure to function with sunlight.

What is it for?

Compared with LiFi, Blockchain may be seen as a step ahead when it comes to its development. It has already proven successful applications such as virtual currencies (Bitcoin). Besides, a long list of companies, including some of the largest banks, are investing in financial applications.

But his supporters still struggle to prove that, behind the hype, there is a technology that could disrupt various fields, from finance to identity recognition.

In a 75 minute long panel discussion in the Barcelona congress, developers fought hard to articulate specific applications.

The public ledger supported by a vast community of computers could kill the third party and bring down costs in any transaction of value.

But some believe that it is a solution without an specific problem to solve. Accordingly, developers applied it to existing business markets or sectors, just bringing limited gains.

Julio Faura, head of R&D and Innovation at Santander, explained that it is a “good thing” that its evolution is incremental, as anything that stores property requires solid ground.

But entrepreneurs defended that blockchain would allow transferring not only information as today’s Internet, but also value, as Diego Gutiérrez, President of Bitcoin Argentina and CEO of RSK Labs emphasised.

Some potential applications beyond the financial sector could be reputation-based identities that nobody could alter.

In order to unleash all its power, Ryan Shea, co-founder of Blocksatck Labs, argued that the public ledger must be genuinely open, and not controlled by any single party or a federation of players.

Moreover, he said that the ledger, as a public record, would make lawyers or judges redundant, as no interpretation of the ‘public truth’ would be needed.

But even enthusiasts as Melanie Shapiro, founder of Case, limited the impact of blockchain. Interpretation issues would not disappear, she said. “We will continue needing lawyers”, he told the attendees.

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