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How 5G will change our work lives

  • Besides faster mobile data speeds, there will also be greater automation of tasks and digital connectivity
  • New products, services, business models and entire industries will be born as 5G provides a huge leap forward in speed

The most dramatic changes after the introduction of 5G are still under way.
The most dramatic changes after the introduction of 5G are still under way. (Getty Images)

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Self-driving cars, remote robotic surgery, autonomous weapons—all that and much more is set to be delivered via the 5G wireless network, which promises to transform our lives and add trillions of dollars to the global economy every year.

New products, services, business models and entire industries will be born as 5G provides a huge leap forward in speed, capacity and connectivity.

Now economists are putting a number on the coming transformation, with IHS Markit estimating 5G will drive an extra $12 trillion (around 835 trillion) of annual sales in 2035. That’s about the size of China’s economy last year.

For consumers, the first changes will be faster mobile data speeds—eventually up to 100 times quicker than those of 4G, letting people download full-length movies in seconds. At work, the trend will be greater automation of tasks and digital connectivity, driving a new wave of productivity gains for some industries.

While the roll-out of 5G is already under way in South Korea and select US cities, the most dramatic changes are still some years away. Many will come with risks and painful disruptions.

Here are some ways 5G will change the world.

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things refers to all the machines and devices linked through the internet, and its enormous growth is likely imminent as 5G comes online. There are expected to be 125 billion devices linked by 2030, up from 11 billion last year, according to analysts at DBS Group Research.

This leap forward in connectivity will be key to the spread of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, enabling massive amounts of data to be collected from remote and mobile sensors and analysed in real time. This will drive everything from home appliances that order groceries to autonomous vehicles to smart cities. China’s ambition to dominate these industries of the future, including the 5G technology itself, as outlined in the Made in China 2025 blueprint, has contributed to trade tensions with the US.

Transport & Logistics

The future of transport starts with driverless cars, and, in the early days of 5G, the automotive sector is likely to see some of the biggest changes. Everyone from Apple Inc. to Uber Technologies Inc. is looking to build self-driving cars. But while test cars are already on the roads in some cities, the commercial introduction of these vehicles—essentially large, mobile computers processing enormous amounts of data in real time—won’t be possible without the speed and capacity of fully deployed 5G networks.

5G and autonomous vehicles also promise to revolutionize shipping and logistics. That could mean platoons of linked autonomous trucks and “ghost” cargo ships, as well as dramatic improvements in logistic efficiency. Millions of truck, tractor, bus and taxi drivers around the world could lose their jobs, though of course new ones would be created elsewhere. In testing, the Port of Hamburg has begun installing sensors on ships to track movement and environmental data in real time, enabling employees equipped with smart glasses to visualize the action, via augmented reality, improving traffic flow and efficiency.


Feeling unwell? One day you could order a house call from a self-driving mini-clinic that offers automated diagnostic tests and video-links to a range of doctors. That’s one vision of the future of healthcare, in which rapid advances in data transmission, robotics and AI change the quality of care and the way it is delivered. That could also include remote robotics-assisted operations, and even partially automated surgeries. Elderly people, particularly those in rural or otherwise under-served communities, should benefit, particularly in places like Japan where the countryside is being depopulated.

5G will also advance more personalized, data-driven medicine, partly via wearable technologies that will be able to monitor not only your physical condition but emotional and mental states as well—and all in real time. In Singapore, for example, cognitive and behavioural science start-up Cognifyx has recently teamed up with ride-hailing service Grab to test drivers for mental fatigue.

In the office

Office work will get a lot smarter. Advances in AI and machine learning made possible by 5G networks will mean fewer white-collar workers will be engaged in repetitive tasks, even cognitive ones such as accounting and data processing. In most cases, smart machines won’t take over entire jobs but will instead perform tasks that are key parts of jobs. Workers who can collaborate with intelligent machines and who have higher-order cognitive skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking will be most in demand.

In the factory

The factory of the future will also rely on 5G to enable augmented reality, autonomous mobility, sensor networks and machine learning. The result will be “extreme automation” and dramatic advances in productivity. Japanese machine tool maker Yamazaki Mazak recently helped launch the UK’s first 5G factory trials, using sensors for real-time monitoring and data collection, helping to speed up and better maintain automation systems.

Security and War

5G has implications for public and national security. To begin with, the extreme interconnectedness itself poses risks, making everything from individual households to energy grids more vulnerable to hackers. The 5G network will also power the development of fully autonomous weapons that make their own decisions to fire on targets, as well as the unprecedented tracking of people in public in real time using facial recognition technology.

Given the power of 5G technology, it is no surprise that it has also become a proxy for the broader power struggles between the US and China. Huawei Technologies Co. has been targeted by the US government and its Western allies as it pushes for a leadership role in rolling out the 5G network, given its close ties to Beijing.

Adding Up

IHS Markit views 5G as on a par with the printing press, electricity and the steam engine—a technology that from 2020-35 will add real gross domestic product equivalent to an economy the size of India’s.

“The profound effects arising from these innovations range widely—from the positive impacts for human and machine productivity to ultimately elevating the living standards for people around the world,” IHS Markit analysts wrote.

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