AI to drive InterDigital’s key R&D efforts, says CTO

Ray Le Maistre
By Ray Le Maistre

Nov 14, 2022

Dr. Rajesh Pankaj, InterDigital's chief technology officer (from 5 July)

Dr. Rajesh Pankaj, InterDigital's chief technology officer (from 5 July)

  • Communications networking is entering a new era
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) will play an increasing role in the way networks and applications are managed and developed
  • For InterDigital’s CTO, the intersection of AI with wireless and video tech is key to the company’s R&D efforts
  • That focus is at the heart of InterDigital’s involvement in 6G research projects 

As a developer of wireless and video technology building blocks that other companies license and use as the foundations for networking and video systems, InterDigital needs to be a few steps ahead of the pack and ensure it’s research and development (R&D) programme will ultimately fulfil the future needs of its customer base, and according to the company’s CTO, Dr Rajesh Pankaj, placing artificial intelligence (AI) at the heart of its “emerging technologies” plans is definitely the way forward. 

Pankaj joined InterDigital in July this year from Qualcomm, where he was senior vice president of engineering, and head of corporate R&D. In his time at the wireless chip giant, he oversaw research in 4G, 5G, augmented reality and multiple other technology realms. Now he’s heading up a team that needs to have a pretty clear picture of what’s going to be happening in the next phase of the communications networking world’s evolution. 

“I'm excited about the wireless team [at InterDigital], what they have done and continue to do in 5G and what they are thinking about doing for 6G,” he noted during a recent chat with TelecomTV. “I'm also looking at what the video team is doing… which is very cool, and then we have the emerging technologies lab, which is very focused on AI but some other technologies also. It’s a small team, but actually that can make a huge difference. My experience shows that if you have a little bit of AI capability, you can marry that with some of the other technologies and do some good stuff there. So that's what I'm looking forward to doing.” 

And it seems like the role that AI can play in wireless, video and 6G is at the front of mind for Pankaj right now, as InterDigital has just been awarded funding to support five Horizon Europe 6G flagship research projects that bring a lot of these developments together. For example, the PREDICT-6G project “focuses on laying the foundations of an AI-powered Digital Twin framework to predict the behaviour of the end-to-end 6G network and using this framework to enhance the reliability and time sensitivity of the network,” according to InterDigital. For more details on the Horizon Europe 6G projects in which InterDigital is involved, see this announcement

The very friendly and amiable Pankaj believes that getting involved in 6G research right now is as important for 5G’s development as it is for the next generation of wireless communications.

“Thinking about the next G is always a useful exercise because it gets you thinking about what more can be done. Everyone is [thinking about 6G] and sometimes people have an incentive to say they have figured out what it is,” says the CTO. But the process of researching 6G will uncover good ideas “that can probably be incorporated into the current generation. The good thing is that our industry is dynamic enough that any good ideas can get incorporated into 5G… and at the same time we can think about what 6G can do. Sometimes we can be a bit cynical and say people are talking about the next G for the sake of it…  but if I look at the history, it has given us some cool stuff. Think about IoT... we started to get things added in 4G. Similarly, as people start to think about 6G, new ideas will come along and some may get incorporated in the later versions of 5G, and some will not,” he added.

So what exactly is InterDigital working on right now? What is the focus of the emerging technologies lab? Naturally, Pankaj is wary of sharing specific details. 

“The wish list is always longer than what you could do, right? But for a small team [a few dozen at most in emerging technologies] you have to be focused and focus on the things that are going to be most helpful to our business. And really, the intersection of AI with some of the other technologies, with wireless, with video, is clearly what’s going to be important for us. I just want to make sure our focus is strong. This is important because there's a lot of hype about AI and has been for some time,” he said. 

“There are many people who will say things like ‘you have done things in a particular way but forget about everything and just create a neural network … and then off you go. Anybody can do it. A company that is very good at AI can do something and you don't really need to have expertise in the subject matter.’ Well, my experience says that's not true. The teams that do the best are the ones that combine the subject matter expertise with the AI expertise. So the most important thing we can do is to make sure that our emerging technologies lab and the capabilities of that lab are very tuned to the work we are doing in other areas and collaborate very strongly with the subject matter experts so that we can come up with new technologies,” he explained.

That process of marrying AI R&D with the work of the wireless and video units was already underway within InterDigital – “there are good people here and they could see that too” – but now it is Pankaj’s mission to make it work in the best way possible. 

And, of course, there are other emerging technologies too. So what else is InterDigital working on and are there any exciting areas of technology innovation that are currently missing from its workload that Pankaj can add to put his stamp on the CTO role?  

“People talk about blockchain, and there has been some buzz about that in the wireless industry also. There are some cases where the application of blockchain in wireless networks makes sense…  you have the ability to run a system in a completely distributed manner without having a centralised authority… you can have a completely decentralised arbitration mechanism,” he said. “Whether or not that will pan out remains to be seen, but that's why it's an emerging technology, so we do have a little bit of work to do.”

And, of course, “there’s quantum computing and the implications for security. Those things are still a little further out than the application of AI to wireless and video.” 

Right now, though, what’s “most important is the alignment between different areas, making sure we are looking at the intersections of the areas carefully enough to make sure we can get advantages out of that. A lot of good things happen in research, when the intersections of different areas are explored properly. I want to make sure the intersection of wireless and video is looked at carefully because there’s a lot more focus now on AR [augmented reality] and VR [virtual reality] and Facebook changed its name to Meta, so obviously the whole world is thinking about that,” said the CTO.

In many ways, they might be thinking about when it might work in a way that is scalable and ready for the mass market.

And that’s exactly the kind of focus Pankaj and his team will have – figuring out how extended reality, which brings next-generation visual experiences to life in [often] wirelessly connected environments, can work. Major customers, such as Apple, will be looking to InterDigital, which has about 500 staff in total and generates more than $400m in revenues per year, to develop the underlying software stacks that can turn ideas and possibilities into commercial reality. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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