Towards the AI-native telco
- AI was at the heart of many discussions during the recent DSP Leaders World Forum
- Deutsche Telekom’s VP of technology strategy, Ahmed Hafez, co-hosted a session titled ‘Creating a framework for the AI-native telco’
- In his DSP Leaders address presentation, he noted that so far, the industry has been opportunistic with AI, but now it needs to look at the bigger picture
- We all need to transform as individuals in order to adapt to AI-enabled operations, the DT executive suggested
WINDSOR, UK – DSP LEADERS WORLD FORUM 2023 – AI will deliver the telecom sector its biggest ever challenges and opportunities, but to take advantage of the benefits that AI will bring the industry needs to figure out a way to evolve from being opportunistic to becoming AI-native.
That’s the view of Deutsche Telekom’s VP of technology strategy, Ahmed Hafez, who this week co-hosted the DSP Leaders World Forum 2023 session entitled ‘Creating a framework for the AI-native telco’, in which he aimed to raise awareness as well as highlight a series of key questions that, he believes, the industry needs to answer very soon. To date, the telecom sector has been exploring the potential of AI without looking at the bigger picture, and that holistic view needs to be taken in order to figure out the best way to go, he believes.
Hafez regards the impact of AI as “the biggest transformation we will ever encounter. And this is not only about the magnitude of what AI will do, but also the pace – it will outpace our understanding of things so fast, so we need to be ready… Previous transformations have [happened at an] accommodating pace – they were not changing so fast that we couldn’t comprehend or adapt to them. In order for us to adapt to AI, we need to transform as individuals, not [just as] companies. On an individual level you need to be able to comprehend what's going on and pick the right information.”
To illustrate the magnitude of the challenges that AI will deliver to the telecom sector, he presented a few supporting statistics:
- The AI market was worth $136bn in 2022 and is set to be worth $1.8tn by 2030
- The telecom AI market alone was worth $2.2bn in 2022
- Global private investment in AI reached $91.9bn in 2022
- AI delivers a 40% increase in business productivity, according to a study by Accenture (Hafez thinks that number is too low, that productivity gains will be much higher)
- There are already thousands of AI-focused companies – by 2018 there were already nearly 3,500
- AI will drive the need for 500x compute power between now and 2030 (“What does that mean for telcos? How can we deal with that?” asked Hafez)
- In terms of human resources, 63% of executives believe their biggest skills shortage is in AI expertise
- Three in every four CEOs believe they don’t have enough transparency when it comes to AI and are concerned about skewed bias in the AI sector
So a lot of eye-opening trends that should give the telecom industry food for thought, especially when it comes to attracting employees with AI skills. “How will we get the people we need if there are thousands of AI companies” attracting the experts, he asked.
Hafez also related how he encountered what he described as some “depressing” information about how unattractive telecom operators are to potential employees, especially those of a younger generation. Of the top-50 most attractive companies in advanced economies for employees, none of them are telcos: “This is a worrying trend… we need to become more attractive to the younger generations,” he noted.
The telecom industry began exploring the use of AI in earnest less than 10 years ago, noted the DT executive, when it started looking into its potential with proofs of concept and trials. “Then we took the opportunistic approach to AI – use case-based, where you find a good use case, you implement it and it's concrete. There’s nothing bad about that, as it’s the right thing to do… and we’ve been doing that for a while and it's delivering value. That’s fine as long as you are doing a few tens of use cases.”
But using AI at scale, which is what the industry needs to do to become AI-native, where AI is fully integrated into everything and becomes part of all operations and decision-making processes, throws up a lot of new questions about how the sector progresses from being opportunistic to becoming AI-native – what are the missing steps, asked Hafez?
“Once we start to ask, what would the future be with AI in everything we do, in every appliance, in every application, in every network component, it would be over the top. You would have data that is being worked on by five or six AI engines, creating different things…. You would have not just tens of use cases, but hundreds, or thousands. Are we prepared for that? Are we ready to embrace such scale? Are we building AI for scale? I don't think so.
“We are building AI trying to get things done – which is okay. But in order for us to get through this journey, through this transformation, what stages do we need to pass through? What are the steps that we need to take to… make sure that the problem is clear. If we have a huge amount of AI, do we run the risk of conflicting AI? So if I have AI for energy efficiency and I have another one that actually improves network quality, could they create conflicts? Can they be a problem? If I have AI that is on the optical layer and AI on the IP layer, can they make different decisions because they consume data differently?
“If we look at things from this perspective, do we need, within our organisations, another stream of hiring people and the need to upskill leadership? Do we need to upskill ourselves to help our teams? What do we need to do? If you look at technologies, do we need to change the perspective of how, for example, the 3GPP is building the standards in order to make sure the standards are AI friendly? Do we need separate standard bodies to look at AI? What would be their functions? What would be their scope?” asked Hafez.
And does the industry need a framework that can provide guidance so that the telecom sector can develop in the same direction with its use of AI?
“This is the discussion we want to have, and I hope the message is clear – we have a great opportunity, but opportunities do not come without challenges,” he cautioned.
So Hafez set the scene for a great discussion with his fellow speakers, Juniper’s chief network strategist Neil McRae, Rakuten Symphony CMO Geoff Hollingworth, Nokia’s CTO for Europe Azfar Aslam, and Digital Catapult’s CTO Joe Butler – and it’s fair to say there were differences of opinion! You can check out the full session on demand right here.
- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV