Huawei’s Kevin McDonnell explains how the tech giant is setting industry standards through automation and AI breakthroughs at its research centre in Ireland.
When you cast a wide net as a multinational technology company, aiming to capture markets across telecommunications, consumer electronics and sustainability, then research and development need to be top of your agenda to stay ahead of the curve.
And that is exactly what Huawei has been doing. Headquartered in Shenzhen, a sprawling metropolis in southern China, Huawei is one of the world’s leading makers of communications equipment and a strong regional player in the consumer electronics space.
But what stands out about the 35-year-old tech giant is the billions it spends every year on innovation. According to Kevin McDonnell, senior director of Huawei’s Ireland Research Centre (IRC), the company invests more than 10pc of its sales revenue in R&D every year. Last year, its total research spending represented a quarter of its total revenue – a whopping $22bn.
Setting industry standards from Ireland
In Ireland, Huawei has invested more than €200m since it first brought its R&D efforts here 10 years ago. This is because of, among other reasons, Ireland’s abundance of talent.
“Huawei wants to build a supportive research community and attract top researchers worldwide, and in the IRC, we believe we’ve got the skilled people onboard who are achieving results and really care about the work they are doing,” says McDonnell.
“Ireland has punched well above its weight in terms of software development and in telecommunications – and that ecosystem continues to nurture fresh young talent.”
While research interests here range from digital twins, big data and autonomous networks to cloud computing and site reliability engineering, the “common thread” across these technologies being researched in Ireland is AI and automation.
“Better data means better intelligence and better intelligence means more informed decision-making. This ability to have autonomous decision-making means Huawei’s networks become more efficient, more sustainable and more secure,” he explains.
McDonnell works at the Smart Networks Innovation labs based in the IRC. Here, he says, Huawei has made some significant inroads into achieving autonomous decision-making in systems by combining AI technologies to create self-learning agents.
“It’s a multidisciplinary approach combining our team’s telecoms domain know-how and data science skillsets,” he goes on, adding that Huawei has been responsible for defining industry standards for these intent-driven autonomous networks in the TM Forum, an association promoting digital transformation, and in the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).
‘Generative AI will raise human intelligence’
But like in any other global tech giant, R&D does not happen in a vacuum. Research in novel technologies is informed by the needs of the customers and commercialisation only bears fruit when there is a demand for the product.
“Technology breakthroughs are always remarkable, but the ones that make a tangible benefit to our customers are where we are most enthusiastic,” says McDonnell. “As a research centre, we are an important part of the overall innovation pipeline, but it takes many diverse skillsets to apply research effectively and to commercialise it.”
And if there’s any one emerging technology that McDonnell is most excited about, it is quite unsurprisingly artificial intelligence – especially generative AI, which has taken the world by storm ever since OpenAI unleashed ChatGPT to the world last November.
“The last six months have seen an explosion in generative AI progress and associated hype. But the hype is well deserved in my view. This technology is proving to augment and enhance human skillsets and possibly will raise human intelligence over time also – we should see progress and productivity across the board.”
It’s not just businesses and consumers that will benefit from the advancement, however, as McDonnell believes AI will “change the way we learn and study for the better – and education is the cornerstone of all societal progress”.
Huawei makes significant investment in fostering STEM among young people in Ireland. Last year, 50 talented third-level students from across Ireland were awarded €250,000 in scholarships from Huawei as part of its flagship Seeds for the Future programme.
AI is expensive, biased and sometimes gets it wrong
Coming back to AI, while McDonnell is excited to be deploying the technology for R&D in Ireland, it presents some significant challenges. For starters, it is very expensive.
“The sheer scale and complexity of these models, often containing billions of parameters, require substantial compute resources, which can be both expensive and environmentally unsustainable,” he explains.
“Another challenge lies in the potential bias present in the datasets used to train these models. Since large language models heavily rely on the data they are trained on, any biases in the input data can lead to biased algorithms and outputs.”
Then there are also the occasions when AI models simply get it wrong. “Despite sounding convincingly accurate, these models can produce inaccurate and misleading results,” McDonnell goes on, adding that these challenges are not insurmountable.
“With ongoing research and development, we are already seeing steady improvements in all three areas. As advancements in AI continue to unfold, it is important for society to keep pace with these technologies. We need to establish regulatory frameworks, ethical guidelines and educational programs that address the effects and implications of AI.”
Now, McDonnell hopes that AI will continue to be the ‘power tool’ that improves efficiency at Huawei in its efforts to stay on the cutting-edge of research and innovation.
“We are finding some multiplier effects where AI breakthroughs lead to the next one. But it’s the skilled talent that is making the difference here – artificial intelligence helps, but it’s the researchers, architects, developers that understand the intrinsic value of an idea or a solution.
“Ultimately that’s what elevates an idea to be a breakthrough. AI won’t change this fundamental aspect, but it will empower the entire team to elevate their performance and become even more effective and productive in their work.”
Source : Silicon Republic