Mobile World Congress 2017 offered a touch of tech optimism

New phones, but also smart cities and smart farms

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Credit: Martyn Williams

This year's Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona offered all the delights I've come to expect — the gracious hosts, waiters, cops, beautiful venues and a great subway system.

But something about the MWC exhibits and the international workers manning those booths this year was a little different, almost odd, when compared with my previous six visits. That oddness probably had a good bit to do with international politics and the young presidency of Donald Trump, which will inevitably affect the tech and wireless industries, if not every other business sector and worker.

"What's the world of Trump like?" a woman asked me at a booth of telecom companies from Greece. "We know he hates us all, not just the Greeks."

"I don't want to talk about Trump," a visitor from China told me sternly on my morning walk into a hilly park called Montjuic. I hadn't even mentioned Trump, but the man from China knew I was American.

Almost every vendor I met on the show floor seemed to either avoid the Trump ascendency entirely or was deeply curious to know the pulse of America. I tried to stay busy and on schedule, so I shrugged off the Trump queries and got back to the business at hand: When will smart city tech catch on broadly? Why did Samsung wait to release its Galaxy S8 smartphone? How has Huawei of China grown to become the third-largest smartphone maker in the world in a few short years? Will 5G wireless be widely deployed in the U.S. by 2020?

Kevin Burden, an analyst at 451 Research and longtime friend, made an insightful comment near the end of the conference. He said 2016 wasn't a great year for many telecomm companies, so many of their booths featured exhibits on emerging technologies in an attempt to find new lines of business. Visitors saw smart city tech at Verizon and AT&T, for example, and even augmented reality and virtual reality displays, he said.

Both wireless carriers also showed how they are now content providers, as well. AOL news anchor Katie Couric talked on a large screen in a Verizon theater. Executives from both carriers boasted about their road to 5G, with its greater bandwidth. (I was assured it will be rolled out by 2020, but how widespread is another question.) As wireless competition in the U.S. has grown, wireless service revenues are not growing as fast as in years past, putting a premium on all manner of new technologies for growth.

The story of Huawei's rise to global prominence was put dramatically on display when hundreds of journalists cursed and pushed at the start of the weeklong trade show to get inside a venue to see the company's new, higher-priced P10 smartphone. Burden noted that Huawei got its start by selling low-cost phones, a strategy that seems to have been picked up by both Lenovo with its Moto phones and HMD with its Nokia phones.

But Huawei will be challenged in the U.S., Burden noted, partly because of the difficulties of taking on successful companies like Samsung and Apple that are willing to take on newcomers with lawsuits over patent infringement and other tactics.

Some of the most promising technologies I saw at MWC came from city government IT officials who have developed smart city concepts and pilots. The chief technology officer of Barcelona mentioned the city has a portal to allow citizens to report government corruption. The deputy CIO of Moscow said the city has a pilot project underway to use artificial intelligence to detect lung cancer with 97% accuracy through computer analysis of CT scans.

Some future technology envisioned by cities will eliminate jobs, some of the city officials admitted. It was reassuring to hear Barcelona CTO Francesca Bria speak of her city's desire to include computer-based initiatives to help retrain the work force in coming years.

What is most gratifying about attending a show like MWC is how it demonstrates that technology can provide answers for many looming global concerns, including sufficient energy, water and food supplies. A great example of tech's promise came from an interview with Thomas Engel, manager of John Deere's enterprise innovation strategy.

Deere's electric tractor

Deere demonstrated an electric tractor prototype at an agriculture trade show in Paris the same week as MWC in Barcelona. Engel also described how Deere has been making tractors and harvesters that operate with automatic guidance systems for more than a decade. Deere's GPS and sensor-based technology is designed to make sowing and reaping of crops more efficient, partly by making each pass of a tractor more precise.

Over a large field on enormous farms in eastern Europe, Engel said, a tractor might travel 30 minutes in one direction before turning around to make another pass. On such a large field, inches can make a difference in crop yield. Deere is trying to eliminate errors that could become bigger when multiplied by many farms over many years, Engel said.

Farmers are still riding in the cabs of large tractors and combines, even though they aren't really needed for the guidance, he said. "An autonomous tractor with no driver and no cab is technically feasible," he said, but there's not been a strong case made that doing so would create significant savings.

Deere is also aware of other advancements in technology, including robots to cultivate vegetable fields, Engel said. In some parts of the world, robots could be needed because field laborers are in short supply, he said.

Infrared sensors are also being used to detect protein levels in harvested grain to derive a more accurate count of a crop's nutritional value.

All of Deere's tech ideas stem from a set of forecasts about global population growth that will require food production to double by 2050, Engel said.

"It's important to increase yields through precise farming," he said. "Technology is a key to get there. It's a race."

That sounded optimistic in an unsettled world.

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