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DARPA thinks artificial intelligence could wring out bandwidth from the radio spectrum

One of the huge drawbacks of modern technology is that it fills the air around us with radio signals. From your kitchen radio to your LTE-enabled smartphone, all of these devices use radio waves to communicate. Unfortunately, there is only a certain amount of radio frequencies that can be used.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is looking for a way around this problem, and wants teams to develop an artificially intelligent system that will control what devices use what radio waves and when. Basically, instead of forcing devices to make use of narrow frequency bands when the spectrum gets congested, DARPA wants devices to negotiate sharing frequencies when they need them.

Radio waves are electromagnetic radiation waves, and devices are built to only send or accept radio waves that use certain frequencies. Certain types of devices use different bands of frequencies, so once all those frequencies have been assigned, new devices can’t make use of radio frequencies without changes being made to the system. Not only that, but if, for example, smartphones are given a narrow frequency band, then, when the airwaves get busy, you’ll experience slow data speeds. Just take a look at the graph below to see how congested the radio waves can be.


While this challenge certainly isn’t as exciting as the DARPA robotics challenge, it could seriously affect how efficient our devices are. One of the real issues is that assigning certain frequency ranges to particular types of devices leads to gaps and unused frequencies. This is where artificial intelligence could come in. It would be able to manage when and where radio frequencies can be used, regardless of device type.

If the system worked well, you probably wouldn’t have to worry about your smartphone having a slow connection in areas like sports stadiums or big cities where there a lots of people trying to connect. The radio waves in that area will be largely assigned to smartphone users, making it more efficient.

Basically, the goal is that all the radio-based devices out there will play nice together instead of fighting for waves.

The competition isn’t one that you should expect to hear about soon, because it will start in 2017 and a winner won’t be picked until 2020. To test out the winners, DARPA will be creating a massive wireless testbed to see just how well the competitors’ solutions work in the real world. In the end, the team that is best able to leverage new tech to create an effective system will get a cool $2 million.