The Care and Feeding of Your Cognitive Radio
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed May 21 10:30:00 GMT 2003

Joseph Mitola's latest creation - a radio with sensors and software that allow it to perceive the world around it and learn from experience.

It's 2015, and you're taking the San Francisco-Los Angeles bullet train to work. As the maglev train silently zips along the coast at a brisk 350 miles an hour, you're using your PDA to put the final touches on a report for the upcoming annual sales meeting. You're just about ten minutes from arriving at your office when you finish up and hit the "send" button.

Because the report is loaded with graphics, it weighs in at 10 megabytes. A dialog box pop ups on your handheld: "The cost to send this document using the BigTel wireless network is $87.16. In 9 minutes, you will be able to send it for $0.00 using your company's internal network. Proceed with transmission, or wait?" The decision is yours. Do you impress your boss by giving her the report before you arrive in the office, but risk her wrath when she learns how much you spent to save a few minutes? Or do you wait and send your report over the company network, showing your boss that you know how to save money?

The right choice depends on the kind of boss you have. But it's the device that gives you this choice in the first place. The device is called a "cognitive radio," and it's the brainchild of Mitre computer scientist Joseph Mitola, who is under contract with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) to come up with ideas for a "5G" style mobile device that goes far beyond any kind of phone or PDA available today.

Intelligent and Polite

I asked Mitola what he means by "cognitive radio." He explained that it's a software radio that has sensors and software that allow it to perceive the world around it and learn from experience. ("Software radio," a term Mitola coined in 1991, describes a kind of wireless device that can operate on different bands and in different modes depending on the software it is running. Instead of requiring multiple chipsets, a software radio can emulate different chipsets.) The thing that makes cognitive radio different from software radio is good manners. A cognitive radio, says Mitola, is a device that has "the etiquette to listen to what's going on to determine the nature of the noise or interference of the channels and to predict what kind of effect its transmission at a given power level is going to have on other users and to correct its behavior if it turns out that somebody else needs to use the channel."

But that's just one of the things a cognitive radio will be able to do, says Mitola. A device smart enough to share the airwaves efficiently will be smart enough to anticipate users needs, and help them in their daily lives. To accomplish this, a cognitive radio will have computational models of itself, its user, the uses it's being put to, the network, and the larger world environment. The cognitive radio uses these internal models, along with sensors, to prioritize and enhance communication.

For instance, a cognitive PDA might have digital thermometers built into it, so it knows about the temperature of things in the outside world. If the back of the PDA is 98.6 degree Fahrenheit, and the front it below zero, the PDA will know that it is begin held by its owner, who is probably outside in cold weather. If the temperature on both sides of the PDA drop to zero, the device will assume that its been dropped in the snow, and will cry for help.

Bonding With Your New Pet

Mitola likes to talk about cognitive radios as if they were living creatures. "When you go to the store to buy a cognitive radio it would be a cross between a pet store and FAO Schwartz because these little critters would have built in intelligence and different kinds and styles of personalities." Then, after you take the PDA home with you, you'd spend a little time getting acquainted with it, and vice versa. "Some buyers might like spilling their guts and telling their new PDA everything about the way they want it to work," he says. Other users might prefer to just start using the PDA, and let it learn from observing the way its owner does things. In either case the PDA will establish bonds with its user, "like when a young child bonds to its mommy or daddy," says Mitola.

Mitola dreams of the day when cognitive radio can warn him about traffic jams. When he lived in Washington, DC, Mitola would commute to work in his car, listening to a local radio station for traffic information. But monitoring traffic information is something that a cognitive radio could listen to instead. Mitola could listen to a CD, and when the cognitive radio came across pertinent traffic data, it could interrupt the music and warn him about the broken down semi truck blocking the left lane three miles up the road. "Also," says Mitola, "when I'm on my boat I like to listen to NOAA weather, so that I know about any thunderstorms cropping up. My little PDA will listen for me, scanning for alerts. Then I can have more fun and not have to worry so much about the weather."

How long do people have to wait before they can become proud cognitive radio owners? Mitola usually prefaces his example with "In ten or fifteen years..." Why so long? Two reasons. First, advances in speech recognition technology -- an essential component to cognitive radio development -- move much more slowly than they do in other areas of research. Second, Moore's Law is showing signs of slowing down, meaning the enormous amounts of raw processing power needed to fuel cognitive radio could be a number of years away. Mitola points out that the nascent field of nanocomputation might put Moore's Law back on track and speed things up a bit.

But if you're looking for an excuse to give your boss for why your sales report is late, blaming it on the fact that your don't have a cognitive radio isn't going to cut it.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.