Should we fear 5G?

Human Resistance to change

By Alexandros Andreou*

A lot of people fear that the new 5G technology is not safe, and this is natural. In fact, the fear for the unknown has helped humans survive over millions of years and still does today. This fear for the unknown is what keeps us safe, what reduces the destructive risks we take in life, both at a personal level and as a society.

Humans have survived millions of years, and one of the reasons is the fear of the unknown, fear of change. Change is a major threat to survival, we don’t know what we are going to deal with. We don’t know if there will be water on the other side of the mountain, we don’t know if there will be trees, so we might not be able to survive over there. So why do it? Why go over the other side of the mountain? And even if there is, so what? For all we know, we have what we need here. Or what if we found a new fruit while in the jungle, would we pick it up and try it? What if it is poisonous to humans? Again, for all we know we can survive without it. At this point our survival instincts kick in and we avoid it. We should be grateful for these instincts and the fact that a part of the society resists change is absolutely natural.

It is a perfectly valid argument that people want to stay away of things they don’t understand. It is our natural instincts after all, our primitive survival skills that we carried from our ancestors.

Evolution of humanity

Fortunately, human society and science has evolved, we are at a point where we see technological breakthroughs that would have made us look like gods 150 years ago. We carry more computational power in our pockets than the computer on the Apollo 11 that went to the moon. In fact, we possibly carry more computational power in our pockets than all computational power humanity had back then. Try to explain the following to the most educated person that lived in 1800s “It is somehow faster to send a message around the entire world to ask some machine where to find something you are looking for and then bring it to you, than to go into a library and search for the information you need”. They will probably think you are crazy.

Life is getting too complicated. There is probably no human alive that understands computers from start to end. From the physics behind the hardware to the high-level machine learning software algorithms. Life is clearly not simple anymore and our primitive survival instincts unfortunately get triggered all the time.

Understanding the unknown

Given enough effort by the presenter, it is impossible to differentiate between true or false information if one does not understand the underlying principles. And nobody knows all underlying principles about everything. To help you visualize this, I will give you a very simple example. What do you think will happen if you warm up your finger before you touch a cube of ice?

  • Argument 1: As soon as you touch the ice you will feel very cold because of the large difference in temperature
  • Argument 2: It will take longer for you to realize how cold it is since your finger needs some time to cool before you start feeling it

As long as you don’t understand the underlying principle of how our skin sensors work you are mostly helpless in figuring out which is true and which is not. The answer is left for the reader to find out, and who knows, this might just fire a new conspiracy theory.

The underlying principles

After a long introduction, lets dive into the underlying principles of this “scary” technology. What is 5G? How does it work? And what harm can it do?

The health-related fear around 5G mainly comes from the radiation it emits. Without going into too much detail and rigorous scientific definitions, this radiation is electromagnetic (EM) energy traveling in space like a wave traveling on top of the sea. We are surrounded at all times with many different types of EM radiation. For example, the reason we see things, is because EM radiation visible to our eyes is traveling through space and reaches our eyes. The reason radios work without being plugged in the wall is because EM waves travel though space delivering information to it (invisible to us but visible to the radio antenna). Radiation however, can also cause harm, for example high doses of X-rays, which are also EM radiation, can be harmful and Gamma-rays can be deadly. Not only that but we have all seen burnt pop-corn coming out of the microwave (guess why it’s called like that) that looks anything but edible.

Frequency

Why is visible light safe for us and Gamma-rays deadly? Well… you can get all the details if you study quantum mechanics. But I will try to give you the overview. Excuse me if it gets slightly scientific but please bear with me. I will try to keep it short and to the point.

If an atom is hit by radiation, it will broadly react in two ways:

  1. The radiation will bounce off or pass through the atom leaving it unaffected (i.e. does not ionize the atom).
  2. The radiation will affect the atom by knocking off one or more electrons (i.e. ionizes the atom).

As you can imagine, when the first happens (no ionization), nothing really changes in the atom so all is still good. In the extreme cases of very, very, very high doses of non-ionizing radiation, the material might heat up due to the large amount of energy. However, there is still no ionization.

When the second happens (ionization), if this atom is, lets say, part of a human cell, then the cell might die, the cell might repair itself, or the cell might mutate and possibly becomes cancerous. Clearly, we want to avoid the second scenario, we want to avoid radiation that ionizes the atoms of our cells.

The next question is, which types of EM energy cause ionization. Ionization can only happen if the radiation that hits the atom is of a certain frequency and above. What is frequency? Remember the waves on the seabed? Frequency dictates how quickly they rise and fall, it is the same with EM radiation. Whatever you do, regardless of how much energy you bombard an atom with, if it is not of a certain frequency and above, it will not ionize it. Again, if you want to know why, a good place to start is Einstein’s Nobel prize winning work on the photoelectric effect.

Where does 5G fit in all this? The frequencies used in 5G technology are strictly below that of visible light. In fact, 5G operates at frequencies less than 1,000 times lower than those of visible light. Based on what we just discussed this should be all the information we need to infer that the frequency range that 5G operates at is non-ionizing. Well… that’s a relief!

Power

So,what about that burnt microwave pop-corn? Microwave radiation is not ionizing either, but it surely does some damage to popcorn. How about our brains and our body? Will they get burned like that? Well, yes, if we put our heads in microwave ovens.

The damage done by microwave ovens is through heat. Microwave frequencies match the natural vibration frequencies of water molecules, making them vibrate faster. Kind of like pushing someone on a swing, exactly at the moment they reach the highest point. More vibration means more heat.

However, thankfully, 5G is nowhere near microwave ovens in terms of power. Typical 5G radiation uses 1,000 times less power than microwave ovens. Kind of like an ant pushing someone on a swing (also at the wrong time, because the frequencies don’t match).

Let’s picture this with a more intuitive example. Can visible light burn us? Well, the light we are exposed to here on earth normally won’t. But what if we start getting closer to the sun? How close can we get before we get damaged? Of course, the sun would damage us in many ways before visible light becomes a problem, but at some point, visible light will be part of the problem too.

I will throw some science once more but I’ll try to keep it short.

The power of emitted radiation decreases very fast the further away it gets from the its source. In fact, every time you double the distance traveled, the energy drops to a quarter of what it did in the first half.  Again, feel free to read up on the physics of EM radiation for more details.

In a microwave oven, distances are very short, the wave travels in a very confined area, and gets reflected by the walls of the microwave. In addition, the power is very high. This is very different from what happens with 5G. In the case of 5G, the distances are very big compared to microwave ovens and the emitted power is rather low. By the time radiation reaches our body, its power is extremely low.

Benefits of 5G

Now let’s take a look at the benefits of 5G and why we should care. 5G promises a lot. It will allow higher bandwidths, which means we can get more data onto our phone at the same time, and less latency, which means the data its self will reach its destination faster. Also 5G will be capable of higher capacity, so there can be more devices connected at the same time, less interference which means neighboring devices will disrupt signals less and battery efficiency which obviously means, our devices will consume less battery.

This might have been a bit too technical, so let’s try to visualize some of the more unusual terms here. Imagine that instead of trying to transport data over some invisible radio frequencies that we instead want to transport a lot of people from one place to another. The following examples are not exactly analogous but can give a bit of an intuition to some of the mentioned terms.

Bandwidth

One solution would be to have a lot of cars moving back and fourth from source to the destination, and each time move four people. That would do the job, but what if we use a bus instead? The time it takes to travel is more or less the same, but we can move more people at the same time, so our bandwidth is higher. Similarly, with data, with higher bandwidth we can move more information back and fourth at the same time. In this case if 4G is the bus, 5G is a train. If you ever tried to download a video and it took forever, you can blame the connection bandwidth for that. Now imagine trying to stream a holographic call.

Latency

In the car and bus example, both the car and the bus take more or less the same amount of time to cover the same distance. Could we go faster than that? Well we could use a train. A train will cover the same distance in less time. Similarly, with data, with lower latency, we can move data from one point to the other in less time. If you ever tried to play an FPS (First Person Shooter) with high latency, you know how important it can be, now imagine trying to do remote surgery with high latency.

Interference

Again in the road example, imagine being at the traffic lights with a lot of cars in front of you and wanting to take a turn on your side. How annoying would it be if there only was a single lane, and all cars in front of you wanted to go straight. At this point other cars are in your way interfering with your path without there being need to. Adding that extra lane could reduce interference. Similarly, with data, when a lot of devices are transmitting close to each other, they can interfere, 5G uses special technologies to create these lanes and reduce interference.

More connected devices

The meaning of more connected devices should be quiet obvious but its benefits might not be. For example, allowing more connected devices will allow the expansion of IoT (Internet of Things). More devices can be connected at any given time. Also autonomous cars will have the ability to communicate with each other and provide safer journeys.

Battery efficiency

Once again, the meaning of battery efficiency is obvious but a lot of us do not realize their value until we are on power saving mode and lost.

To sum up, imagine 4G being a bus and 5G being a high capacity, high speed, high efficiency train, running on multiple lanes. Now that is some exciting features to look forward to!

Summary

Being afraid of the unknown is a natural instinct and very normal. It is very hard for someone to distinguish what is true without understanding the underlying principles. That is why we should have a bit more confidence in the international community of scientists as well as in people that understand the underlying principles of the subject in question. Of course, critical thinking and questioning authority is always important.

Regarding 5G, the radiation frequencies are below the visible light frequency range, so they cannot ionize the atoms in our cells, something that could potentially cause cancer. On the other hand, high power non-ionizing radiation could cause burns, which is true for visible light as well. However, radiation power drops rapidly as it travels through air and, 5G devices should not be capable of causing any damage due to heat.

Finally, 5G is coming with a lot of promising new features compared to its predecessors, such as higher bandwidths, lower latency and battery efficiency, which will allow a lot of great technologies to emerge. What an exciting moment in history of telecommunications and humanity.

*Alexandros Andreou
Information Security Researcher
Member of the coordinating team of Larnaca, New Wave – The Other Cyprus

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Dr Demetris Marnerides for his valuable input on the scientific accuracy of this aricle and Dr Alexia Alexandraki for her input regarding the article in general.

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