Jay Srage, Corporate Senior Vice-President at Qualcomm for the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, has spent his career at the forefront of life-changing discoveries—from engineering particles in a lab coat, to developing the regional offices of the world’s largest chip manufacturer. Now he’s on the cusp of heralding a new era in digital connectivity.
When Jay Srage first moved to Dubai in 2008 to expand the Middle East office for Qualcomm, he started by implementing his own form of transformation on the small incumbent team of six. “I said throw everything you know away. Throw it away. Let’s start from scratch,” Srage remembers. “Think what do we want to do here? What is it we can change? Then we’ll worry about how to do it.”
At that time, a decade ago, Qualcomm globally was getting ready to introduce the world’s first complete 3G/LTE integrated chipset solution. The iPhone had launched the year before and the mobile broadband-enabled smartphone era had begun. However, that was not yet the case in the Middle East.
Srage found that voice and text communication were still leading in MENA due to complications with connectivity. Although it was technically there, the network operators didn’t know how to monetize it, package it or sell it. Therefore, many devices still didn’t support it. Qualcomm’s plan, and Srage’s objective, was to show the region how it was done. “There were quite a lot of problems to make it happen,” he admits.
That was then. Today parts of the Middle East are home to some of the most connected and active smartphone users in the world. According to figures from online statistics portal, Statista, there will be 173.8 million smartphone users in the Middle East and Africa in 2019, an increase of around 88 million since 2014. And a ranking of the top 50 countries by smartphone penetration from market intelligence provider, newzoo, placed nine MENA countries in the list, with the U.A.E. at number one at 82.2% smartphone penetration. Saudi Arabia was the second listed Arab country with 68.3%, and Turkey the third at 55.2%.
In the same period, Qualcomm’s team in Dubai expanded to meet demand, with anything up to 100 people working on its frontline in engineering, sales, business development, marketing and support functions. The office also has access to a worldwide central pool of knowledge for engineering and financial modelling, stretching from San Diego to China.
As the region has embraced mobile connectivity, the world has begun to embrace an all-encompassing transformation. And not for the first time. If transformation occurs when innovation disrupts industries and changes people’s lives, there have been many examples. From electricity to the telephone, to airplanes and space rockets. Over the last 20 years alone we have seen the advent of the internet, the introduction of mobile phones, the development of WiFi broadband, and the amalgamation of it all into a handheld smartphone.
Now everything from our healthcare to our banking and our social activity is being digitized. What happens next, according to Srage, is another new era—where the very latest in technology merges to have truly human implications.
“We are seeing the emergence of a combination of technologies that will trigger a transformation of the internet era,” he explains. “It will connect people and the cumulative human knowledge to everything else, including intelligent machines, then accelerate the creation of new knowledge.”
The life-changing technologies merging to create this new world are blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Qualcomm’s contribution: pioneering 5G—the superspeed broadband that will enable the hyper-connectivity that makes the rest possible.
This is not Srage’s first time working on uncovering a phenomenon. In the early nineties, after completing his engineering degree at the University of Michigan, he decided that rather then head straight into industry, he would continue in his pursuit of knowledge.
He was offered a role as the lead engineer on a project at Fermilab— America’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory, located outside of Chicago. Together with a team of top physicists—one of whom already had a Nobel prize under his belt—he set out to design the electronics systems that would detect the smallest of the “Quarts”. The Quarts being a string of six particles that together form one of the two elements of the Higgs Boson Particle (otherwise known as “the God particle”): the basis of how all matter is created.
The engineering project took four years and was completed in 1997. It was 15 years later, in 2012, that the God particle was finally discovered, thanks in part to the work of Srage and his team. The experience was to prove life-altering. “To me that really changed how I look at things,” says Srage. “You feel like you have done something big, and it affects how you behave. Nothing is impossible. Then the question is how do you adapt to that change? How do you take control of it and how do you make it work for what you want in life?”
Having completed an MBA at the Loyola University of Chicago in 1996, Srage left Fermilab and went out into industry. “I needed to have some savings,” he laughs. But he didn’t accept any old position. Determined to carve out a career path that would continue to change the world, he took a role at Dallas-based global semiconductor design and manufacturing company, Texas Instruments. At the time the company already had close to 100,000 employees worldwide, and it had recently formed an Emerging Growth Business Unit. The unit performed as a venture group, launching startup ideas—Srage joined one such project, to evolve the audio industry from analogue to digital.
The team designed the technology that took amplifiers from being heavy, cumbersomely-large units to lightweight boxes that could fit in your hand. “It changed the whole audio industry. Home theater in a box didn’t exist, we made it happen,” reveals Srage. The first to buy the technology was Sony, followed by Panasonic, followed by everyone else.
After more than 10 years with Texas Instruments, Srage joined Qualcomm in 2008. “The trend continued,” he explains. “I love going in, starting something new and believing you can change a whole industry or change behavior, or anything that you think is possible.”
The first job was to bring the region up to speed. Srage’s team worked with the telecoms networks to ensure they could handle the new broadband and internet era. Then they helped encourage more OEMs to join the market to offer consumers more choice in the devices on offer. The global team worked on the economic modelling to design data and minutes packages that meant consumers got what they wanted with the network operators still able to make a profit. Finally, the marketing team was developed to create ideas that promoted OEMs while keeping Qualcomm as a behind-the-scenes value-add. TV spots and social media were used to throw the spotlight onto Qualcomm’s partners—at one point 27% of Qualcomm’s global followers were from the Middle East and Africa.
With the regional operations now in place and steadily growing, Srage can focus on contributing to his passion project—the embracing of digital transformation and Qualcomm’s role in helping with the global transition, with its focus on continuing to adopt AI and bring 5G to the world.
Smartphones have had AI elements in them for some years already. Facial recognition, fully taken advantage of by the likes of Snapchat, is an example of how AI biometrics have already seamlessly entered daily life for millions of users. However, the future holds far more opportunities. AI is not one technology.
The not-so-distant possibilities include: natural language processing, which could make it possible to have a human conversation with a machine based on cross-machine learning; predictive algorithms, which can forecast regional demand for a product based on global data; and computer vision and robotics, which will allow machines to talk, see, hear and connect with each other, to the IoT, and to human knowledge.
“This will eventually lead to the ‘singularity event’, where robots become more intelligent than humans, which some predict to be as close as 2030,” says Srage. What we currently imagine is only scratching the surface. The crux that will make this possible is connectivity. Something that has been lacking so far.
“The early stage of digital transformation started late last decade when IoT, smart cities and the cloud were the buzz,” Srage explains. “However, there were no major drivers in terms of technology or application. It was also overwhelming in terms of the breadth IoT and smart cities had. It was difficult to identify which industry had the killer app to implement IoT and which technology to use.”
The advent of 5G is set to change that. With Qualcomm ready to launch 5G in early 2019, the latest technologies will finally have access to the strength and speed of connectivity that can make it possible for them to join up into one cohesive system.
According to Srage, 5G will be up to three times more efficient and offer up to 100 times more capacity than current networks, which means it will be able to handle the massive amounts of data due to be generated through consumer and IoT applications.
Unlike the advent of 3G and 4G, where the U.S. and Japan lead in adoption followed by the rest of world, 5G is highly anticipated, with the U.S., China, Japan, the U.A.E. and Lebanon already announcing plans to bring it in next year. Current estimations put “mass adoption”—50 million subscribers or more—at 2021 or earlier.
“There is now a need for every industry and key players to re-assess the impact of 5G, AI and blockchain on their business across their product offering, customer service, user experience, procurement, supply chain and legal,” says Srage. The first industries to jump on board are arguably healthcare and automotive.
In healthcare, AI can be used for early diagnosis of diseases like cancer in ways that are not possible with human detection. Blockchain will enable patient records to become universal, where they can be accessed by any hospital, doctor or insurance company at any time, knowing the data can be trusted—meaning large costs associated with unnecessary tests and multiple visits could be eliminated. And the additional bandwidth provided by 5G will hail a new generation of mobile apps. “Likely uses will involve image processing connected to AI services, such as in augmented reality applications,” says José Mussi, Senior Director of Digital Health and Innovation at PwC. “This could be used in EMT scenarios where the clinician is working on the field and needs assistance in assessing patients.”
In the automotive industry, Qualcomm is already changing the game. In January 2016, Audi announced that it would be using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 602A Infotainment Processor from 2017 to deliver smartphone-quality connectivity, infotainment, navigation, voice quality and control features in its cars. Then, in April 2018, the 5G Automotive Association, Audi AG, Ford Motor Company and Qualcomm announced the world’s first demonstration of Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) technology.
“Vehicles will become a ‘thing’,” says Srage. “With an internet connection through 5G, an AI core engine, and records and insurance on the blockchain.”
Imagine an ecosystem that allows cars, roads, pedestrians and healthcare services to connect to each other and respond automatically when a chain of events occurs. So, if a car is speeding and its AI system anticipates an accident, it can contact the cars around it to request that they slow down. The moment an accident occurs, the road’s infrastructure will detect that it needs to redirect the traffic to allow for a clean-up operation. In the meantime, the ambulance service is already on its way having been alerted that there may be a casualty and who that person is—and the insurance companies are already calculating the cost.
In the April test, Audi and Ford vehicles, built with Qualcomm’s C-V2X chipset, went through various scenarios to show how the system works for road safety. These included situations with obstructed or no visibility—in which surrounding vehicles were alerted when cars were turning or braking—and a vulnerable road user demonstration showing what could be possible with vehicle-to-pedestrian communications. Vehicle-to-infrastructure was also demonstrated, which showcased how communications can work with traffic signal controllers to reduce carbon emissions.
All-in-all—putting aside the hype of digital transformation—it seems clear that the world is currently on the verge of a revolutionary and life-altering point. Now businesses must assess these new technologies and introduce them in a way that encourages a natural transition for employees and users, and Srage is leading the way.
“It’s not a question of whether to digitize, it’s a question of when and how, and more importantly who. Companies need a new fresh look from a technology as well as human angle,” he says. “It’s important to jump onboard, but not jump the gun.”