19th January 2022

The Future Of Innovation through Artificial Intelligence And Machine Learning

Jindong Hou
Lead Research and Innovation Architect

I’ve been working in the telco industry ever since I got my degree from the University of Oxford 15 years ago. My longstanding interest in artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and advanced analytics has led me to my current role as Vodafone’s Lead Research and Innovation Architect.

My job is diverse and collaborative, which keeps things fun and interesting. I am responsible for a variety of AI/machine learning projects and creating internal assets, IPRs, data products, services and APIs. My team and I also support two key strategies that will guide Vodafone into the future: Network as a Platform (NaaP) and Telco as a Service (TaaS).

At first glance NaaP and TaaS may seem like just another couple of confusing tech acronyms, but they represent a huge shift in how Vodafone, and telcos as a whole, will operate as we go forward.

Digital transformation is a necessity

You’d assume Vodafone is an innovative company – and we are. But it’s not enough to be innovative in the present – in telecommunications you need to constantly imagine customers’ needs and wants that don’t yet exist.

That’s why we’ve pivoted in a new direction, with the aim of transforming from a traditional telco into a tech comms company, using both NaaP and TaaS strategies. It’s a significant change in mindset and thinking, compelled by the following reasons:

  • Traditional telecommunications is a very competitive business. To stand still is to go backwards.
  • It’s very hard to stand out from the crowd or stay ahead of competition. A telco can’t differentiate itself from another very easily.
  • It’s difficult to create new business opportunities and revenue flows without digital transformation.

A telco must use research and innovation to create its own service differentiators, USPs and innovative products and services. At Vodafone, we see artificial intelligence (AI) and AI democratisation, machine learning (ML) and innovation as key to that quest.

The power of AI and ML

It’s obvious that in the age of big data, any company that cannot harness the power of AI and ML will be left behind. The impact of these technologies is massive:

  • They boost innovation by enabling network and system automation, improving KPIs and service availability, and extending an operator’s capacity to accommodate their customers’ ever-increasing bandwidth, connectivity and quality demands.
  • They allow us to explore and create internal assets, which in turn will lay a solid foundation for us to create service differentiators and to build new and intelligent data products and services to better serve customers.

Just some examples are Vodafone’s smart chatbot TOBi, robotic process automation (RPA) that frees our team from time-consuming and repetitive manual work, smart IoT/network products for enterprise customers…the list goes on and on.

AI and ML also create significant cost savings and new revenue generation opportunities, which help us become more competitive in the market.

From language processing, to real-time drone prediction, to ticket automation

So, what does the switch to NaaP and TaaS look like in the real world? The use cases are many and varied, with each somehow more interesting than the last!

Natural language processing is one example. At Vodafone, we have a lot of meetings, and it can be tedious for people to write down the minutes. I proposed an AI-based solution which fully automates the procedure instead. Meeting Minutes Automation (MMA) features Speech to Text (STT), individual voice printing, action points detection, executive summary and keyword extraction to save peoples’ time, energy and productivity.

We’re also using our Radio Positioning System (RPS) and machine learning techniques to real-time predict drone locations and track flying drones far beyond their current line of sight limitations, where we have filed two new patents in the network/drone domain and the third one is being in the process.

What’s more, on the internal side, we are creating and using what we call Zero Touch Operation (ZTO) AI to fully automate the remedy ticket resolution process.

Responsible innovation

Given the endless opportunities before us, it can be tempting to get swept up in the excitement. But I’m proud to say that Vodafone is being responsible in our approach.

We recently set up a research collaboration project with Oxford University to enable fair, transparent, explainable and responsible AI. The objective is to remove bias from both data and AI models for better business decision making. We aim to embed ‘ethical AI by design’ from the very beginning.

It helps that Vodafone offers a healthy environment in which to work. It is supportive, collaborative, transparent, accountable and fosters a culture of innovation. Vodafone encourages its people to explore new ideas and put forward proposals.

Our global innovation platform, NOVA, allows anyone with a good idea to publish it, with the idea then being ‘funded’ through a virtual currency. If an idea meets a funding goal, it is sent to the NOVA board for review, and once approved it moves onto the concept and development stage.

Ultimately this makes Vodafone a more equitable and democratic organisation. We have a lot of talented people, and we embrace inclusion and diversity to dream big and go for it together.

While I’m not sure exactly what Vodafone will look like in a few years’ time, I’m certainly excited to find out.