With more than 2,000 companies exhibiting their wares, and scores of conference sessions featuring industry leaders, the Mobile World Congress is a good place to take the pulse of the digital economy. Here are ten takeaways:

5G is ahead of schedule

Although 5G mobile technology isn’t yet available, it had a palpable presence at the Congress. A clutch of mobile operators announced plans to turn on 5G networks in late 2018 or early 2019, while the Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced the FCC will auction 5G spectrum in the US later this year. ZTE and Huawei both promised to release a 5G smartphone by the first quarter of 2019. Mobile phone trade group GSMA predicted there will be a total of 1.2 billion global 5G connections by 2025.

A visitor to Mobile World Congress operates a robot using augmented reality technology.

A visitor to Mobile World Congress operates a robot using augmented reality technology.

Artificial intelligence or augmented intelligence?

Artificial intelligence cropped up in almost every conference session as speakers flagged the potential of smart computers to profoundly change both economies and societies. Grilled on what that will mean for human beings and their jobs, Bob Lord, Chief Digital Officer of IBM, argued the industry should focus on augmented intelligence – humans should continue to make the decisions, supported by the insights delivered by deep learning systems crunching large amounts of data.

Rethinking mobile ecosystems

Several speakers, including Rakuten’s CEO, Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani, outlined the importance of healthy and sustainable ecosystems, which enable consumers to access connectivity, commerce, communications and content in an easy and convenient manner. Mickey said Rakuten is seeking to increase the number of people participating in its ecosystem from 1.2 billion today to two billion by 2020.

Countries going cashless

In many countries, such as Sweden and China, usage of cash is declining rapidly as contactless cards and mobile payments become easier and more convenient. Japan is also seeing more payments going cashless, and Rakuten Edy and other Rakuten services are leading this change. In 2017, the mobile money industry processed transactions worth a billion dollars a day, generating direct revenues of over $2.4 billion, according to the GSMA. However, many people are still bound into the informal cash-driven economy. Sigve Brekke, CEO of Telenor Group, highlighted how 1.1 billion people in the world do not have an official ID.

Conversational commerce becoming commonplace

The integration of commerce into messaging platforms is proceeding apace. Several brands, including 1-800 Contacts, 1-800-Flowers.com, Booking.com, ITV, Snaptravel and Subway, have launched live trials of RCS Business Messaging, which upgrades SMS to support richer features, including chatbots and a richer experience. Rakuten Viber has been rolling out similar features over the last few years, and, as Mickey suggested, as a common ID is increasingly made available across Rakuten Viber and other platforms, it will no doubt expand its offering of innovative services.

Fintech developing fast

Blockchain solutions and behavioural analytics are set to transform financial services. Rakuten is among the innovative companies seeking to harness distributed ledgers to make transactions robust and low cost, while behavioural analytics, such as tracking how people use a keyboard, are being used to help authenticate individuals. Bill Gajda, SVP, Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at Visa, predicted that the “Uber experience” where the payment transaction simply happens in the background (as you get out the car for example) will become increasingly commonplace.

A window on the world

With surging usage of smartphones in emerging markets, the world is at a crossroads, according to the President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim. He said that access to the internet could fuel growing awareness of inequality, unrest, extremism and migration, or it could enable emerging markets to develop rapidly, opening up better paid and more fulfilling jobs while manual labor, such as garment production, is increasingly performed by machines.

Big data can deliver big change

Mobile operators are working with the development community to use the data captured by telecoms networks to help reduce the impact of epidemics, natural disasters and other humanitarian challenges. Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO and Head of Digital at Bharti Airtel, described how her company is working with the World Health Organization to map the incidence of tuberculosis in India against commuting patterns and help develop a strategy to contain the disease.

New regulation, new world

By giving individuals much more control over their personal data, Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation could change the way the online world works. Julian Ranger, chairman and founder digi.me, described a future in which large amounts of data are unlocked and put to good use as start-ups and consumers take advantage of the new regulation.

Augmented reality everywhere

The Congress show floor was awash with demonstrations of headsets and smart glasses that can superimpose digital images and holograms on the real world, helping people identify and understand what they are looking at – similar to work being conducted by the Rakuten Institute of Technology. Although the technology still has to clear some hurdles, relating to the weight, size and battery life of connected glasses, augmented reality could soon become widespread in the work environment.

For more coverage of Mobile World Congress 2018, see here.