Expert Panel: Rakuten’s unique AI approach is driving telecom transformation

April 29, 2024
minute read

At the recent Mobile World Congress 2024 in Barcelona, two letters were on everybody's lips: AI. For hardware and software providers alike, artificial intelligence is promising to transform how the telecommunications industry does business, with big potential benefits for operators, customers and society at large.

Headlining Day 3 of the event at the Rakuten booth was a panel session featuring experts from Rakuten Mobile, Rakuten Symphony, and the Rakuten Group, who each shared their unique perspectives on the future of AI in telecom.

No longer how, but what

"Rakuten Symphony has always been special, because we have the mothership Rakuten Mobile," commented Rakuten Symphony OSS BU president Rahul Atri. Rakuten Symphony is indeed special; Born from a mission to share Rakuten Mobile's pioneering mobile network technology with telecom operators around the world, the organization stands on the bleeding edge of what's possible in the industry.

"People talk about AI all the time, but what are we achieving out of it? What is the ROI? What is the efficiency?" Atri posed. "And how are you evolving your organization to be AI-native?"

Rakuten Symphony is already benefiting from AI research taking place on the Rakuten Mobile network in Japan.  

"Chatbots, even our image recognition model, were tested… on Rakuten Mobile site inspection, for example," Atri revealed. "We can take the same customer experience models and convert that to our operating models in telecom. So having these connective dots, having all these pillars of the Rakuten Ecosystem together, helps Symphony a lot. I think that's the value we take to our customers."

Atri sees AI creating a wealth of possibilities, to the point that the communications industry is now spoiled for options.

"A lot of our time in telcos has always been about how. I think with AI, how is getting easier. The challenge for Rakuten and every telco is what. What do they want to do? What is the future of connectivity? What does the future customer look like? What are the services they want to use? And I think that's what we are able to solve."

Rakuten Group Chief Data Officer Ting Cai speaks about Rakuten’s advances in AI at MWC Barcelona 2024.
Rakuten Group Chief Data Officer Ting Cai (center) speaks about Rakuten’s advances in AI at MWC Barcelona 2024.

An ideal playground for AI

"The Rakuten Mobile team made the fundamental breakthrough of virtualization, of separating software and hardware. That made it possible to move the data into the cloud," explained Rakuten Group chief data officer Ting Cai. "It's the perfect setup, an almost ideal playground for us to apply AI."

So what's happening in Rakuten Mobile's AI playground? One role of AI is to help sift through the immense amount of data at the operator’s disposal, revealed Rakuten Mobile chief data and AI officer Madhukiran Medithe.

"We have petabytes of data, and we are getting terabytes of data every day. As humans we are not able to understand, to fix the data points, unless we do unsupervised learning."

Just like its cutting-edge virtualized network, Rakuten Mobile's AI efforts are being driven by home-grown talent. Engineers are hard at work exploring what's possible with the network.

"We built AI platforms from scratch, completely in house," Medithe revealed. "What we want to deliver is intelligent automation, which has to be spread across Rakuten Mobile as well as the Rakuten Ecosystem. We're using our ecosystem data… to see, what are the parameters, what are the frequencies we can fine-tune?"

The data from Rakuten's ecosystem provides valuable insights into how the network is being used – insights that few other telecom providers enjoy.

"We know what applications customers are using – banking, e-commerce, content – we know how they are using the network," added Atri. "When we connect all the dots, it's very easy to understand that when the network is performing X, the user experience is Y."

Enabling telcos to move up the value chain

"I think AI is a great opportunity for telcos to move beyond operating a dumb pipe," offered chief data officer Cai.  

AI is already hard at work across the many services of the Rakuten Ecosystem.

"We built a deep learning foundation and launched semantic search for Rakuten Fashion and Rakuten Ichiba," Cai noted. "We look at all the things that our members need and provide services to anywhere we see an opportunity for additional value, whether it's e-commerce, or fintech and mobile, banking, golf courses…"

For Rakuten Mobile and other telecom providers, language processing is the area that has Cai most excited.

"In the customer support area, we used to program very prescriptive dialog. But it's very limited, very restrictive. Now we have a language model that can understand the general intent. The model can understand human language, all kinds of languages. It can understand code. It can also easily understand network logs. Imagine what it can do for telcos."

Combined with the power of Rakuten's ecosystem, Rakuten Symphony has a compelling product on the table.

"We can enable telcos to move up the value chain, beyond operating the network – offer value-added services, such as marketing, advertising, search, connecting customers with the services we provide. That's a great opportunity for leveraging AI."

Experts across the Rakuten Group teamed up for a panel discussion on the trending topic at MWC'24- AI
Artificial intelligence experts from across the Rakuten Group teamed up for a panel discussion on MWC's hottest topic, AI.

AI-nization to augment human creativity

"We want to augment human creativity with the power of AI," Cai told the conference audience. "People have the concern, is this going to replace my job? No, we want to enable you to do more. And all of our e-commerce agents, Rakuten Mobile shops – they can do a lot more to promote all of the ecosystem services, beyond Rakuten Mobile, beyond insurance, beyond travel."

Rakuten is on a mission of AI-nization, to leverage AI as much as possible across the Ecosystem.

"To do all these things, we want to do AI-nization with respect to the entire group of companies. Our employees are getting trained with respect to AI. We are transforming steadily, step by step," Rakuten Mobile’s Medithe explained. "We are continuously learning. AI is not something that you can learn, then stop. We have to keep learning every day. Just like we keep training our models, in the same way we have to keep upgrading ourselves."

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