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Bell Labs reverts to 'game-changing research' model

Posted: 21 May 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Bell Labs? research? Big Bang? research?

But in fact, Penzias and Wilson were actually trying to solve a big industry challenge in communications. Fibre optics had not been invented yet, and radio channels were not able to keep up with the demand for more communications capacity. Consequently, they were investigating the possibility of satellite links as a way of boosting communications capacity, under NASA's passive Project Echo balloon satellite program, and in the process they detected the first and still most compelling evidence of the Big Bang!cosmic microwave background radiation.

Wilson told EE Times:

The discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation is one of those serendipitous discoveries which occur in science more often than many people think. Using a Bell Labs antenna, which had been built for satellite communications, but had properties which uniquely suited it to some radio astronomy measurements, Arno [Penzias] and I set out to look for a halo of radio emission around our Milky Way galaxy. We were completely surprised to find instead that the universe is filled with radio waves originating from the Big Bang. [As later verified by astrophysicists Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles, and David Wilkinson at Princeton University.]

Fortunately, the Bell Labs culture allowed and indeed encouraged us to seek answers to these things we couldn't explain. I am amazed and pleased by how much the science of cosmology has changed and expanded since 1965. This has been fuelled in no small part by the abundant information about the early universe which has been found deep in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Today, on the anniversary of discovering the Big Bang, and in the shadow of the original Bell Labs horn antenna in Holmdel, N.J., which Penzias and Wilson used to make their discovery, Bell Labs is hosting a Big Bang Anniversary celebration. But more importantly, Bell Labs brass is announcing a return to basic research and a reemphasis on Bell Labs' original primary directive!that is, solving the world's biggest industry challenges.

10-year plan: FutureX projects

Weldon told EE Times:

What we are really doing is returning Bell Labs to its original model!solving big industry challenges, what we call game-changing research and cross-discipline "FutureX" projects, aimed at multiplying by 10x either speed or lower latency or lower energy consumption or simplicity or elasticity. And as we solve these problems, we are going to be on the lookout for serendipitous discoveries, such as fundamental limits in information theory or science or engineering that allow us to advance the cause of humankind while we are solving a practical communications or information technology challenge.

Weldon admits that Bell Labs has gone off-track since 2006 by focusing exclusively on applications problems, but that the corporate front-office was now behind a return-to-basics in its FutureX projects. Weldon continued:

Bell Labs had lost its way just a little bit, by not knowing which industry applications to focus on!an over-the-top industry, or a service-provider industry, or a web industry. Technology was shifting so frequently that Bell Labs ended up solving more academic problems!meaning problems not related to the day-to-day or even the five-year horizon of information and telecommunications.

In that way Bell Labs has been dormant a little bit, but has not in any way been lost in terms of the talent we have and the projects we are working on internally, which are incredibly interesting things. We just need to find a way to couple them to industry needs. My job in taking over Bell Labs while remaining the CTO of Alcatel-Lucent will be to stimulate our researchers to solve big industry problems, because I see what those problems are when I see how networks are evolving and when talking to customers!I can communicate that back to Bell Labs by telling them what the world needs to look like 10 years from now.

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