Jeong Kim: Innovation comes from the left field, because
you’ve not thought about it. Otherwise people have thought
about it, and then it is incremental, and that’s engineering
What do the following key items of modern technology have in common? The transistor, the fax machine, the talkie, stereo sound, the laser, the concept and technology of the cellular phone and the sensor at the back of your digital camera.
And the following bits of fundamental scientific research? The wave nature of matter, background radiation in the universe and the quantum Hall effect.
The answer to this quiz is Bell Labs, the venerable institution whose researchers — people such as Harry Nyquist and Claude Shannon — were also responsible for some of the fundamental maths behind the theory of digital communications.
Bell Labs was set up 85 years ago, in 1925, by the mighty AT&T, which then ran manufacturing and operations of most of the US phone business. During the next half-century or so, the laboratories were responsible for more Nobel prizes for physics than most countries have won: seven prizes for work directly at Bell Labs, and four more won by people who spent some of their career there.
But it’s changed. As part of the break-up of the old monopolistic AT&T in the 1980s, Bell Labs became part of the independent manufacturing company, Lucent, which since 2006 has been half of the merged Alcatel-Lucent.
The person in charge of Bell Labs since 2005 is Jeong Kim, a specialist in optical communications who has also worked as a nuclear submarine officer in the US Navy. How has Bell Labs changed since its ownership changed? “What is changing is the rest of the world — and the industry is changing,” says Kim, who returned to Lucent to run Bell Labs after a spell at the University of Maryland. “The change is something we’re familiar with.”
Kim was presiding over the launch of GreenTouch, Alcatel-Lucent’s bold initiative to reduce the amount of energy used by communications networks. In the middle of 2009 a number of Bell Labs engineers decided to draw on the parallels from the 1930s and 1940s work of Nyquist and Shannon — who worked out the minimum amount of information needed to communicate an intelligible signal. Their work is at the heart of all digital communications.
What, the researchers asked in 2009, is the minimum amount of energy needed to communicate an intelligible signal? The answer was surprising: in theory it’s 0.01% — or one ten-thousandth — of what is used by today’s networks. Even if the number is multiplied by 10 for reasons of caution, the implication is that information and communications networks are wasting 99.9% of their energy.
This project is a sign, he says, of how Bell Labs has a clear and important role that is distinct from the role of academic institutions. “Adademia is siloed,” says Kim. Bell Labs allows researchers to work together across disciplines. “It does require the best of minds from different disciplines. But if you talk to the researchers from Bell Labs, that’s what they enjoy,” he says.
Bell Labs employs about 1,000 researchers, but no longer all in a single campus in the US. “More than 50% of our researchers are foreign born,” he says. “We have recruited from the best universities around the world.”
In the old days, Bell Labs would bring them to the US. “Now we bring Bell Labs around the world, to tap into high quality researchers. We are sourcing the brightest minds locally.”
But there have been other changes. In the old days, when AT&T was a virtual monopoly in telecoms in the US, much of the funding was directed towards public interest work, he says. “Now the funding is by a for-profit entity, so we have to look after the interests of our funding entity.”
However, Bell Labs still believes in open innovation, he says. “We support open collaboration. We have done throughout history.”
How, though, does the research institution justify its work to Alcatel-Lucent and its hard-pressed shareholders? “You create intellectual property,” says Kim. The licence revenue on Bell Labs inventions “easily justifies” the funding that he and his colleagues receive, he says.
The purpose of Bell Labs today — and in the past — is “disruptive technology for new markets”, he says.
And what disruptive technologies are researchers working on today? Work that compares with the transistor and the laser in revolutionising electronic communications?
“We like surprises,” says Kim. “Innovation comes from the left field, because you’ve not thought about it. Otherwise people have thought about it, and then it is incremental, and that’s engineering.”
But if the inventions that count are surprises, how do you choose where to focus your work? “Most of the research projects are initiated by understanding the pain points,” he says. “The others are started by curiosity. We insist that all our researchers understand the problems of the industry in their head,” he says.
Asked to offer an estimate of the split between applied and fundamental projects in Bell Labs, he suggests that 70% are applied and 30% fundamental. But researchers have to have the freedom to work on projects that interest them. “That’s the only way. Otherwise it kills the creativity.”
Today, Bell Labs has eight locations around the world, in cities in France, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, India, China and — most recently — Korea as well as the US.
And is there work going on that will win further Nobel prizes? Kim says that there is. “It takes time to be recognised externally,” he says.
And why has Bell Labs won more than any other institution in the world? “It is the environment,” he says. “We are protecting that environment, with funding support and operational freedom. If you don’t you can easily destroy it.” GTB
GTB's news report on the Bell Labs GreenTouch project:
Interview with Ben Verwaayen, CEO of Alcatel-Lucent:
Bell Labs’ researchers Nobel prizes for physics
1937 Wave nature of matter — Clinton Davisson
1956 Transistor — John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley
1977 Electronic structure of glass and magnetic materials — Philip Anderson
1978 Discovery of cosmic microwave background in universe — Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson
1997 Method to cool and trap atoms with laser light — Steven Chu
1998 Discovery and explanation of the fractional quantum Hall effect — Horst Stormer, Robert Laughlin and Daniel Tsui
2009 Invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit, the CCD sensor — Willard Boyle and George Smith
In addition four ex-employees of Bell Labs have won the Nobel prize for physics
1964 Charles Townes for fundamental work which led to the construction of laser oscillators and amplifiers.
1981 Arthur Schawlow for his contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy. Schawlow invented the laser with Townes while at Bell Labs in 1958
1996 Harold Kroto for invention of buckminsterfullerenes
1996 Douglas Osheroff for work on the behaviour of helium at extremely low temperatures
President of Bell Labs since 2005
Korean born, he later emigrated with his family to the US and studied electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He became a partner in a computer start-up company, Digitus, and later spent seven years as a nuclear submarine officer in the US Navy
1992 Founded Yurie Systems, a communications equipment company
1998 Lucent took over Yurie, of which Kim was chairman and CEO. Kim became president of broadband carrier networks unit in Lucent
1999 COO and later president of Lucent’s optical network group
2001 Joined the University of Maryland, with joint appointments in the department of electrical and computer engineering and the department of mechanical engineering
2005 Returned to Lucent as president of Bell Labs
2006 Alcatel and Lucent merged; R&D merged in 2007 under Bell Labs