Bell Labs reverts to 'game-changing research' model
Bell Labs is returning to where it put down its roots—in basic research angled towards addressing the biggest industry challenges. Its Big Bang Anniversary celebration will mark this welcome turnaround.
To cement its commitment, Bell Labs is also announcing a new annual Bell Labs Prize for the three most forward-looking ideas regarding how the technology landscape will look 10 years in the future.
Figure 1: The AT&T Horn Antenna in Homdel, N.J., that enabled Bell Labs researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson to discover the cosmic background microwave radiation resulting from the Big Bang. Source: Bell Labs.
Bell Labs pioneered the electronics and communications industries, earning seven Nobel Prizes. Memorable Bell Labs inventions included the antenna that discovered cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the UNIX operating system, and the C and C++ programming languages. In 1996 AT&T spun-off Bell Labs into a new company that also took over its manufacturing business, called Lucent Technologies. Ten years later Alcatel Research and Innovation merged with Lucent, resulting in the present-day Alcatel-Lucent Bell Laboratories.
Bell Labs took on a more applications-oriented charter, and by 2008 only four basic research scientists in physics were reported left at its seminal Murray Hill, N.J., lab. To boot, that year Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs announced it was pulling out of material science, device physics, and semiconductor research, to focus on its core businesses of high-speed optics, networking, wireless, nanotechnology, and software.
Figure 2: Former Bell Labs researchers Robert Wilson (left) and Arno Penzias (right) discovered the cosmic background microwave radiation resulting from the Big Bang. Source: Bell Labs.
"People like to say that Bell Labs has somehow changed its mission or lost its luster in some ways," Marcus Weldon, the current president of Bell Labs who took over in November of 2013 and who remains CTO of Alcatel-Lucent, told EE Times in an interview. "But in fact, the thing to realise is that Bell Labs has always been at its greatest when it solves big industry challenges—of which the Big Bang is a classic example."
There are many examples that prove Weldon right. In fact, since the 1930s Bell Labs has been collecting Nobel prizes in solving big industry challenges. For instance, in 1965 AT&T Bell Labs researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson performed the work that resulted in a 1978 Nobel Prize for detecting the cosmic microwave background radiation resulting from the Big Bang.
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