For over 80 years Bell Labs has been at the heart of the world’s communications developments. Now its president Jeong Kim is heading the challenge to add some commercial steel. Niall Firth reports.
Bill Gates must shudder at the very mention of Bell Labs. In February Microsoft was ordered to pay $1.5bn (£760m) for infringing MP3 patents that the laboratory had filed almost 20 years before, when vinyl still ruled and the iPod wasn’t even a glint in the eye of a youthful Steve Jobs.
It was the biggest patent infringement fine in history and highlighted how forward-thinking much of the laboratory’s work has been since it was founded in 1925. ‘Bell Labs has always been doing world-class research,’ said Jeong Kim who, in April 2005, became its 12th president.
The world-famous centre of cutting-edge R&D has seen the development of many of the 20th century’s most important innovations, but now Kim has been tasked with adding some commercial steel to the laboratory’s undoubted research expertise.
Bell Labs has a history of seminal technological breakthroughs. Now owned by Alcatel-Lucent, in 1947 the lab developed the world’s first transistor, which sparked the modern era of electronics, while in 1958 its researchers published the first scientific paper on ‘Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’ — or the laser as it is now known. From digital signal processing to communications satellites, for the past 80 years Bell has been at the heart of many of the communications industry’s key developments.
It has been rather a circuitous route that led Kim — a Korean immigrant who arrived in the US when he was 14 — to take on what is arguably one of the world’s most prestigious engineering positions. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Johns Hopkins University, Kim spent the next seven years as a commander in the US Navy’s elite nuclear submarine service.
From nuclear subs, he turned his attention to developing satellite systems at the US naval research laboratory before setting up his own telecommunications company Yurie (after his daughter) Systems. The company’s success was stratospheric and its subsequent sale to Lucent Technologies in 1998 propelled Kim — whose own share was reported to top $500m — on to Forbes list of wealthiest Americans.
In 2001, his restless feet once again sent him in a different direction, when he left Lucent to become a professor at Maryland University’s school of engineering. There, his speeches on cross-discipline engineering led to standing room-only crowds who crammed into lecture theatres to hear him. Teaching and enthusing younger generations about engineering has been a particularly important part of Kim’s professional career.
‘At Maryland, I was trying to show that engineering is an exciting career with real possibilities,’ said Kim. ‘I knew I was making an impact. People worry about going into engineering as it’s all moving offshore to low-cost nations, but I try to get the idea across that there will always be a need for innovation — that is the key to the whole industry.’
In 2005 he rejoined Lucent as the president of Bell Labs and his latest challenge began — to change the way one of the world’s most eminent research institutions operates.
‘The technology industry has really changed over the past 20 years and now it is essential to get to market as soon as possible and be competitive. The research has always been there, but now we are going to have to work out how to do it in a much more efficient way and focus more on the impact of that research.’
He believes that it is his unique background and his position as the first Bell Labs president to be hired from outside the laboratory that makes him the ideal person to lead the venerable laboratory towards this brave new world of market forces.
While Bell Labs’ current research is wide-ranging — with 40 different departments working on anything from nanotechnology and fibre-optics through to statistics and algorithm modelling — its overall focus is firmly fixed on future communication technologies.
In recent times the laboratory’s research has seen a gradual move away from more traditional physical technologies and more towards an increased focus on software and applications. ‘We are still developing cutting edge nanotechnologies and optics to push the boundaries of physics, but the real value in applications is in data management and software content,’ said Kim.
Some of the laboratory’s latest technology breakthroughs were shown at the recent Optical Fibre Conference in California. Sure to excite the telecommunications industry was the announcement that Bell Labs had managed to smash the record for the amount of data that could be transmitted over optical fibre. The recorded data rate of 25.6Tbits/sec was almost twice as fast as the previous record.
At the same show it also demonstrated the world’s first low-cost silicon based optical networking device, which would enable silicon chips that combine electronics and photonics in a single chip. Kim said that this could usher in a new era of low-cost, high capability broadband systems for the home.
Another of the laboratory’s more recent innovations has been the EVROS system. The technology behind this project is every efficious IT department’s dream. It uses a card that fits inside a laptop computer which is fitted with 3G modem, processor, memory and battery, meaning that the department can always monitor the status of a laptop — even when the device is switched off or disconnected from the network. If it was stolen, it also allows the department to remotely encrypt any data on the laptop, making it secure.
‘For the world of ‘always-on’ networks of the future, security is going to become more and more important. Many of the applications we are working on are in this field,’ said Kim.
Indeed, Bell Labs is working on the technologies that make up what Kim has termed ‘natural ubiquitous networking’. He envisions a future in which we are surrounded by these ‘always-on’ networks that are capable of enhancing people’s quality of life.
The laboratory has already developed a number of technologies that would naturally fall under this umbrella term including iLocator, a location-based tracking application that can help you find friends and family quickly, and MiViewTV, a product which brings a ‘roaming’ capability to televisions.
Recent reports have suggested that Bell Labs is struggling for funding since becoming part of Alcatel-Lucent. However, Kim believes this is not necessarily a disadvantage for his new, more commercial model for the laboratory. ‘Funding is always a challenge for any organisation, but I’m not sure that is always such a bad thing. It forces you to think differently and focus.’
He admitted that one of the problems taking over such a prestigious institution is the weight of history that lies heavily on the current crop of researchers.
Kim believes this is something that his team needs to disregard if it is to continue to innovate over the coming decades.
‘One of the greatest challenges for Bell Labs is its 80-plus years of historical success. I’m trying to help Bell Labs look to the future to create a new institution. We are trying to create a new laboratory with a different culture that is just as creative and industry-impacting as the laboratory was in the 20th century.’
It’s a revolution that obviously appeals to Kim, who always has his eye on the next challenge. ‘I’ve always wanted to run a marathon. Maybe that’s next,’ he said.