Do we need a new Bell Labs?

Do we need a new Bell Labs?

Summary: Marvell co-founder Weili Dai pines for the day when researchers could focus on discovery without the pressure to creates products. Is she on target?

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Marvell co-founder Weili Dai pines for the day when researchers could focus on discovery without the pressure to creates products.

She may be on to something.

In an interview on Smart Planet, I talked to Dai about education, research and development and tablets for poor countries. Dai is a key ally of One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte.

But the point that sticks with me the most is Dai's argument that there needs to be a new Bell Labs, a research incubator that's not necessarily about profit. Xerox's PARC is another lab that mold. Bell Labs is now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) remains a Xerox company.

Sure, these labs were bankrolled by big profitable companies, but the research arms were really think tanks. And a lot of that thinking shaped the Internet today.

Consider that Bell Labs created:

  • The transistor;
  • Data networking;
  • Cell phone technology;
  • Solar cells;
  • Digital switching;
  • Communications satellites;
  • The touch-tone phone;
  • Unix and C;
  • Digital signal processors.

The Bell Labs history is simply staggering.

Here's an excerpt from the Smart Planet interview (emphasis mine):

"The mission should be to invent without the pressure of making products," she said. Sure, companies like IBM have massive R&D arms, but it’s not the same as Bell Labs was. "For this scale of research the government has to be involved to collaborate with industry and top universities," said Wei.

IBM's research and development arm comes close to being in the traditional mold, but a lot of those ideas get productized. Intel, Microsoft and other tech companies have significant research efforts. On the government side, there's DARPA and other research efforts that may or may not get funded. And universities contribute valuable research. Of course, Alcatel-Lucent and Xerox would argue Bell Labs and PARC, respectively, still have the innovation mojo.

The rub: Today's research efforts are largely independent and have products in the background. Sure, there's some collaboration, but it's unclear whether the U.S. still has that innovation secret sauce. Where's the research that will set us up for the next two decades?

Now it's possible that Dai is just being a bit nostalgic, but I think her yearning for Bell Labs is notable. The questions: How do we get back to Bell Labs' glory days?

Topics: Government US, Enterprise Software, Government

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8 comments
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  • RE: Do we need a new Bell Labs?

    Question -- can we do this with current homegrown US talent pool?
    darwin5131995
    • RE: Do we need a new Bell Labs?

      @darwin5131995@...

      The old Bell Labs wasn't staffed solely with homegrown US talent, so why should the new one be? The US still has great universities where top students want to come to from all over the world to study. In the past they would stay here when they were done to work at places like Bell Labs because it was their best opportunity to do great works.

      The problem now is that the Patriot Act makes it hard for this talent to come to the US to study, and the Bell Labs are being built outside the US.
      otbricki
  • Yes, We need a New Bell Labs

    As our manned space flight winds down, there is extreme angst over the potential unemployment and loss of innovation. To me it seems as though these extremely talented and bright engineers and scientists could be put to work at the National Science Foundation, Darpa or a new Bell Labs. There is a desire for us to make manned flight to Mars a reality. It seems to me that the things that it takes for this to be a reality and successful need to be developed first. These needs conveniently match up to the Green technology needs the world needs, high capacity lightweight batteries, highly efficient affordable solar cells and water purification systems just to name a few. Setting up a proper research entity to accomplish these goals sets us up for a return to manned space flight, cutting edge green tech in our commercial sectors and scientific excellence for our country in the decades to come. It is possible the most significant scientific challenges to our country and the world in the future may never be monetized. I would prefer to see the spending for a return to the moon, for the sake of it, be spent on such a research enterprise. Especially when budgets are so out of balance as they are now.
    JustAITGuy
  • RE: Do we need a new Bell Labs?

    Gosh, I think this time around we are not coming back. I used to be an optimist but the tipping point has already happened. Corporate leaders here have made it very plain that they do not value us anymore. I don't even know why most of them stay in this country since they prefer the labor camp conditions overseas.

    China is graduating 550,000 engineers per year. Even Mexico graduates more engineers now than us. If you are an engineer here they outsource you after burning you up as a sucker in your twenties. Only a fool would take on that job here. It's all downhill from this point forward. We have to get used to what the corporations did to out country...they destroyed it.
    slabor
  • RE: Do we need a new Bell Labs?

    Elvis has left the building.... Bell Labs was like Bell Labs, because AT&T, a regulated monopoly, was prohibited from "monetizing" (I hate that word) most of their achievements.

    Of course, when AT&T put transistors in the public domain, American companies were reluctant to snap it up.

    AT&T first deployed cell phones in the 1950s. They had to actually break-up the company before they were allowed to sell phones with computers inside.
    Steve Webb
  • RE: Do we need a new Bell Labs?

    I grew up about 20 minutes away from the 'old' Bell Labs and knew many of their employees. What a phenomenal place and what phenomenal people! OF COURSE we need places like the old Bell Labs as engines of research and development. The more fundamental question is: Is the United States willing to forego short-term profit-taking in favor of long-term growth? since that is the underlying economic motif behind a place like Bell Labs. I'm not sure our collective attention span lasts long enough to get beyond the sound bites....
    markomd
  • RE: Do we need a new Bell Labs?

    We might as well wish for the days of 1972 Miami Dolphins' perfect season. <br><br>The money AT&T invested in research was out of the government's direct control. There is huge money invested by government in research funding that is politically controlled. This money is therefore subject to cronyism, nepotism, favoritism and many other evils created by Congress bringing home the bacon to their constituents.<br><br>Duplication of effort is another problem in competitive private research, but it is probably more cost effective than government funding that is driven by politics rather than results.

    I hate to say it, but military R&D does produce benefits down the road. But I am not recommending that as a solution. It may not be subject to congressional micro-mismanagement, but is is subject to military mismanagement. C'est la vie.
    Lynn110
  • RE: Do we need a new Bell Labs?

    Larry, I think you bring up a really important point, one that PARC often considers as we redefine ourselves for today's innovation landscape... With that context in mind, here are some points I'd add:<br><br>1. Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, etc. were really "R&D tanks" with a mission to think AND to build something. The focus on products did not stop them from fulfilling their missions or engaging in basic research. However, I'd also argue that focus -- especially around solving meaningful problems -- would actually have provided and can still provide an even *more* fertile environment and direction for basic research.<br><br>2. Big corporations certainly played an important role in "bankrolling" the work you mention then. But in today's open innovation context, that corporate funding is augmented and integrated with government funding, university investments, VC funding, and other sources. [Recent examples of integrating efforts among these parties include ARPA-E, NSF's Future Internet Architectures program, and so on.]<br><br>3. The tricky part isn't the *pressure* to create *products*?per se (that has always been there, even with the examples you name above), but how to mix the secret sauce "just right" depending on the goals. [<a href="http://blogs.parc.com/blog/2010/09/secret-sauce/]" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">here's one take <a href="http://blogs.parc.com/blog/2010/09/secret-sauce/]" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a>] There always are and always have been goals, the challenge now is to align them so all parties are working towards a meaningful direction.<br><br>So I think the question isn't how do we get back to the glory days, it's how do we best focus our efforts? Specifically, what are the right frameworks for deciding what efforts to invest in and how long to engage in them... [See for example: <a href="http://timkastelle.org/blog/2010/04/managing-an-innovation-portfolio/]" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="http://timkastelle.org/blog/2010/04/managing-an-innovation-portfolio/]" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="http://timkastelle.org/blog/2010/04/managing-an-innovation-portfolio/]" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://timkastelle.org/blog/2010/04/managing-an-innovation-portfolio/]</a></a></a><br><br>Tamara St. Claire<br>Vice President of Global Business Development, PARC
    PARC Online